Supporting the call for investigation, understanding sexual violence complaints against faculty as a women’s equality issue

Published Monday, April 16, 2018

Firdaous Sbaï, Sarah M Mah, Camylle Lanteigne

April 16th, 2018


The Independent Women for Equality McGill (IWEM) is a self-organized group of women students on campus. We support the call for investigation and reform of the complaints process against faculty by the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU). In a widely signed and circulated open letter, SSMU condemns five professors’ predatory behavior regarding sexual violence, and demands action. However, neither students nor the administration have accounted for the fact that the complaints against faculty are highly gendered. We would like to draw attention to the central role of women’s inequality when it comes to understanding and confronting sexual violence.




Feminists have exposed for decades the role that women’s oppression plays in the “power dynamics” so often mentioned in the discourse on sexual violence at McGill. Women and men are socialized to relate to each other in a hierarchical way, and this sexual inequality plays out in our personal lives, at work, and at school. Sexual violence and rape culture are symptomatic of women’s subordination. Professors accused of sexual assault and harassment are overwhelmingly men, and the students coming forward are overwhelmingly women. We want to emphasize that this cannot be a coincidence, and that sex is a key power axis at play (beyond the inequality of prestige and authority) between professors and students. Sexual violence is a product of women’s inequality.


We also believe that rooting the definition of sexual violence in a consent framework is an important advance but even so, “consent” cannot fully account for the subtleties of male supremacy, and the abuse of this power by male faculty. The presence of a power dynamic (both between members of different academic ranks and between the sexes) is inherently coercive, and the threat of exploitation in professor-student relationships is tremendous. What does it mean for an undergraduate student to “consent” to the sexual advances of a faculty member who has control over her grades or her access to internships and research assistantships? Although the Policy Against Sexual Violence states that consent cannot be given “where the sexual activity has been induced by conduct that constitutes an abuse of a relationship of trust, power or authority”, the policy lacks a clear analysis that would define the inherent coerciveness and gendered dynamics of male professor-female student “relationships”. A feminist understanding of sexual violence that acknowledges the pervasiveness of male power is essential to fill this void.




The absence of any specific, set disciplinary measures for perpetrators needs to be highlighted. The current Policy Against Sexual Violence claims to be “survivor-focused” but as a result fails to address consequences on the perpetrator’s side. Instead, it refers to other University policy documents, notably the Regulation Relating to the Employment of Tenure Track and Tenured Academic Staff. However, this document makes no mention of sexual misconduct. The Sexual Violence Policy also makes reference to the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law. Yet, this document also presents no clear consequences for perpetrators, and refers back to the Regulation Relating to the Employment of Academic Staff for this matter. This document (not listed in the Policy Against Sexual Violence) only mentions harassment, and again focuses on appointment procedures for the complaint hearing process. It lists a few possible sanctions against academic staff for grievances in general, but does not specifically list sexual violence as a valid cause for disciplinary measures.


In summary, these documents either do not address sexual violence by professors or staff, or they simply detail: 1) procedural fairness in the hearing (e.g. who can sit on the committee, who appoints them, etc.), 2) “support” for the survivor while the complaint goes through the channels, and 3) proper communication to all parties at the end of the investigation. None of the documents present set disciplinary measures for sexual violence. The circular references between University policies, and ultimately the absence of established disciplinary measures against sexual violence, together offer a vague and empty promise to us as women students, and an open door for predatory male faculty.




The students targeted by predatory professors are overwhelmingly female. The fact that university investigations have led to wildly inappropriate remedies suggests to us that the committee and the administration do not understand student-professor power relations and their ties to sex inequality, and furthermore, do not have policy-guidance with respect to women’s safety and consequences that men ought to face. For instance, determining that a male professor can only supervise male students means women have a smaller pool of options for supervisors. Letting predators continue to work at the university also means that women do not have access to certain (sometimes required) courses, or are put at higher risk of having to change our academic paths (which may involve the time and financial disadvantages of additional semesters) in order to avoid abusive professors. These measures shift the onus onto women to avoid predatory men.  McGill’s failure to address sexual violence by its academic staff predominantly puts women at a disadvantage, and only benefits male professors who abuse their power. This failure not only compounds the sexism we already face in our everyday lives, but essentially amounts to sex discrimination in the University context.




We believe that the McGill administration must now take concrete measures to combat sexual violence on campus, to show that it takes student safety seriously. We support the overall aims of the letter drafted by SSMU, and ask that you consider the following additional points:


  1. Accept SSMU’s recommendation to carry out an independent investigation into complaints against faculty. Conduct such an investigation with aims and inquiry into understanding the role that sex inequality played in those cases. Power dynamics do not occur in a vacuum, and must be analyzed within hierarchical structures that are involved  in sexual assault - namely, those based in sexism, racism, colonialism and class.


  1. Strengthen existing McGill policy to protect women on campus, as detailed in our previous statement on the Policy Against Sexual Violence , and deal effectively with abusive men at every level of the university - students, staff, and faculty. Rather than a policy that is only “survivor-centred,” we continue to advocate for a policy that holds perpetrators accountable, and targets men as the source of sexual violence against  women on campus.


  1. Increase transparency and specificity in communication about sexual violence on campus. Emails to students have contained empty platitudes, and have not dignified demands with attuned responses. They mention “due process” and “appropriate measures” but as we have shown, there are no set consequences for sexual violence in current University policies. The statement that McGill is bound by Quebec law to keep investigation results private should have referenced the provincial legislation in question. Otherwise, shutting down student concerns by framing sexual assault as a matter of “personal information” echoes very old misogynistic conceptions of male violence as a private rather than political matter. We hope that McGill can work in good faith to redress identified concerns.

  2. Collect and publish statistics on the state of sexual violence on campus. Evaluate the performance and impact of the University’s existing policies and procedures, especially for those most at risk of sexual violence. Make this evaluation accessible to the McGill community for consultation and policy refinement.

  3. Prioritize women’s equality. Support equality-seeking initiatives on campus, and assess the status of women at every level of the university.


The hierarchy between men and women is the foundation of sexual violence on and off-campus. Although we recognize that consent training may be necessary, it is clearly insufficient to prevent male professors, staff, and students from abusing their power over women. We urge the administration and the McGill community to acknowledge the inherent power dynamics not only between professors and students, but more importantly between men and women, and to seek tangible disciplinary measures against perpetrators of sexual violence.