Truth can be horribly stranger and more sickly ironic than fiction. 

In the early 2000s, disturbed by so much sexual violence against women, I self-published a novel, set at a large Toronto university, where a professor finds himself investigating a series of rapes — the perpetrator, it emerges, is a campus security officer. 

Twenty years later, as I sat in my office at the small Nova Scotia university where I’m a professor, I felt a sick chill ripple through me, an icy swirl of disbelief and disgust. I’d just been told that, over a five-year period (2015 to 2019), at least 53 sexual assaults and rapes had been committed against students and/or on the campus . . . at least 17 of them by a single perpetrator working as a student security officer.

Editor’s note: The Halifax Examiner has not independently verified this claim. It is discussed in this news article.

Those 17 assaults and rapes were in 2018 and 2019, when I and my colleagues in English Studies at Université Sainte-Anne had started hearing about student-victims of sexual violence from our student representative at departmental meetings. (Our written concerns and suggestions received a tepid, unsatisfying response from the university’s rector.) But we had never heard about that serial rapist. And we had no idea of the sickening depth and breadth of the rape culture at the university.

Only this year, while talking to more students, and as some students — present, graduating, and graduated — formed a group to voice the experiences of just a few of the many victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape at Sainte-Anne, to demand its rape culture be changed, did I learn of that first number. 53.

It’s a staggering number for a microuniversity with fewer than 400 full-time students. 

Worse — as sexual assaults are underreported — it’s only a faint reflection of how bad the problem is at Sainte-Anne. 

And it’s awful to think, as a new school year starts, what it implies about rape cultures at other Nova Scotia universities, with student populations 10 to 60 times larger.

Rape culture is “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse” (Oxford English Dictionary), and it became chillingly clear to me that Sainte-Anne had become a festering petri dish for this culture.

Rape culture is when a student goes to the then-head of residences after the student security officer (the program was later disbanded) had raped a student in the residence where the security office is located, suggests to her the office be moved to the campus bar, and she’s told: “If rape is going to happen, rape is going to happen.” 

Rape culture is when a student reports a rape to the Student Life office, says she’s scared to be on campus with the perpetrator still there, and they say they don’t have enough proof and she should just go to the police because “we don’t deal with things like that.” When she then asks them to check the cameras showing him coming to her room at 2am, they refuse. And — this is all after the student has locked herself in her room for weeks, stopped attending classes, was crying every day, had internal bleeding, and was in constant pain the first few days — after telling them what she’s been going through, the student hears: “You can write a report if it will make you feel better.” (This was the near-exact same experience for at least three students.)

Rape culture not only enables harassment, assault, and rape but extends the damage. 

Shruggingness, indifference, and apathy not only minimize the crime and normalize the violation, but deepen the victim’s suffering and trauma, harming her more by making her (it is almost always a woman; the perpetrator is almost always male) feel unheard and uncared-about. 

Again and again, as students told me about the harassment, assault, or rape that they or friends at the university had suffered, what shone through was that no-one seemed to care. 

At a small high school-sized institution, a place marketing and promoting itself as a bucolic little academic haven where students feel part of a family, well, when students were harassed or assaulted, their bodies violated, a crime committed against them . . . basic human professions of concern, care, or sympathy were not offered to them. 

These are unconscionable lapses of human decency. And it is part of a repeated, base denial of a basic duty of care to the many young people who are being housed and fed at an institution where they are supposed to be learning. 

Learning. Not being assaulted or raped. Then suffering PTSD, not being able to go to class, or focus, or study, or see certain places or people because they are re-triggering, or, finally, dropping out.

The group that has formed, SA Change Now, is posting, each day, via email, a website, and Instagram, anonymous first-person accounts of harassment, assault, and rape. The website,, encourages other victims to submit their accounts, which will be posted, and includes a petition to sign, requesting five basic reforms. And, then, the university needs to seriously address and curb its rape culture, and focus intently on preventing harassment and assault.

The university has the money to make these reforms: install more lights throughout the Church Point campus; hire an on-site counsellor (there has not been one for over a year); hire a psychologist (there has never been one); create an office (i.e., a person) dedicated to sexual-assaults complaints; overhaul its sexual-assault policy and the sexual-assault hearings process; ensure qualified, trauma-informed professionals conduct hearings, online if needed (making it truly confidential and avoiding unqualified insiders’ conflicts of interest and potential biases). 

The institution has not operated in the red. International-student fees were recently raised. And a recent ANSUT (Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers) report notes that salaries for the administration went, from 2012 to 2021, up a whopping 70% on average, in part because eight more positions were added. The administration compensation-cost per student rocketed, in that span, from $3234 per student to $4669 per student—a 44% increase. 

In the meantime, glaringly and persistently, overworked support services at the university are underfunded and understaffed. Such underfunding and understaffing means that the security and safety of students has become woefully neglected, and rape culture is flourishing. 

As students talked to me about the rape culture at their university, it was clear that they wanted to speak up and speak out for those coming to Sainte-Anne. 

Future students need to know, to gain a better sense of how bad the rape culture is at the small university they’ll be going to. 

Because there was the sad, pathetic certainty that it will keep happening — one campaign member worried about how much worse it will get, fast, now that COVID protocols are gone. 

One student, in an abusive relationship for months, was told by her abuser, a Sainte-Anne student, before and after he raped her three times, that students at Sainte-Anne are free to sexually assault others because they know the administration will do nothing and there will be no consequences for perpetrators. 

Rape culture flourishes when it’s not spoken out against; when it’s openly and vocally opposed, it can, like any culture, be changed. 

Unfairly and awfully, this can mean yet another burden on its victims — to speak out, to voice their experiences, to spotlight how indifference, unfeeling words, criminal violations, and the abuse of power can darkly enmesh them in an ongoing struggle with pain, mental anguish, and severe emotional trauma that cannot be repressed or wished away. 

But so many students, too, are sick and tired of being victims. They want to be students, to be adults, to come back to themselves again, to get on with their lives. 

And they want to not be treated, after their harassment or assault or rape, like mere things or nuisances or cases. 

Because they know, and will always know, the truth of what happened to them. And no rape culture can make it a fiction.

All statements and opinions in the above are the author’s own.

Brian Gibson has been a professor of English literature and film at Université Sainte-Anne for more than 15 years; his research focuses on masculinities in literature and film. The piece of student writing that he remains most in awe of is Chanel Miller’s victim statement at the end of the 2016 People v. Turner trial.

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