Chapter 23: Relationship Violence in Post-Secondary Institutions

Balbir Gurm and Jennifer Marchbank

Key Messages
  • Research and literature indicate that post-secondary students are vulnerable to RV. “Rape culture” and other attitudes condoning or promoting RV continue to persist, and social media often exacerbate these concerns.
  • Students experiencing RV may experience low mood, anxiety, preoccupation, feeling unsafe and concentration difficulties. These symptoms lead to reduced engagement in classes, difficulties completing assignments, dropping courses/changing topic of study, as well as reduced social engagement with peers. They also encounter difficulties accessing support and services, experience stigma, have increased apathy, and may have changed attitudes about their own educational and career futures.
  • Post-secondary institutions are sources of great potential for changing societal attitudes toward RV,  through research, student- or faculty-led RV prevention initiatives, and by collaborating with community and government services that work in the RV prevention and intervention fields.

Relationship violence is any form of physical, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse, negative social control or coercion that is suffered by anyone that has a bond or relationship with the offender. In the literature, we find words such as intimate partner violence (IPV), neglect, dating violence, family violence, battery, child neglect, child abuse, bullying, seniors or elder abuse, male violence, stalking, cyberbullying, strangulation, technology-facilitated coercive control, honour killing, female genital mutilation gang violence and workplace violence. In couples, violence can be perpetrated by women and men in opposite-sex relationships (Carney et al., 2007), within same-sex relationships (Rollè et al., 2018) and in relationships where the victim is LGBTQ2SIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit, intersex and asexual plus)  (The Scottish Trans Alliance, 2010; Rollè et al., 2018). Relationship violence is a result of multiple impacts such as taken for granted inequalities, policies and practices that accept sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia and homophobia. It can span the entire age spectrum. It may start in-utero and end with death. This chapter focuses on RV on post-secondary campuses and mostly on sexual assault.

RV Against Post-Secondary Students

Scope and Consequences

Relationship violence prevalence on campuses and at institutions of higher learning is difficult to estimate due to the variations in the design of different surveys (see chapter 5). There is also variation in how each institution may define RV however, there is some agreement that students, like other sectors of the population, are at risk and do experience RV (Cantor et al., 2019; Fass et al., 2008; Knowledge Networks 2011; Sinozich & Langton, 2014).

Some earlier studies on female students suggest the rate of RV is 1 in 4 in both Canada and the US (Dekeseredy & Kelly, 1993; Koss et al., 1987; Fisher et al., 2000) which is in line with incidence rates for women in the general population. However, the Canadian National Survey (2014) showed that the general results for Canadian women were rather higher with incidence rates of 37 in 100 or 37% (i.e., 1.48 in 4) (Conroy & Carter, 2017). Certain groups have a higher risk of being victimized “Indigenous, 2SLGBTQIA, people with disabilities, minorities, and international students are at higher risk of sexual violence” and one-third of first-year students have experienced RV (Magnussen & Shanker, 2019, p. 93). It is not just females that are at risk, Krebs et al. (2007) estimate that approximately 6% of college males are impacted by RV. These are the same groups that are at greater risk in the general population and the rates of RV are similar to the general population (chapter 5). As stated in earlier chapters, RV is normalized and tolerated in many contexts including on university campuses.

RV results in psychological and emotional consequences, and chronic health challenges (see chapter 5). Much of what has been said in other chapters, applies to this population depending on their characteristics (see chapter 1 for chapter summaries) but there are some specific factors to consider.

Molyen et al. (2019) reviewed the National College Health Assessment data collected from students from 474 campuses from 2011-2014 and looked for correlations between factors on campus and incidences of IPV and sexual assault. Using regression analysis they found that sexual assault was correlated with the following factors: binge drinking, younger mean age and higher rates of students reporting experiencing discrimination. IPV was correlated with a higher number of intimate partners, lower binge drinking, older mean age and a higher number of part-time students. Please note correlation does not mean causation, correlation means there is a statistically significant relationship between factors.

Sexual assault of post-secondary students results in many similar impacts as with other groups but plays out in relation to the ability to study, some impacts for women survivors in post-secondary are:

 …common trauma symptoms such as low mood, anxiety, preoccupation, and concentration difficulties as leading to reduced engagement in classes, difficulties completing assignments, and dropping courses. They described feeling physically unsafe—both with regards to proximity to the specific perpetrator and to males in general—as leading to missing classes; participating less in class discussions; avoiding courses, events, and social engagements involving males or occurring at night; requesting less academic help from male professors and teaching assistants; and even considering changes in study field or career. They also described important interactions among difficulties accessing support or services, stigma, increased apathy and changed attitudes about their own educational and career futures, which in turn may also have compounded academic performance (Quinlan et al., 2017, p. 37)

As well, physical health impacts from sexual abuse can be: sexually-transmitted diseases, vaginal bleeding and infections, fibroids, decreased sexual drive, pain during intercourse and urinary tract infections.

