AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre: 20 Years Later

By: Sheliza Mitha

The idea behind what’s now known as the SASC – UBC’s AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre – started with a little more than a few whispered conversations.

It was the early 2000s, about a half-decade before Tarana Burke founded the MeToo Movement. Resources for sexual assault survivors were scarce, despite the numbers. For example, in her 2019 UBC Master’s thesis on the MeToo movement, Erin Eileen Davidson reported that some 460,000 sexual assaults are reported each year in Canada.

Enter Lisa Lafreniere, a UBC student who (at the time) coordinated SpeakEasy – a peer counselling service of the AMS – while also working at Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW). Through her work at SpeakEasy, word (and whispers) spread that Lisa had specific knowledge and training with sexual assault issues. Students sought her out to talk about their experiences, and get support for resources that were not otherwise readily available.

With a clear need for sexual assault support services, an environmental assessment was conducted examining campus support services. The result was two-fold: 1. A support service of this kind would be valuable for the campus. 2. It would be more effective to work with an established anti-violence organization versus developing something new.

What followed was a one-year pilot project in August 2002, whereby WAVAW created an on-campus satellite office – the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) – staffed roughly 10 hours a week through donations and grants (including the AMS). While the AMS also provided space, WAVAW covered much of the renovations.

Some six months later – confirming demand for its services – the SASC attempted to make a home on campus through a referendum that would determine its future.

In February 2003, UBC students took to the polls to decide on whether to pay an additional $1 each per year in AMS fees to support the centre. Why $1? The figure was decided on by the AMS and WAVAW to help SASC in increasing its hours, and its support services.

Lafreniere noted at the time that if the referendum failed, the future of the SASC would be unclear. “The SASC provides support for survivors of sexual assault, but as well to provide awareness and education about sexual assault before it happens.”

The referendum passed, and this fund for the SASC is administered by the AMS to this day. In a second 2003 referendum, the amount was raised to $3 per student per year. In 2008, Student Council raised the percentage received by SASC to 95 percent for its core operating revenue (up from 80 percent). All of which allowed for growth and greater services.

In 2018, new federal legislation dictated that educational institutions must provide sexual support services. As a result of the university’s obligation to offer services, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO) was created – which led to the immediate closure of the SASC office.

“SASC staff were fired overnight because this university service was created,” explained Aashna Josh, current SASC Manager. “But, because of the student outcry, SASC reopened after just a few months – which speaks to the impact. Our impact is there, even though it’s not always seen.”

Today, the SASC operates with a staff of 11 and about 25 to 30 volunteers during the school year.

“We sit with people when needed, keep them alive and engaged to make sure they feel seen and supported. Our campaigns are visible – but our support services are confidential, and serve anyone who needs them,” Josh said. “We aim to offer services from a place of humility. We’re an anti-violence organization doing this work on occupied Musqueam lands and acknowledge the benefit we derive from working and living on this land.”

Over the past four years, the SASC has supported a growing number of sexual assault survivors: 726 in 2018; 1,145 in 2019; 1,145 in 2020; and 2,028 in 2021.

In a 2017 interview with The Ubyssey, former SASC manager Ashley Bentley emphasized the need for these services is constant. “When I say that sexual assault is an epidemic, I don’t say that lightly. We’re seeing an increase in the number of people accessing services.”

Although the primary mandate is to assist survivors of sexual assault, the SASC also works to educate students and promote prevention with services including emotional support groups, educational and outreach programs, and legal and medical advocacy. The centre also provides free contraceptives and pregnancy tests, and considers itself an all-gender service that aims to provide queer-friendly and gender-affirming services for everyone.

And all of this has been possible through the power of students: creating the SASC, funding it and fighting for it again in 2018. When the SASC went to referendum this year (2022), it was passed again – a testament to the number of services being accessed over the past several years.

The SASC’s survival directly connects to – and impacts – the survival and well-being of thousands more. This much is clear – especially to the UBC students who funded and fought for this important, empowering, and much-needed service for sexual assault survivors.

SASC Volunteer Stories: Working together towards a common goal

Volunteers are essential to keep the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) office running, organize events and spread the voice about initiatives such as Healing Fires: Art by Survivors and Allies, Come Together, and Consent Tea. We met with the Projects and Events volunteer who told us about her experience.

