12/19/2014 09:43 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST

Sexually Degrading Comments Are Not "Just Guy Talk"

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"Boys will be boys" and "it's just guy talk" are expressions that we need to erase from our vocabulary as a justification for some men's blatantly inappropriate behaviour toward women. This week, we saw disturbing events at Dalhousie University's Dental School involving comments of a sexual nature and those suggesting sexual violence against women, posted on a social media site run by a group of male fourth year dental students. Two fourth year female dental students were mentioned by name in some of the posts. These male students are people who, upon graduation, will be be serving both men and women in their dental practices. Response to the incident ranges from condemnation to commentators justifying the action of the male students on the basis that this was "just guy talk."

This incident follows a number of similar occurrences over the past few years at universities in Canada and in the United States, where women have been sexually assaulted or subjected to misogynist and degrading remarks. From sexual assault charges laid against two members of the Ottawa university's GeeGees hockey team following a road trip, to degrading sexual remarks made by fellow members of the Ottawa university student federation to their female president, chants during frosh week and tweets by football team members at St. Mary's university in Halifax, we have seen the signs of blatant disrespect and promotion of sexual violence against women.

All of the actions and comments, in addition to their degrading or violent nature, objectify women in terms of their sexuality and encourage sexual violence against women. Sports teams have also been in the news in the United States, where members of elite school or university teams were alleged to have sexually assaulted women.

We hear talk of a "rape culture" at universities and women fear walking alone on campuses at night. A mix of cultures with different attitudes towards women exacerbates the challenge for women. Hearing stories like the ones recently about bad behaviour directed toward women in universities should give us pause for concern. Surely we want our universities to be bastions of learning that encourage equality between men and women, not places where women are assaulted or degraded and their equality threatened.

Universities struggle to find appropriate processes and remedies to deal with the seemingly increasing number of incidents brought to light -- or perhaps only an increased awareness of incidents that, in the absence of social media, may not have been exposed in the past or reported. Allan Rock, President of Ottawa University, made a decision t fire the coach and suspend the university's hockey team, which included those members who were no present at the game where the alleged assaults took place. His decision was both criticized and applauded.

Dalhousie's president, Dr. Richard Florizone has decided to adopt a different approach by using restorative justice principles. In this situation, all 13 male students implicated will participate in the process along with a number of the women affected by their actions. Restorative justice is intended as a process for expression of remorse, learning and restoration. The president has not closed the door on other disciplinary actions, should this process fail. University presidents must make very difficult decisions in these cases on how best to send the message that the behaviour is to be condemned, while balancing the opportunity, where appropriate, to educate and create awareness. No doubt president's will be both praised and criticized.

No matter the outcome or process chosen by a university, we know that dealing with one incident at a time is not enough to change attitudes. Many incidents are not reported and contribute to a difficult culture for both women and the majority of male students, whose behaviour is respectful toward their female classmates. One thing is certain, we cannot support the idea that comments of this nature are just "guy talk" I do not condemn "guy talk" -- just the notion that misogynist and sexually violent comments quality under this rubric as acceptable behaviour. How many men would like their wives or girlfriends or daughters or granddaughters, or sisters to be the subject of this kind of "guy talk"?

It is time for all of us to say this kind of behaviour is unacceptable, degrading and not what makes someone a "man." We cannot expect the universities and their president's to do all of the heavy lifting. Respect for others starts with teachings in our homes. Parents of boys and young men have an obligation to teach their children respect for women and girls. Bad behaviour cannot simply be passed off with the shrug that "boys will be boys" I have tried hard to teach my sons to respect women and to embrace equality both by words and actions.

In addition, we need to teach and encourage young men who find themselves being unfairly labelled by the bad behaviour of others, to speak up and condemn this behaviour. Peer pressure can be another powerful tool for making change along with supporting the efforts made by universities and groups within the universities to promote respect.


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