A pair of fourth-year Queen’s University students are trying to raise awareness about what they describe as a “pervasive rape culture” among the student body at Queen’s University.
In the spirit of the ‘@stolenbysmith’ instagram account, launched in July to share anonymous stories of racism at the Smith School of Business, Megan Sieroka and Maeve Avis Kozar have launched ‘@consentatqueens.’ The account publishes anonymous stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and non-consent among members of the Queen’s University community. It launched in August and has 526 followers.
The words “Trigger warning: Sexual Assault,” preface many of the posts. Stories from female and male victims in the Queen’s community describe their experiences, some in just a few words and others in graphic detail.
Sieroka and Avis Kozar are co-chairs of the Consensual Humans club at Queen’s University. They said their platform “strives to create a space for students, faculty, and the Kingston community to voice their experiences with sexual assault and non-consensual experiences at Queen’s University.” They are hoping to raise awareness about non-consent incidents, provide a venue of support for victims, and push for institutional change.
“Right now, awareness and helping survivors is our primary goal,” said Sieroka. “We have had people reach out to us after seeing some of the stories saying: ‘This made me feel less alone; This made me realize what happened to me was a sexual assault; I don’t feel as alone in my recovery.'”
“For me that is the most important thing, knowing we are giving people an outlet and helping them deal with any experience they’ve had on or off campus,” she said.
How it works and what you’ll find
Participants can submit their stories via an anonymous form linked from the top of the Instagram account’s page. Links to other local resources for victims are also provided.
Victims are reportedly both male and female. Settings of the incidents range from parties, private homes, campus buildings and dorm rooms. Some of the incidents date back several years.
“Many of the stories detail how people have experienced sexual assault from former friends or romantic partners. Moreover, many of the sexual assault survivors also highlight how Queen’s resources have not been helpful nor made them feel comfortable to share their stories and receive support,” Sieroka and Avis Kozar said.
The stories generally describe student to student relations, with no Queen’s University faculty or staff seeming to be directly implicated in any of the described events.
There is one historical reference made to a male campus Don (student staff member living in residence) watching porn with first-year female campus residents. One perpetrator reportedly had access to an office in a University building, and one person’s post suggestion that a counselor’s behaviour made them uncomfortable.
Calling for culture shift, institutional change
While Sieroka and Avis Kozar acknowledge that many of the events described in the @consentatqueens posts occur outside of the formal institutional setting, they believe that Queen’s University has a role to play in bringing about change.
“We’re hoping that Queen’s [introduces] mandatory training for staff and students on how to reduce rape culture, and also on how to deal with disclosures when people come to them,” Avis Kozar said.
“Currently it’s not mandatory, and there have been some horrific stories that we’ve seen when staff don’t know how to deal when people come to them in those situations,” she added.
Barb Lotan, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response (SVRP) Coordinator at Queen’s, said she is aware of the @consentatqueens account and has been monitoring it since its inception.
“I am sad and frustrated,” Lotan said. “The stories are heartbreaking. The frustration comes from knowing that so many people are hurting and that despite huge strides in furthering education and prevention efforts, some members of our community still behave in ways that are so detrimental to individuals and to the community.”
Lotan said the account presents “a conversation worth having,” but adds that her office takes all disclosures of sexual violence very seriously.
“Staff in the SVPRO/Human Rights and Equity Office and Student Wellness Services have remained available, without interruption, to support survivors since the onset of the pandemic,” Lotan said. “Queen’s University recognizes sexual violence education and response as a campus priority. Additional resources in the form of staffing have been added recently to the SVPRO and to Student Wellness Services.”
Lotan said that the Policy on Sexual Violence Involving Queen’s University Students is currently under review. She said that rape culture is a wider societal problem – one that includes Queen’s but is not unique to Queen’s.
“The Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) requested that the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Task Force consider amendments to the policy and to make recommendations for change,” she said.
Lotan said the Task Force has broad membership, including students, staff, faculty and representation from the Sexual Assault Center Kingston.
“The Task Force presented recommendations and a memo outlining the rationale for the proposed revisions,” she noted. “Community members have been invited to provide feedback on the suggested revisions. Supporting documents relating to the review process, Task Force membership and the recommendations made can be found on the Provost’s website.“
As far as current resources for victims, Lotan said student survivors of sexual violence, and others impacted, can access support services in a number of places. “Both the [Alma Mater Society] AMS and the SGPS offer peer support through the Peer Support Center (undergraduate) and the Graduate Peer Support service. Medical and mental health/counselling support are offered through Student Wellness Services. Mental health support is also available via counsellors embedded in academic units. Four Directions Indigenous Center, Ban Righ and the Office of Faith and Spiritual Life, among others, offer services as well. Staff in the Human Rights Advisory Services are another resource. The SVPRO offers support, information, assistance to access academic accommodations and referrals to on and off campus resources.”
Sieroka and Avis Kozar welcome change, suggesting that the current system, in practice, is insufficient.
“If you were a parent and you had a kid who was struggling and you just looked up resources you’d think ‘Look, that’s great! They’ve got a lot of stuff,” Kozar said. “But one of the threads that we noticed among a lot of the stories was that when people reached out for help, it didn’t work.”
Editors Note: This article has been updated to include further comment from Barb Lotan, Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Coordinator in the Human Rights & Equity Office at Queen’s University