Op-ed spurs online debate on Carleton and rape culture

Online debate flared recently after Ottawa Citizen columnist and part-time Carleton professor Robert Sibley authored a piece arguing that rape culture does not exist on Carleton’s campus. The article spurred debate on social media networks regarding Sibley’s piece and people’s personal experiences on campus.

One place of discussion was Ottawa’s Reddit page. Many comments on the website were in support of Sibley’s piece and harshly criticized the potential inclusion of the term rape culture in Carleton’s new sexual assault policy.

The university is in the middle of updating their sexual assault prevention policy. Progress stalled over the summer over the use of the phrase “rape culture,” as the university could not come to an agreement with student groups over its inclusion in the policy.

“I think when people think of rape culture, they imagine groups of people waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims,” said Keya Prempeh, co-ordinator at Carleton’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Centre (GSRC). “In reality, it’s the way we talk to each other and interact with media that minimizes sexual assault.”

Prempeh said social media is a good place to discuss complex issues, such as rape culture, because of how accessible it is, but has limits in how effective it can be to create change.

“It’s a good place to get different examples of lived experiences and different opinions, but the conversation also needs to be taken a step further if we’re going to dismantle [rape culture],” she said.

Nasreen Rajani, a PhD candidate at Carleton researching digital media and online feminist activism, agreed with Prempeh.

“Social media has the potential to build awareness around rape culture and to build connections between others but it’s not inherently effective as a debate platform . . . many just want to voice their opinions and not listen to others,” Rajani said in an email.

Some online commenters were doubtful about Sibley’s opinion piece, such as Reddit user Domdidomdom.

“I just want [c]onsent [c]ulture to become a thing. Students need to learn that you only get sexually active when both participants have the capacity to understand their decisions,” they commented.

But some users argued against the existence of rape culture on Carleton’s campus.

“You can still make the statement that Carleton has much less of a “rape culture” than Canadian society at large,” Reddit user BurkeLing wrote.

Sibley said in an email that the university does not willfully ignore sexual assault on campus.

“To maintain that Carleton University tacitly ignores or even condones “rape culture on campus” is intellectually dishonest, and, I would argue, undermines the very cause being promoted—the safety and integrity of women,” he said.

According to Rajani, there is no easy answer on the effectiveness of online debate. While social media has great power to reach people, she said it is not the place for a serious conversation.

“We also may be more likely to follow those opinions that align with our own,” Rajani said. “It’s important to remember that instances of gender-based violence have, unfortunately, been thriving on social media . . .  and this works to police people’s voices [and] tweets or pushes them offline completely.”

Prempeh said she mostly avoids discussions on controversial issues online, but she does not think social media should be discounted.

“It’s a good place to get different examples of lived experiences, and different opinions, but the conversation also needs to be taken a step further,” Prempeh said.