Post-Secondary Campus Culture

RV flourishes in environments that do not challenge it. Universities, like other organizations, need to challenge attitudes that accept violence, especially violence against women. In Canada, we remember the misogynist massacre of 14 female engineering students at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989. You can read more about it here. This is not the only instance of ‘rape culture’ on Canada’s campuses. In the last decade, we have heard of other incidents across Canada:

  • In 2013 at St Mary’s University student president resigned for a chant about consensual sex with underage girls. It resulted in a Task Force on how to prevent sexual violence and create safer campuses.
  • At UBC, a few days after the incident at St. Mary’s University,  a similar chant was heard that had apparently been used for over 20 years.  This resulted in the establishment of a task force at UBC on Intersectional Gender-Based Violence and Aboriginal Stereotypes to recommend actions.
  • At Lakehead University later the same year, a student went to the media and stated she had been assaulted on campus by a student the year before. This resulted in a task force at Lakehead University. whose goal was to address sexual violence and recommend policy change.
  • In 2014, a female dental student at Dalhousie University told her administration that a male dental student’s Facebook group was promoting sexual violence against the female dental students and she was told by the administration not to file a formal complaint. The snapshots of the Facebook messages were posted on social media which resulted in a petition to expel the student. The petition launched in December 2015 obtained over 50,000 signatures by mid-January. The pressure led to the students being expelled from their regular offerings but being able to take the courses online. While professional dental associations asked for the names of the 13 male students in the Facebook group, the university administration failed to provide the names citing privacy and allowed the students to graduate. Fourth-year female dental students wrote an open letter to the president that resulted in a task force.

Over the years a number of task forces have been set up across universities in Canada and the United States and policies written, but RV persists. Survivors on campuses, just as others around the world, hesitate to report for similar reasons (see chapter 8). For students, the lack of response from university administrations creates another barrier to reporting. Universities need to act quickly and be proactive to prevent sexual assault and other violations. In their study of first-year female students at Canadian universities, Senn et al. (2014) found that a large proportion of female students arrive at campus already with a history of sexual victimization, indicating that campuses need to be able to provide services to these young women. They also found that young female students (17-24 years old) were also unprepared to deal with on-campus perpetrators and that there is an urgent need for rape prevention programs on campuses.


Some provinces introduced legislation to address RV on campuses. For example, BC passed Bill 23: Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy requiring all post-secondary institutions to have a policy on sexual misconduct and develop the complaint process and evaluate it on a three-year cycle. Similar bills were passed in other provinces – Manitoba recently passed Bill 15: The Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention Act, and Ontario passed Ontario  Bill 132: The Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act. BC’s bill requires that data be reported to the public and Manitoba’s bill also addresses minority groups. These have resulted in policies and prevention programs in universities/colleges being established, some universities have also established specific sexual violence units (see SFU) whilst others have only policy statements. 

To be effective, policies need clear procedures that allow for investigation and for confidential and anonymous reporting, services for survivors (Gonzales et al., 2015) that are student-centred, include assaults when students are off-campus, allow for data collection and evaluation and are easily communicated (Gunraj et al., 2014; Gonzales et al., 2015). While the legislation addresses violence against students, good policies should also address all employees and visitors to the campus, define consent and be developed with students (Gunraj et al., 2014). Policies also need to be resourced, frequently reviewed and include student and staff input.

Sexual assault complaints can be reported to university administration and/or to the police, only reporting to the police may lead to a criminal trial.

Figure 24.1  Legal framework for sexual assault complaints on campus

From Gunraj et al. ( 2014, p. 13-14) it is important to understand the Canadian legal context that applies to adjudication processes in post-secondary institutions. A university or college campus hearing that deals with a sexual assault complaint are very different from a criminal trial. The provincial statute or Act that incorporates a university or college is what creates the basic legal framework that allows for campus hearings. The statute may set out specific procedures for the university or college to follow to ensure the hearing process is fair. Therefore, elements of “procedural fairness” that may be required in a sexual assault hearing are first dictated by the statute. But if the statute does not include specific rules, common law principles of procedural fairness fill the gap. Under common law, a “duty of fairness” usually applies in decision-making settings where an individual’s rights, interests or privileges are affected. Once it is determined that there is a duty of fairness, the actual procedures that must be followed to ensure fairness vary according to context, considering the following factors:

  • nature of the decision and the process followed—the more the process resembles a judicial hearing, the more “trial-like” procedures are required
  •  nature of the statutory scheme—if the decision is final rather than preliminary or there is no chance for appeal, the greater the requirement for procedures to ensure fairness
  • importance of the decision to the individual affected—the more important the decision and its impact is to the people involved, the greater the requirement for procedures to ensure fairness
  • legitimate expectations of involved people about the process that will be followed
  •  the procedure chosen by the tribunal—for example, if a tribunal chooses a procedure related to its expertise, that will be taken into consideration

Common law rules for university and college hearings into complaints of sexual assault are fairly clear with respect to the rights of the respondent—that is, the person accused of sexual assault. Some procedures which have been required to protect the rights and interests of a respondent include:

  • disclosure of the case against them
  • opportunity to respond to allegations before a decision is made
  • in-person hearing when credibility is an issue
  •  legal representation
  • opportunity to cross-examine witnesses when credibility is an issue
  •  access to reasons for the decision
  • impartial decision-maker(s)

Rules are less clear with respect to ensuring fairness for and protecting the interests of the complainant. Issues that may be relevant for the complainant include the right to:

  • hear and reply to the respondent’s defence
  • choose to attend or not attend a hearing with the respondent
  • be assisted or represented by a support person or lawyer
  • cross-examine the respondent and witnesses
  •  privacy
  •  receive reasons for the decision
  • have an impartial decision-maker(s)

In addition to common law rules, human rights laws might also apply to an institution’s hearing process. For instance, if the general process does not show sensitivity to issues of gender and leads to a negative impact on female complainants, it may be seen as “adverse effect discrimination” based on sex under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

An institution may also go beyond minimum legal requirements for procedural fairness and establish additional best practices for hearings into a sexual assault to respect the interests of both the complainant and respondent. A useful practice could be to require all students to accept and follow a code of conduct as a condition of admission to the institution. Expectations for the conduct, an explanation of individual rights and duties and the complaint process for sexual assault should be communicated clearly and broadly to all campus community members on a regular basis.

When addressing violence, survivors usually want offender accountability and support. As with the incident at Dalhousie mentioned above, post-secondary institutions are reluctant to expel perpetrators, yet if there was an incidence of plagiarism, immediate expulsion may be a consequence in many institutions. There is a public reporting requirement in BC and the University of British Columbia (UBC) the largest university in BC, has sexual assault statistics on its campus security website. It is noteworthy that the reporting numbers were higher prior to the sexual assault legislation for post-secondary institutions. Click here to access the table. What could the reasons be? Quinlan et al. (2017) report that students are encouraged not to file formal complaints. To learn about the sexual assault policies/responses, visit the UBC Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office by clicking here.

Post-secondary institutions have developed task forces and policies on RV consent, reporting and investigation. For example, Simon Fraser University (SFU) in BC has developed videos on consent: Consent Matters: Busting the myth of Sexual Violence and Promoting a Culture of Consent in SFU Residence. Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) also in BC has a policy (2019) that addresses all those who work and study at KPU, it can be found here. From looking at various university websites, it appears that there may not be specialized support services at post-secondary institutions and campus security seems to be tasked with responding to incidents on campus. We are not sure if campus security has the training to respond to RV and sexual assault. Post-secondary institutions in the Vancouver Lower Mainland may consider either partnering with their local health authorities, RV service agencies or with the SMART program like the one at Surrey Women’s Centre (discussed in chapter 10). We agree with Quinlan et al. (2017) that post-secondary institutions (PSI) need to have partnerships where community members are equally valued and maybe even provided compensation to work with PSI’s (see chapter 6, for NEVR’s action model). As a minimum, campus security, if they remain the first call, need to have training on addressing RV situations.

A two year funded project the Courage to Act‘s goals are  to address and prevent gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses in Canada by working collaboratively with communities to create national resources and strategies. In 2019, they  released a comprehensive report, a must read for anyone wanting to address violence on campuses,  Courage to Act: Developing a National Framework to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence. As well, this organization has a number of helpful webinars that can be accessed here. You can access  communities of practice,  here and a comprehensive list of publications here.

As well, METRAC, an organization that works to eliminate gender-based violence has created a safety audit (Watch a video on safety here) that may be used by Canadian Universities. You can read about campus safety here. (METRAC, n.d.). You will find how administration, faculty, staff and students (all stakeholders) can work together. METRAC helps take action on campuses from assessment to report writing, they also conduct audits of campuses to inform policy and practice.

For prevention, we suggest bystander programs. One with some success in universities is the Green Dot program, read about it here. It was most recently implemented by Carleton University in Canada. NEVR has been promoting a theory-based program, Community Champion that can be downloaded for free. As well, EVABC has the Be More than a Bystander, to learn more click here.

The United Nations Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration created the University Module series on Crime Prevention & Criminal Justice (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC], 2020). NEVR member Yvon Dandurand was part of the United Nations Team that created these modules using the best available evidence and expert knowledge. The modules provide lectures, slides, in-class exercises for university faculty to use free of charge to combat injustices. Please, access the series here.


Just like RV in the general population more confidential and cross-cultural resources and services need to be available for those who are on post-secondary campuses. As well, survivors need to be assisted using a cultural safety approach (see chapter 6) and be allowed to report anonymously and get assistance. Post-secondary institutions need step by step investigation processes that are clearly articulated and communicated to all stakeholders and available on websites. Post-secondary institutions also need to develop policies that are flexible to support a survivor’s ongoing studies and life on campus, for instance, providing non-punitive study leave, permitting late course withdrawal, offering alternative modes of learning.


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