Campus Sexual Assault: the Educational Experience I Never Wanted

The University of British Columbia University Sexual Assault Panel‘s report, which provides recommendations for both the university’s stand-alone policy as well as their sexual assault action plan, goes to President Martha Piper today, and it will have its public release at a date soon to be determined. I have spent the past three months working weekly with a group of excellent and committed UBC faculty members on this report. We have all put in more hours than originally anticipated, and in the last few weeks in particular I have been living and breathing this report every single day. This has been difficult, and I must emphasize, completely voluntary work. It has been work that comes with more costs than it does rewards.

And there have been costs for me, ones that I cannot even yet fully grasp.

While it has been a choice to go public and to advocate for change around sexual assault in educational institutions, it has also changed my life irrevocably, and not always for the better. I have given up my privacy. In many cases, I have given up my dignity: the most traumatic incidents of my life have become fodder for trolls on the internet. In being such a vocal critic of universities, I have also potentially signalled my liability as an employee in academic spaces. I do not have the protection of job security or the academic freedom that comes with a tenured position. I have tried to do all of this work while also balancing my research and my teaching. It is financially precarious, emotionally and intellectually arduous, and often frighteningly lonely.

In doing this work, I have also lived and re-lived some of the most humiliating and traumatizing incidents of my life. It is no coincidence that of the six incidents of sexual assault I have experienced since 2002, five of them have taken place on the campuses of educational institutions, UBC included. As is evident by so many of the stories coming out in the press, educational spaces are ones in which violence often goes un-checked, or worse, covered-up. Policies are lacking. Resources are non-existent or understaffed. Education around responding to disclosures is not always present or consistent. In the past three months, as I have had to give more thought to how UBC should be better equipped to respond to reports and disclosures of sexual assault, I have thought about my own assault that took place at UBC more than five years ago, one that I pushed as far into the recesses of my mind as possible so that I could focus on my doctoral degree.

I should say that deciding not to deal with that sexual assault more or less succeeded. To the outside world, anyway. In the years after my assault in 2011, I received federal funding for my scholarly work; I became a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues; I presented my work at numerous national conferences; I’ve published in top journals in my field; I’ve become a consultant on national and provincial anti-violence initiatives; I’ve sat on countless panels, given countless interviews, written countless articles. I passed my doctoral defence with only two typos as revisions. My C.V., which details the past six years of my doctoral career, reads almost flawlessly, as if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen.

A few weeks into the spring term of 2011, just over a year into my doctoral program, I was sexually assaulted in the graduate lounge of my department, by student who had recently graduated from the program. I will spare you the preamble and the gory details, not because I am ashamed, but because they don’t particularly matter, and I am, despite my public persona, an intensely private person. But what you need to know is that I was terrified. Having someone’s arm crushing your sternum, and very nearly your throat, will do that do you. And afterwards, I was lost. I sought help at the Sexual Assault Support Centre, which, at that time, was located at the back corner of the old Student Union Building, right on the edge of what used to be MacInnes Field. In order to get to the front door of the SASC, you had to walk through and past all of the SUB’s garbage and recycling bins. I hope I do not need to explain that the fact that accessing support services adjacent to the building’s trash disposals made me feel as though I, too, was trash. Having tried to report sexual assault during high-school (and getting nowhere) and reporting stalking in my time at SFU (and only getting a rape whistle and a pamphlet), I knew that I wasn’t about to try yet again to receive any sort of justice. So I said nothing. And I did my work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted, and as it turns out, wasn’t the last. Somehow, violence can take on a strange sense of ordinariness. It becomes a thing that just happens before you get back to work.

Except when you dream about it. Except when it affects every single moment of your life. Except when you’re in crowds, or small spaces, or big crowds, except when you don’t have a seat close to the exit in the room, except when someone frightens you. Except then.

If this is the way things are for me, I want things to be different for others.

Truthfully, I want to live in a world where sexual violence doesn’t exist at all, but if that can’t happen, I want to live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are supported and believed, and where there are robust systems of accountability for both perpetrators and institutions. I believe that the judicial system is flawed, and that we need better options for education and rehabilitation.

I know that I don’t have all the answers.

