Content warning - sexual violence
I was nine when I first became a victim of sexual violence. I was assaulted again when I was 12, then again when I was 13, and then I stopped counting—so many different people, and so many different faces to remember. Flashbacks are unpredictable. The first snow of the season reminded me of his cold, ashy breath on my neck. I started picking at my nails because of him, and, now, whenever I look at my hands, I think of him. Sometimes, when I’m completing a mundane task like washing my clothes or brushing my teeth, I recall an event that I had almost forgotten about. I see my abusers’ faces in every nightmare, in shadows while I’m trying to sleep.
My trauma manifests itself in every activity. I can’t shower with the curtain closed because I need to see the door. I’ll leave text messages unanswered for months because, sometimes, when I pick up my phone, I’ll remember being blackmailed. I get anxious while walking home in broad daylight; I am reluctant to go to office hours; I sit next to walls and close to exits, and I bought a $50 lock for my bedroom door because it didn’t come with one.
I am not alone. Millions of survivors in Canada are still coping with trauma. Despite the popular momentum of the #MeToo movement, sexual violence is still the only violent crime that is not declining in Canada. One in three women and one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, with the vast majority going unreported. In addition, people of colour, indigenous, queer, trans, and disabled people are disproportionately affected by sexual violence.
Navigating trauma can be a singularly isolating experience, and each survivor has their own specific experiences with trauma. Reporting sexual violence is also a very traumatic and emotionally-exhausting endeavour that not all survivors choose to pursue. The McGill Tribune conducted a survey** and several interviews with survivors attending McGill about their own trauma and disclosure experiences to better understand some of the barriers to disclosure.
Maya*, U2 Arts, was sexually abused when she was around four years old. She didn’t realize what had happened to her until she was much older.
“I was actually lured into the situation by [...] princess movies,” Maya said. “I hate Sleeping Beauty for this reason.”
Her abuse has completely changed how she navigates her relationships.
“I cannot [imagine] being with a man,” Maya said. “I can’t. I’m a straight woman, but I’m completely averse to ever even being with a man because if anyone ever touches me or hugs me without being very close to me, [...] I would always flinch [....] It’s just something you live with, and I know that I’m not going to be with a man until I [...] really trust someone [....] I hate men because of this.”
Michelle* was assaulted by someone she knew. She still deals with lasting anxiety from her trauma.
“Mentally and emotionally, I have improved over time, but I still deal with [...trouble sleeping, anxiety, negative thoughts, and feelings] on bad days,” Michelle said. “Occasionally I have physical reactions [shaking, crying, and rapid breathing] to the topic of [my abuser] or sexual violence if I’m caught off guard or if I’m having a bad day.”
Hannah*, U1 Arts, was repeatedly raped by her coach during her freshman year of high school.
“Any decision I make regarding where I go, who I see, what I wear, revolves around avoiding rape,” Hannah said. “I’m so afraid in situations where it's me and a man in one room alone [....] I think about my safety and where I am in circumstances like that all the time. I get a lot of night terrors. I rarely sleep through the night. Even consensual sex is hard because [I] can remember feeling invaded, even if it's with someone you genuinely care about [....] It’s terrifying.”
Disclosing sexual violence is draining for survivors. Bianca Tétrault, sexual violence education advisor at the Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support, and Education (OS-VRSE), detailed some of the many reasons that survivors choose not to disclose their experiences.
“Some folks may not think that the police or [administration] can adequately help them, that their stories will [not be] believed,” Tétrault said. “They may fear retaliation for the person who harmed them or from the people they disclose or report to. They may not want to report because they still care for the person who hurt them or they don’t want to disrupt the social structure of their community. They may feel shame or blame, or they may not think that what happened is worth disclosing or reporting.”
Before writing this piece, I had only told my friends about my experiences. That was intentional. I didn’t want to see my mother’s heart shatter every time. I had already lived through my traumas, and I didn’t want to relive them with each disclosure and court date. I didn’t want to face any of my abusers again, either.
In addition, I mistakenly believed that my trauma wasn’t justified. I saw my experiences as trivial, and I fell for the misconception that I should just be over it by now. Too often, my disclosures were met with patronizing remarks about what I was wearing, or whether I could have made it clearer that I wasn’t interested in my abusers’ advances. Despite being a survivor of multiple traumas, I found it hard to see myself as the victim. In the back of my mind, dangerous thoughts still linger. I’m kept awake at night by the thought that I am somehow responsible for my assaults and that I’m inflating the severity of the situation. In these moments, I still see myself as pathetic and weak.
Fear of retaliation as a result of disclosing is legitimate. Our culture consistently favours perpetrators. For example, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is still receiving death threats for testifying against her alleged abuser, Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh. She has had to move four times, and she still can’t resume her professorship at Palo Alto University.
In the survey that the Tribune conducted, only 11 per cent of the respondents reported seeking help from the police or their university administration. The other respondents cited many reasons for not wanting to report their trauma: Fear of not being believed, reliving their trauma, social stigma, or retaliation from abusers in positions of power. Other survivors feared that they would be questioned about why they didn’t come forward with their story sooner, just as Ford was asked during her testimony against Kavanaugh. Some respondents believed that their experiences were not ‘serious’ enough, or that the fault was their own.
