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Stranger danger is the greatest fear, but peril often lurks closer to home

A chill went through the University of British Columbia last weekend after a violent sexual assault. A 20-year-old woman walking alone at night on campus was jumped from behind and forced to the ground. She fought her attacker off and escaped. Before the assault, there were reports of an intruder with a similar description lurking around campus housing.

Meanwhile, just east of Vancouver, in Burnaby, a rash of sexual assaults has residents frightened and adjusting their behaviours. Burnaby RCMP offered safety tips at a public workshop this week, held at a high school.

There's a reason people are gripped by fear over these assaults: They are terrible and terrifying, and play into the chilling scenario of our deepest fears – someone in the shadows, ready to pounce.

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But women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know. In the majority of sexual assaults against women, the accused is known to the victim – in three-quarters of sexual offences in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

And nobody knows – or should know – this better than women on university campuses.

At UBC, where people (rightly so) are worried about these recent incidents, sexual assault has been a high-profile concern. But the issue that has been swirling there is institutional foot-dragging over allegations of sexual assault and harassment by a then-student.

After CBC's the fifth estate made the controversy public, UBC formed a committee to develop a stand-alone sexual assault policy. This week, a former student filed a human-rights complaint alleging that the school discriminated against her and others over how it handled their complaints in this case.

Sexual assault on campus also made headlines three years ago over frosh-week activities, as rape chants from coast to coast – Saint Mary's University in Halifax to, again, UBC – kicked off the academic year and a Canadian conversation about rape culture.

But this is not a frosh-week problem. This is an every-week problem.

So why are we more freaked out by the possibility of a stranger attacking than the far more likely scenario of a date – or friend or friend of a friend – assaulting us?

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Is it because we feel we're somehow in control of the latter situation? That we wouldn't allow that to happen to us? That we're smarter than those other women? A better judge of character?

I understand the terrors of an assault by a stranger – it comes with an element of danger that we tend not to think of with someone we know. And I in no way mean to discount that. But sexual assault by a known culprit demands attention – not only because it's more likely to happen, but because it can be much more complex. Also, as a smart friend pointed out to me, women who are assaulted by a stranger are more likely to be believed.

To protect ourselves against the far less likely scenario of a stranger attacking, women – the onus placed on vulnerable us – will go to self-defence classes, maybe attend that police seminar and receive advice such as don't go for a jog when the streets are deserted, and stick to well-lit areas.

That's all good (if fairly obvious), but another kind of education is essential.

Vancouver-based sexual-health educator Saleema Noon brings the issue of consent into her workshops beginning in Grade 6. She says that, with social media, girls are competing for likes, comments and follows with provocative selfies – and that translates into an unspoken pressure to deliver IRL – in real life.

She teaches students that consent means an enthusiastic yes; that someone who has been drinking, doing drugs, passed out or sleeping is not capable of giving consent, even if they appear to be enjoying themselves. And she stresses that the rules apply even in relationships.

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"UBC strikes a personal chord with me because I went to UBC and I had a good friend who was raped by her boyfriend at the time, but she didn't know it. It's that grey area," she told me this week. Her friend lived in residence; the boyfriend at a fraternity house. The relationship continued for some time.

"I also talk to the Grade 6s about the reasons why someone may feel a sexual activity is wrong, but act like they're having a great time when they're really not. Unfortunately the [Jian] Ghomeshi trial illustrates that perfectly. Just because someone gives an indication that they want to continue the relationship after doesn't mean that they were okay with what happened or that they want to do it again. People react very differently to trauma. And it's totally understandable; they're confused about what they just experienced.

"It is perfectly reasonable to me for a girl to be on a date or hanging out with someone at the UBC res and one thing leads to another although her gut is telling her that didn't feel right. … I wouldn't be surprised if that girl, if she was uncomfortable, continued in that relationship even as a coping mechanism to pretend that it never happened."

When Lucy DeCoutere – who exposed herself to a grilling in the courtroom and the court of public opinion – testified that she didn't leave Mr. Ghomeshi's house immediately because she didn't want to be rude, that may have sounded preposterous, but many women absolutely got it.

"So much of this goes back to gender stereotypes that have been ingrained in us since the day we're born," Ms. Noon says. "As women, we are trained to look out for everyone's feelings and be polite and smooth things over; everything's good."

It's so hard to navigate – even for adults. Starting with education early should help.

The stranger danger rules are drilled into kids – by parents, teachers, friendly visiting community police officers. And that's understandable – and important. I do it, too.

But we need to pay more attention to the more insidious – and likely – scenario of being assaulted by someone we know. Because the truth is, dangers lurk much closer to – if not right at – home. And home may be a university campus.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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