But what I know is this: I want to live in a world where my fellow survivors and allies do not have to file human rights complaints (Mandi Gray – York University, Glynnis Kirchmeier – University of British Columbia) against their institutions because they are being failed; where we do not have to go to the media because the schools we attend will not listen otherwise. I want to live in a world where survivors do not feel as if they have no choice but to drop out of school, as recently happened at Simon Fraser University. I want to live in a world where survivors, like Lizzy Seeberg, do not take their lives because they are, as Rehtaeh Parsons’ father put it regarding his daughter’s suicide, “disappointed to death” by systems that re-traumatize and re-violate survivors.

I know that the report will not fix everything.

Nor will the policy. Nor will all the blue phones in the world. Because horrible things still happen. Nor do I think everything at UBC is broken, either. There are many good people working in a complicated and often-broken system, one that is ultimately dependent on the fact that a university is not simply a place of learning, but also a business. There are already so many front-line workers (those at the SASC in particular, under the leadership of the incredible Ashley Bentley) and staff members who provide services to sexual assault survivors at UBC every day.

There are UBC faculty who have signed the petition demanding better for their students, and apologizing for not having done enough. They organized a fantastic day of discourse and dialogue around sexual assault in February of this year. I am grateful especially to other students who are doing such amazing work: the ones who worked tirelessly in the decades before I even arrived on campus, the ones who I have stood with in my own time as a student, the ones who take up the torch now. This journey has connected me to so many of you, not just at UBC, but across the country, and although we have come together under such awful circumstances, I am so glad and grateful to know you. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I know it’s such hard work. I keep a fire for you in my heart, always.

At the end of the day, I am not a faculty member, nor an administrator, nor a politician. I do not hold exceptional power within the UBC system. I am just a person who has been fortunate enough to hear stories that have been disclosed to me in whispers and private messages and phone calls. I am humbled by those stories, even as they keep me up at night, worried. I am just a person who has gone through some extremely difficult experiences, ones that I don’t care for anyone else to have to go through. That these experiences have occurred in the context of my schooling is painful; painful because school has otherwise been a place of joy for me, painful because sexual violence formed part of a curriculum I had no desire to have delivered to me. I have, as Raymond M. Douglas writes in his book On Being Raped, gained knowledge, but “not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better not to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me” (4). I could have happily gone through my educational career without these particular insights. I could even have written my dissertation on representations of sexual violence without the added expertise of lived experience.

Having finished my PhD, I now leave the hallowed halls of UBC behind, hoping that in some small measure, they have become a better place for survivors because I and others have spoken up, and because panels like the one I was privileged to be a part of are doing the work that they are doing. I am aware of the fact that the increased scrutiny of the university’s response to sexual assault has been a nightmare for students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike.

51OmLU9LfHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But I don’t think that the fact that UBC is currently under pressure to respond thoughtfully is a bad thing. Following the publication of his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer faced incredible amounts of backlash by the town of Missoula itself, by the University of Montana, and by the police force. As reported by Jacob Baynham on Outside Onlineone woman left this comment on Krakauer’s Facebook page: “I am so disappointed in the title of your book,” said one woman on Krakauer’s Facebook page. “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” But as Krakauer points out, Missoula is just one example of the epidemic of sexual violence across America. Missoula could just as easily be Stanford, could just as easily be here in Vancouver. But the conversation sparked by such intense scrutiny has, at least as far as is being reported, created actual change. After a town hall forum in Missoula, Baynham reports that Krakauer was asked if he’d send his daughter to the University of Montana. “I would,” he said. “I think the university is safer now than most schools. Missoula is a lot better than most places. You have this big problem, but you’ve gone a long way toward fixing it.”

I think that the University of British Columbia can be a Missoula: not the school to be made a painful and humiliating example of, but the school that paves the way for comprehensive change at all levels of administration and campus life, and does in a way that does not simply prioritize supporting sexual assault survivors because it will look like a better strategy for fundraising. Call me an idealist, but I think it’s possible. And there are so many people, myself included, who want to make that happen. There are countless people with whom our panel consulted of the course of our work. The university’s draft sexual assault policy has been released, and both campus and community stakeholders are invited to give feedback here.