Ahmed*, U2 Arts, was raped twice by men much older than him. He identifies as gay, but hasn’t come out to his family yet. Due to cultural stigmas and the fear of his parents finding out about his sexuality, Ahmed never felt safe disclosing his trauma.
“Going to the police was literally not an option for me,” Ahmed said. “There’s no concept of rape toward men in most cultures. Even if it was a possibility, taking it to court would mean that I would have to come out to my parents. I would have to rehash my trauma [....] I don’t know why I would ever want to bring up that [trauma] again. Taking it to court just defines me as a victim, and all I want to do is to move forward.”
Maya still feels responsible for the safety of her abuser.
“I still haven’t told my parents [...] because I know that [my abuser] still lives in my family’s village, and I know my dad would kill him. I know it.”
Hannah’s abuser was in a position of power, and the lack of a survivor-centric culture at her school made the possibility of resolution following a disclosure seem remote.
“I didn’t go because I didn’t know that I could,” Hannah said. “I was 14 years old [....] If there was the [same] survivor-centric conversation that’s happening now, then I probably would’ve gone to the police [or] gone to my school, [but] he was my superior by many levels, [...] and I didn’t want to jeopardize my [athletic] career.”
The cultivation of a survivor-centric culture is incredibly important for survivors to feel adequately supported and validated. Survivor-centric support prioritizes the emotional and physical well-being of survivors and makes the act of disclosing feel safer. According to Statistics Canada, the number of victims who reported their sexual violence experiences peaked in October 2017, coinciding with the beginning of the survivor-centric #MeToo movement on social media.
McGill has its own share of on-campus resources to help survivors. The Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Student’s Society (SACOMSS) is a volunteer-run organization that serves the McGill and Montreal community. They offer services like the Drop-In and Line (DIAL), various support groups, advocacy, and outreach. OS-VRSE offers crisis intervention and short-term crisis counselling for students and staff alike. The Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) is also available for sexual violence survivors suffering from mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The OSD has accessibility initiatives for students including note-taking programs and alternative exam rooms.
Another new campus initiative is the Student’s Society of McGill University (SSMU) Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy (GSVP). The policy aims to tackle rape culture on campus through prevention, support, advocacy for survivors, and disciplinary procedures. SSMU will begin implementing the GSVP in Jan. 2019.
On the other hand, as last year’s student walkout can testify, McGill’s culture surrounding sexual violence still has its shortcomings. Bee Khaleeli, U3 Arts, is a SSMU mental health commissioner, a GSVP implementation coordinator, and SACOMSS volunteer. They see limitations in the campus resources available to survivors.
“A lot of the resources that exist on campus for survivors are very confined to the McGill context,” Khaleeli said. “I don’t think that there are enough mechanisms for material forms of support like money, housing changes, and accommodations that do not default to putting [survivors] in touch with someone from the police. [Resources] like OS-VRSE and SACOMSS are implicitly or explicitly focused on students. I think there’s a lot to be said about how faculty and how staff may navigate a lot of the realities of sexual violence and rape culture on campus.”
Despite the array of resources available on campus, survivors may still choose to confine their trauma to their smaller personal support networks like friends or family. Tétrault stressed the importance of educating oneself on how to be a better ally.
“On [the OS-VRSE] website, you can find steps to providing support to someone impacted by sexual and gender-based violence,” Tétrault said. “We also offer workshops on how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence to all members of our McGill community. Groups, courses, faculties, departments, and services can and have requested workshops to better equip them to support people impacted by sexual violence. In addition, learning how to be active bystanders [and] challenging harmful social norms and practices that continue to marginalize and oppress certain groups and individuals is all part of the larger movement to address harm in our community.”
For Khaleeli, it is not enough for students to just publicly voice their support for survivors. Students also need to translate their words into action.
“I think students need to show up more,” Khaleeli said. “There’s this really upsetting tendency for people to [...] put the words in but not the action in, too. People need to be a lot more mindful of when they are bringing up the issue of sexual violence [...] for political expediency [...and of] what actual material actions need to go into what they’re saying for it to be meaningful. You can share a Facebook post, but are you showing up to policy revision consultations? Are you emailing your faculty senator to ask them to bring things up? Are you actively making an effort to support the survivors in your life?”
There are millions of cases of sexual violence that never see a court date or administrative action. Students play a large role in the dismantling of rape culture, and have an opportunity to assume larger roles in advocating for and supporting the survivors in our lives—including ourselves.
*Names have been changed to preserve the interviewees’ anonymity.
**About the survey: The student survey referenced in this article does not meet scientific standards.
The author of this article distributed the survey to the McGill student body using an anonymous Google form. The survey used a combination of multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students experiences with sexual violence and disclosures..
During the data-collection period, the author posted the survey link to various McGill community groups on Facebook and Reddit over the course of 26 days from Oct. 23 to Nov. 18. In total, 79 students responded to the survey.