Tell us your favourite moment this year as a Projects and Events volunteer

My favourite moment this year as a Projects and Events volunteer was the closing ceremony for our art show: Healing Fires. It was overwhelming to finally see all of our hard work come together, our ideas become a reality, and to see the members of the SASC, UBC, and Vancouver community come out and support the art show. It was an unforgettable energy that night, we laughed, we cried, and it was inspiring to watch how we all came together to celebrate the resilience of survivors on their healing journey. I felt incredibly honoured to have been a part of an art show that created such a profound and powerful impact, by providing survivors and allies with a safe space to share their stories.

What are some great contributions made by other team members?

The events that we coordinated this year were all based on collaborative efforts. Whether it was proposing the initial ideas, logistics, set up, or moral support, my team members were ready to contribute whatever they could, whenever they could, to ensure the success of each and every event. Not only were my fellow volunteers extraordinary every step of the way, but the SASC staff who supported us were also vital to our team and success. Having such incredible leaders and mentors making contributions both big and small was a fundamental part of coordinating events that made an impact both on ourselves and on our community, by creating safe spaces for education and empowerment.

What’s one thing everyone should know about the SASC?

One thing everyone should know about the SASC is that their mission has an astonishing impact on others, and I believe that the SASC has a team unlike any other I have ever previously worked with. The SASCs mission to empower the community through their commitment to the support of people of all genders who are survivors of sexualized violence is incredibly important and impactful. And, it has helped to shape a volunteer community that is passionate and ambitious to make a difference. The SASC volunteer program is a safe and inclusive space where we can support one another while working together towards a common goal.

What advice would you give to someone going into your position for the first time?

A piece of advice I would give to someone who is going into my position for the first time is to be confident and creative when planning events. Going into my role I was worried that some ideas may have been unrealistic, such as a campus-wide art show, which none of us had previous experience in planning, meaning that it would require an enormous amount of time and energy to coordinate. There were dozens of other events that we could have chosen to do that were far easier and less risky, but I believe that our confidence and creativity was vital to the success of Consent Tea and the art show. Pursuing creative projects that we were passionate about, made the planning aspect more exciting, and it was clear that people were drawn to the originality of the events. It may take more time and a little extra effort, but pursuing ideas no matter how big or strange they may seem, helps to create events that will catch the eye of the community, and amplify our message.

The Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) is committed to the education, support, and empowerment of people of all genders who are survivors of sexualized violence as well as their friends and family. The SASC provides free and confidential services to UBC students, staff, faculty, and those connected to the UBC-Vancouver campus community. Find out more on the SASC website.


Volunteer Stories: Experience of a SASC volunteer

When I began volunteering for the SASC three years ago, the only volunteer positions offered were outreach and office positions. Since then they’ve expanded. The SASC now offers Healthier Masculinity and event planning positions in addition to the outreach and office roles. This expansion is important because programs like the Healthier Masculinity Men’s Circle, the Healing Fires art show and Greek Life workshops allow us to reach more people and have far more conversations than booting and blog posts alone.

One of my favourite SASC-related interactions last year involved approaching folks as part of the referendum campaign to ask if they knew anything about the SASC. Lots of people heard about the SASC but didn’t realize how much we did and were hesitant to engage with taboo issues like sexual assault. Some didn’t realize that we had a Healthier Masculinities program, or have events like the art show, or do workshops for groups on campus about being an active bystander, or that we have safer sex supplies and are a resource for everybody. The most rewarding conversation I had was one where the person went from not knowing what the SASC was to taking our volunteer coordinator’s business card so they could volunteer next year.

If you’re thinking about volunteering I say do it! You’ll discover all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of experiences volunteer with the SASC. You do not have to be an expert to participate, contribute or learn from the volunteer program. If you are interested in intersectional, feminist social justice work, apply!

One piece of advice: ASK QUESTIONS. When I started volunteering for the SASC I had no clue what a lot of the acronyms and terms thrown around in the social justice sphere meant. I was scared of looking silly or ignorant for not asking for clarification because there are so many really knowledgeable people at the SASC. Once I got up the courage to ask, I realized how ridiculously inclusive and kind the team is. My questions were all answered clearly and genuinely and sparked more conversation because there is a lot of ambiguity, disagreement and history behind a lot of the terms used. So ask away – if not in a group, to someone one on one.

If more people know about the SASC and have positive interactions with our volunteers, more people will recognize it as a safe, inclusive place to access support. This further-reaching recognition in the UBC community will help reduce barriers faced by survivors of sexualized violence who want access to support services.

Discover more about volunteering at the SASC.