But for now, I take my leave from my alma mater, look for brave new worlds. There is so much anti-violence work out there to do, and I will continue to do it. May the development of the UBC sexual assault policy and the action plan be an honest process, tempered by humility and by courage. For all of the survivors of sexual assault who live and work at UBC: I love you, I am in awe of you, I believe you.

Much luck and much love,

Lucia

Roll Call: On Violence and the Power of Naming

The teacher’s struggle:

at the start of each term

after I scan the class list

I fumble for weeks

mastering the correct pronunciations

and linking faces to their names.

Carefully crafting an archive,

always mindful of how often names are carelessly mangled

in the mouths and minds of those

who do not bother to ask how to say them

or to make an effort to remember.

It’s never just a name, you know.

It’s who you are.

It’s who you were.

It’s the one you chose,

or the one you were given.

It’s the one that marked a rite of spiritual passage,

or the one taken up when the Anglos couldn’t bother

to pronounce anything other than

John Smith.

It’s the one that your ancestors had,

the one passed on to you.

It’s what makes you stop—

and turn around.

and makes you smile

when it is spoken with love.

To deliberately forget a name,

to be unwilling to know it—

it and the life those syllables represent—

or to put it under a publication ban

when we all know full well

exactly who we are talking about

to act as if that is an act of protection

that’s violence.

It’s hard, I get it.

We’re all terrible with names, we say.

But even those of us who have to rummage

through the alphabet to recall

the name of an acquaintance,

we know what it is to scream that name in our hazy nightmares

to whisper it

to call it into a room, forgetting that there will be

no

answer.

I want you to say it.

Say her name.

Say their names, all of them.

Say Rehtaeh Parsons.

Say Loretta Saunders.

Say Rinelle Harper.

Say Tina Fontaine.

Say Amanda Todd.

Say Reena Virk.

Say Helen Betty Osborne.

Say Serena Abotsway.

Say Mona Lee Wilson.

Say Andrea Joesbury

Say Brenda Ann Wolfe.

Say Marnie Lee Frey.

Say Georgina Faith Papin.

Say Jacqueline Michelle McDonell.

Say Dianne Rosemary Rock.

Say Heather Kathleen Bottomley.

Say Jennifer Lynn Furminger.

Say Helen Mae Hallmark.

Say Patricia Rose Johnson.

Say Heather Chinnook.

Say Tanya Holyk.

Say Sherry Irving.

Say Inga Monique Hall.

Say Tiffany Drew.

Say Sarah de Vries.

Say Cynthia Feliks.

Say Angela Rebecca Jardine.

Say Diana Melnick.

Say Jane Doe.

Say Debra Lynne Jones.

Say Wendy Crawford.

Say Kerry Koski.

Say Andrea Fay Borhaven.

Say Cara Louise Ellis.

Say Mary Ann Clark.

Say Yvonne Marie Boen.

Say Dawn Teresa Crey.

Say Geneviève Bergeron.

Say Hélène Colgan.

Say Nathalie Croteau.

Say Barbara Daigneault.

Say Anne-Marie Edward.

Say Maud Haviernick.

Say Maryse Laganière.

Say Maryse Leclair.

Say Anne-Marie Lemay.

Say Sonia Pelletier.

Say Michèle Richard.

Say Annie St-Arneault.

Say Annie Turcotte.

Say Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Say Kristen French.

Say Leslie Mahaffy.

Say Tammy Homolka.

Say Breann Voth.

Say Marie-France Comeau.

Say Jessica Lloyd.

Say all the names I do not know

the ones we’ll never know, too,

and the ones not listed.

Say the names of our dead,

and those still alive.

Say the names you’ve never said before,

and the ones you’ve said a hundred times.

Scream them to those who refuse to listen;

whisper them in quiet acts of prayer.

Wave them like flags;

trumpet them as a call to arms.

Say them precisely because they, the ones who need to be called to account

know that to name is to refuse let to anyone get away with

the violence of forgetting.

Mother Tongues

[TW: This piece contains graphic mentions of violence and blood.]

"Cassandra" by Max Klinger (1857-1920)
“Cassandra” by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

We have inherited the mouths of our foremothers.

Sweet cupid’s bow; pursed lips.

