May 2021

The Importance of Immunity Policies

Written by REES

Over the past year, REES has partnered with colleges and universities to enhance their response to campus sexual violence. The REES platform is customized for each of our Campus Partners, with information about campus and community resources. REES also links to the institution’s sexual violence policy and procedures to provide survivors with information about their rights under the policy and what they can expect in response from their institution. 

What is an Immunity or Amnesty Policy?

An Immunity policy (sometimes called an Amnesty policy) is an exemption from discipline for a student who makes a disclosure or report of sexual violence relating to their campus community and where prior to the incident, the survivor engaged in prohibited or illegal behaviour.

Some of these behaviours might include:

  • Underage drinking or illegal drug use
  • Drinking/drug use in an alcohol or drug-free area (such as residence or on dry campus)
  • Participating in an illegal activity such as sex work
  • Gathering in violation of public health order (COVID-19 pandemic)
  • Engaging in sexual behaviour that violates school covenant (faith-based institutions)

Why Do Immunity Policies Matter?

Over half of sexual assaults of post-secondary students involve drugs or alcohol. Survivors are often asked about whether they were drinking or using drugs at the time of the assault.

Drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) refers to when a person uses drugs or alcohol to incapacitate another person for the purpose of sexual assault. When thinking about drug-facilitated sexual assault, people often first think of situations where a perpetrator intentionally provides the victim with drugs, commonly known as “date rape drugs,” such as Rohypnol, or Ketamine. While this does occur, what is far more common is referred to as “opportunistic” drug-facilitated sexual assault. An “opportunistic” DFSA occurs when a perpetrator targets someone who is already impaired by drugs or alcohol, and therefore unable to consent or resist. DFSA can involve many types of drugs, however, the most common substance is alcohol.

In 2012 it was reported that almost 90 percent of Canadian university students drink alcohol.[1] Almost one-third of those students described drinking heavily at least once a month.[2]

Sexual violence has low reporting rates, yet 71% of students witness or experience unwanted sexualized behaviours on campus.[3] Survivors face a wide range of barriers to disclosing sexual violence, including stigma, feelings of shame or embarrassment, fear of reprisal from the perpetrator, and fear of victim-blaming. Survivors may also choose not to come forward about a sexual assault out of fear they will be blamed for what happened if they were using alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.

Victim-blaming refers to attitudes that the victim, rather than the perpetrator, holds responsibility for the sexual violence. Due to the harmful myths and misconceptions about sexual violence, victims are often perceived by others to be responsible for what happened to them. Many survivors also internalize rape myths and blame themselves if the assault occurred while consuming a substance, while the actions of an intoxicated perpetrator are often excused. When alcohol and drugs are involved in a sexual assault, the person responding to the disclosure or report may be influenced by victim-blaming myths.

By adopting a clear Immunity Policy, institutions demonstrate their support to survivors by responding to the harm they have experienced, rather than focusing on the actions of the individual survivor. Immunity Policies can have a significant impact on encouraging disclosures and reports of sexual violence. Immunity Policies specifically included in sexual violence policies can make the difference between a survivor disclosing an incident of sexual violence compared to not coming forward for fear of discipline.

When we ask about Immunity Policies, campus administrators and sexual violence support staff inevitably say, “Of course, we would not discipline a survivor for coming forward about an incident of sexual violence where that may have been engaging in behaviour that is prohibited.”

If an institution has adopted in practice, but not in policy, an approach that supports Immunity for students, we encourage consideration of adding this to your next Sexual Violence Policy Review or creating and passing a policy outside of your review cycle. Including an Immunity Policy explicitly demonstrates your commitment to reducing barriers to reporting and supports a trauma-informed response.


[1] University Affairs “Heaving drinking a problem at most Canadian campuses: report.” 2012. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/heavy-drinking-a-problem-at-most-canadian-campuses-report/
[2] University Affairs. “Heavy drinking a problem at most Canadian campuses: report.” 2012. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/heavy-drinking-a-problem-at-most-canadian-campuses-report/
[3] Statistics Canada. “Students’ experiences of unwanted sexualized behaviours and sexual assault at postsecondary schools in the Canadian provinces.” 2019. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2020001/article/00005-eng.htm
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Including an Immunity Policy explicitly demonstrates your commitment to reducing barriers to reporting and supports a trauma-informed response.