Athletes ‘stand together’ with sex assault survivors after players charged

By Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX – Some female athletes at St. Francis Xavier University have come up with a remarkable response to sex-assault charges against two members of the varsity football team.

Soccer players have launched a solidarity campaign with sexual assault survivors, quelling a potential backlash that experts say can arise in the wake of damning allegations against popular male athletes on university campuses.

Sarah Bruce, a second-year student on the X-Women soccer team, launched the campaign called We Stand Together to channel her anger and spark social change on the Antigonish, N.S., campus, she said.

“I wanted to show we can be unified and create this community of support,” said Bruce, who designed a logo with the university’s well-known X on top of a pink circle and the words “end sexual violence.”

Fellow teammate Emma Kuzmyk, a first-year student and goalkeeper on the soccer team, wrote a poem and created a harrowing video calling attention to sexual assaults on university campuses.

The video has garnered thousands of views, while the campaign logo has been widely shared on social media and is now featured on stickers, pins and T-shirts.

As accounts of sexual assaults by powerful men surface around the world, the small-town university in Atlantic Canada is facing its own reckoning with allegations of sexual violence. The solidarity campaign appears to have helped stamp out the once ubiquitous victim-blaming tropes that emerge when accusations are levelled against powerful male students on university campuses.

Lisa Pasolli, a women’s and gender studies instructor at St. F.X., said the solidarity movement is part of a broader watershed moment for women’s rights playing out across North America and beyond.

“These students understand what’s happening at St. F.X. is part of the much broader #MeToo movement,” she said. “They understand that St. F.X. isn’t immune from these larger conversations that we seem to be having as a society right now about sexual violence and permissiveness towards sexual violence and the structures of power that sustain sexual violence.”

“They are linking the events unfolding on campus to this sort of broader societal reckoning with sexual violence and patriarchy,” Pasolli said.

Late last month, police charged two defensive backs on the X-Men varsity football team with sexual assault.

RCMP said Jonah Williams, 19, was charged with three counts of sexual assault, while Tyler Ball, 18, was charged with one count of sexual assault.

The allegations first came to light after an 18-year-old woman reported an alleged assault that took place over a weekend. Allegations involving another 19-year-old woman came to light during the police investigation.

The charges have not been tested in court. Both men have been released with conditions and are set to appear in provincial court in January, police said.

The university has banned one of the accused from campus, while another has been granted restricted access to attend classes. All other student privileges, including participating in varsity athletics, have been revoked.

Accusations of sexual assault on campuses — especially against athletes — are often met with attempts to discredit the women, a local expert said.

“Sexualized violence is embedded in our culture and in the privilege of patriarchy. There is a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies,” said Lucille Harper, executive director of the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association. “These sorts of allegations have historically been met with slut shaming and slut blaming.”

Shortly after the allegations came to light, Kuzmyk said she heard a football player in the meal hall questioning one woman’s decision to report the alleged sexual assault.

“He was saying that he didn’t think that it was her place to come forward, and that she didn’t understand she was ruining someone’s life,” she said. “I’m typically friends with him, and I couldn’t stay silent.”

After a lengthy discussion about victim-blaming and consent, Kuzmyk said he is now wearing the campaign’s We Stand Together sticker and has ordered a T-shirt.

Donations are going to raise money for additional sexual education training at the university, Bruce said.

The Stittsville, Ont., native said the initiative now has widespread support from the university community, including the football team.

“They’ve been incredible. Almost right away they started posting the logo on their social media and ordering T-shirts,” she said of her fellow varsity athletes. “Ultimately at St. F.X. we’re a family and we take care of each other.”

One of the most moving aspects of the solidarity campaign is the two-minute video, produced by Donald Jewkes with spoken word by Kuzmyk.

The video follows a woman walking home alone in the dark on campus while spoken word poetry and instrumental music gradually grows louder.

The poetry raises questions about the trivializing of sexual assault, tolerating gendered violence and victim-blaming.

“I wonder if you felt her heart break when you broke into her. I wonder if the halt of her breath ever made you wonder if you should halt as well,” Kuzmyk said in her poem. “I wonder if the strength that you used to hold down her arms made you feel strong. I wonder if her complete inability to respond made you pause at all.”

The poem questions “if we can raise our voices loud enough to finally be heard” and when “every single one of us will stand behind her.”

The video ends with the woman being joined by a group of supporters, all standing in the dark silhouetted against a brightly lit campus building in the background.

Kuzmyk, originally from Cookstown, Ont., said she’s been writing short stories since she was six years old, and poetry since Grade 8. But she said it’s the first time she has shared her work publicly.

“It was a difficult decision but if it has the possibility to help someone or create awareness I thought it would be selfish to not share it,” she said.

Bruce said she never expected the campaign to take off so quickly or to garner so much attention, but she credits its success to the contributions of her teammates.

In addition to the We Stand Together campaign, a group of students and faculty on the university’s Social Justice Colloquium penned an open letter supporting survivors and calling for more resources and education.

The letter in the campus newspaper, The Xaverian Weekly, also criticizes the university for giving students inadequate information too long after news of the alleged sexual assaults became common knowledge, and failing to inform students about the resources available to them.

The letter includes a list of suggestions, including a new policy that would require the university to inform students of resources within 24 hours of an incident being reported.

Students on the Women’s and Gender Studies Society also issued a statement of solidarity in the campus paper, acknowledging the trauma for survivors of sexualized violence.

The statement also takes aim at the university, noting a “lacklustre stance and support” by the administration.

St. F.X. spokesman Kyler Bell said that the university follows its sexual violence policy, developed over many months by a committee.

“We will be seeking the committee’s guidance and recommendations as to how to improve on an ongoing basis,” he said in an email Tuesday.

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