SEXES

What is ‘abuse?

A striking survey provokes a heated reaction

JAMES DEACON February 22 1993
SEXES

What is ‘abuse?

A striking survey provokes a heated reaction

JAMES DEACON February 22 1993

What is ‘abuse?

SEXES

A striking survey provokes a heated reaction

The two Carleton University sociologists were unprepared for the reaction that greeted their report last week. Researchers Katharine Kelly and Walter DeKeseredy reported striking levels of abuse of women on Canadian college and university campuses, based on a written questionnaire filled out by 3,142 students. The key findings: 22 per cent of women surveyed said that they had been physically abused, and 29 per cent said that they had been sexually

abused, by boyfriends or male acquaintances during the previous 12 months. And 81 per cent of female respondents said that they had suffered some form of abuse when the definition was broadened to include psychological abuses such as taunts and insults. The margin of error in the survey was plus or minus five per cent. In the ensuing days, the researchers said, they and their office staffs received about 40 telephone calls a day, mostly from men, many in support but some loudly and even crudely denouncing the professors and their survey. In editorial columns and on television and radio talk shows, writers and commentators debated the findings.

The critics focused on the 81-percent figure, saying that the broad definition of “abuse” was too allencompassing. Still, there was no disagreement over the survey’s major focus: there is a widespread problem across Canadian campuses. “The alarming thing to me is just how many women I know who have been assaulted by acquaintances,” said William Dobie, 20, a third-year political science student at the University of British Columbia.

The survey, financed by a $236,000 grant from Health and Welfare Canada’s Family Violence Prevention Division, was conducted by Kelly and DeKeseredy, who have been studying violence against women for five years, in 1992. Their questionnaire was divided into three categories—sexual, physical and psychological abuse. In a typical question, female respondents were asked: “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because you were drunk or high?” In addition to the 81 per cent of 1,835 female survey respondents who claimed to have suffered some form of abuse during the

previous year, 75 per cent of the 1,307 men admitted to having been abusive.

One expert in polling techniques, Michael Sullivan, senior vice-president of the Torontobased polling and market research firm Decima Research, said that the broad definition of abuse produced some numbers that are “so high that they stretch the credibility of the results in the mind of the public.” Sullivan said that the survey should also have asked men if they had been psychologically abused by women. “If you can

show that psychological abuse is a two-way street,” he said, “then it becomes a problem of civility.” Still Sullivan, did not challenge the professors’ results. “There’s no problem with the methodology of the survey,” he said, “and there’s no reason to quibble with its findings.” The survey also reported a high incidence of “date rape”—when a woman is raped by her date, boyfriend or a male acquaintance. “People don’t see it as rape,” said Carole Forsythe, 28, a third-year history student at the University of British Columbia. She told Maclean’s

that many men who commit date rape “feel that it is fine, that it was consensual. And no matter how much the woman protests, people say, ‘Well, you were friends, you should have made your protests clearer.’ ”

According to Kelly and DeKeseredy, who are both married and have children, the real number of women assaulted on dates could be higher than shown in the survey, because some are reluctant to report sexual or physical assault in cases that involve people they know. The incidence of date rape—nine per cent— reported in the Kelly-DeKeseredy survey was almost exactly the same as was found in a 1992 Decima poll for Maclean’s that asked about date rape on campus.

Whether they had been abuse victims or not, many women on campus told Maclean’s last week that they are aware of the possibility of male violence, and conduct themselves accordingly. Chide Town, 20, a film and communications student at Montreal’s McGill University, said that she became cautious after hearing of assaults on female friends and family members.

“I stay away from places that I don’t feel are safe,” Town said. “I think it’s insulting that I can’t walk the streets and the university grounds and feel as safe as men do.” The survey came under attack in newspaper columns and editorials for its definition of abuse. Robert Sheppard, a columnist for Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, wrote that “to broaden the nature of abuse as the authors have done, and to cloak this with an air of academic respectability, is to trivialize the real problem” of sexual abuse in society. But while they knew their definition would likely raise concerns, Kelly and DeKeseredy stuck with it. “In many cases, women said that psychological abuse was worse than physical abuse,” said Kelly. Added DeKeseredy: “It’s not our job to define what women call abuse. If that’s how they see it, we just report it.” For Kelly and DeKeseredy, the release of the survey may be only a beginning. As a next step, they say that they hope to study the causes of sexual, physical and psychological abuse, not just in universities, but in high schools and society in general. Meanwhile, DeKeseredy said that he hoped the initial findings would convince postsecon-

dary institutions to set up mandatory courses on male-female relations, and to require students to sign a code-of-conduct agreement that, if breached, could result in expulsion. The two researchers also expressed the hope that their findings, by raising some troubling issues, may at least encourage a higher degree of male-female civility in campus life.

JAMES DEACON

HAL QUINN

JOHN DeMONT

ANN McLAUGHLIN