Inside, our cheeks ragged from biting down on them

every time we are too afraid to speak.

Philomela, raped by Tereus.

Brave princess threatened to tell,

so he cut out her tongue.

It’s a good thing she knew how to weave

to thread her story somehow

and pass it along to her sister.

In the end they both nearly died,

preserved only as songbirds.

O, Philomela, you sing so sweetly now

but at the cost of your very humanity.

Cassandra, raped by Zeus.

It was he who bestowed upon her

the gift of prophecy in the first place.

But we women know too all well that little

comes for free in this business.

After brutalizing her body,

he added insult to injury:

speak your prophecies but be cursed never to be believed.

O, Cassandra, so many of your daughters

raise their voices aloud

but are driven to madness by knowing full well

they only ever echo back.

Lavinia, raped by Demetrius and Chiron.

They must have known she knew how to write

for after they forced themselves into her

they tore both her tongue from her mouth

and her hands from her arms.

“Let’s leave her to her silent walks,” they said.

O, Lavinia, blessed wretch

be their mutilation of flesh or of metaphor

how many of your sisters walk silently?

For if a rape occurs in the forest

—a bedroom, a house, a car, a classroom—

does anybody hear it?

Does it happen at all?

Our tongues are bloodied now;

we taste iron.

Tears fall, the salt-water mixes with our blood,

and we swallow.

We swallow it down,

great gulps of this silence.

Bitter as it is, many of us would prefer to drink it

knowing the poison others await to eagerly drop into our mouths

if we should ever dare

to speak.

Lost in Translation: What the Vancouver Transit Police Advertisement Teaches Us About Language Use

grammar_policeWhen I recently told an acquaintance that I study and teach in a Department of English Language & Literature, they commented that I must be a real stickler for grammar and vocabulary. In some ways, that’s true. Part of my job is to teach my students to write well and to communicate their ideas effectively. The truth is, however, that I’m much less interested in perfect grammar and spelling than I am in whether or not an idea or argument is conveyed as unambiguously and clearly as possible (especially in academic writing!). After all, even in my own academic and personal writing, I often flout the usual rules or expected usages of grammar. I often start sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” I don’t always use semi-colons or dashes properly (although I do try). Ultimately, however, the goal of my writing – and the ways in which I teach my students to write – is to make sure that as much as you can, you try to make sure that your audience knows exactly what you mean to say.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication does indeed have to do with grammar, as this wonderful and popular example illustrates.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication has to do with sentence structure and phrasing. It’s this type of issue, I believe, that lies behind the issues with a recent campaign by Vancouver’s Transit Police, as part of their ongoing series of campaigns and services designed to address harassment on public transportation. As you can see in this photograph, the poster suggests that “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame” – a phrase which seems to suggest that a failure to report assault is a primary source of shame.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.
Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Vancouver-based artist Anoushka Ratnarajah brought attention to the problems with the poster’s message via an Instagram post, and the story was soon picked up by Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and various other news outlets. The Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, issued a powerful statement to the Vancouver Transit Police. Playing on the phrasing of the poster itself, Hollaback! Vancouver’s response was that “we see something, and we’re saying something.” In the end, the Vancouver Transit Police issued an apology: as the CBC reports, they will be taking these posters down, and replacing them.

As was to be expected, perhaps, many of the commenters on social media have painted this pushback against the poster as just another example of “oversensitive feminazi crusading,” arguing that we live in a oversensitive and critical culture where even good-hearted gestures by authorities are being overly-harshly criticized. Just like the recent debates about whether or not so-called “trigger warnings” are useful or necessary, especially in a world where triggers and violence abounds anyway, it seems to be the case that those who have complained or criticized (many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including incidents which have taken place on transit) are being characterized as merely reactionary, ungrateful, or sensitive.

To be clear, many of these commenters are missing the point, or choosing to ignore the ways in which activists have suggested that it is not the entirety of the poster, nor all of the Vancouver Transit Police’s initiatives that they take issue with. As Hollaback! Vancouver clearly states: “This is the text from a See Something Say Something Campaign, the real-time, easy-to-use, confidential, texting initiative launched in April by the Vancouver transit police. Transit users can report harassment by texting 87-77-77 and police are notified and can investigate as early as the next stop. This initiative is an important piece in supporting victims, but we hope transit police will reconsider the victim-blaming message sandwiched in their ad.”

More importantly, I think that many people are missing the fundamental problem: despite the VTP’s intentions, the ad is clearly not…well, clear. A very brief close reading – the kind I’d have my students do in my classroom – shows just how these ambiguities work, and how/why the critiques of this poster were justified.

1) Who is the audience?

The advertisement seems to be targeting both victims and bystanders, and does not necessarily make it easy to understand who is being addressed. While “if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong” can apply equally to victims and bystanders, the third line seems to focus primarily on the victim: “nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything to YOU.” The last line, the “see something / say something” slogan, seems to suggest that the bystander (the person who may be witnessing an assault or instance of harassment) is being addressed.

2) What is the source of shame? Who is it placed on?

Because there are two different audiences being addressed, it becomes confusing as to who, exactly, the shame is meant to be placed on.

  • Is it meant to be the bystander, who sits/stands by and does nothing?
  • Does this assume that the bystander CAN or should intervene physically? Or is the shame, as phrased, in not reporting after the assault?
  • Are bystanders meant to feel shame for not reporting an assault on a passenger?
  • Is shame actually a productive way of forming a community of care?
  • Or, as many others, including myself, have pointed out, is it intended to reach the victim? Should victims feel shame for not reporting their assaults, and, presumably, not “helping to prevent” future assaults?
  • Again: is shame a productive or useful way to get victims to report or seek help?

I hope it’s evident, at this point, that you can unpack a lot of issues with audience and intended meaning just from one short phrase. That, after all, is the power of language: a lot can be said with very few words. The next step, however, is to figure out how this poster can avoid some of these communicative problems.

3) A simple question: how can we modify or re-write this phrase in order to have a less ambiguous and potentially harmful meaning?

A simple suggestion: “There is no shame in reporting sexual assault.”

As you can see, we haven’t taken shame out of the linguistic equation. We’ve simply rearranged it. After all, the problem isn’t using the word “shame”. Rather, it’s how, when, why, and where we use it. Articulating the fact that victims of sexual assault or harassment often feel shame is incredibly important to acknowledge. When it comes to street harassment, or incidents that are often perceived as “minor,” it’s easy for victims to feel ashamed, to worry that they won’t be taken seriously, to wonder if they provoked it. Shame and sexual violence too-often go hand in hand. As you can see, if you read through many of the stories collected by the Vancouver initiative “Harassment on Translink,” feelings of shame and guilt still abound.

It’s our job (all of us, including the authorities) to make an effort to make sure that we are recognizing the possible experience of shame, rather than suggesting (even inadvertently), that sexual assault survivors should feel a sense of shame for their inaction. We all want sexual assault and harassment to end, and we acknowledge that reporting can be, and clearly is, a part of that effort.

But I cannot say it enough: reporting sexual assault is NOT a victim’s DUTY. It is one option, and it is the absolute right of the survivor to choose whichever option is safest and best for them. It is all too easy for those who have never had to report, or for whom reporting may have been relatively easy and/or offered justice/healing, that it is a simple and necessary task.

Ultimately, what I take away from this incident is a difficult truth: despite the fact that we use it every single day—no matter which language we speak, read, or sign— language is a very tricky business. Whether it be from one language to another, whether it be from one context to another, whether it be from the way we understand something to the ways that others read, hear, or interpret it, we have all been in situations where our words have missed their mark. We all know what it’s like for something to get lost in translation. Sometimes, of course, we don’t realize it until someone’s pointed it out to us.

When we call others out for their use of language (whether their words are explicitly or implicitly harmful), many of us do it because we believe that change can happen. We believe that we can help to educate, to re-frame, or to re-think through a particular problem in how ideas are expressed. As the CBC’s interview with Constable Anne Drennan notes, this is precisely the outcome of the critiques and feedback that individuals and organizations offered:

“When the complaints began to arrive, they started looking at the ads from a different perspective, Drennan says.

“We [could] see where they are coming from,” she says.

The ads will be taken down over the coming days as cars return to service yards, Drennan says, and will be replaced by new posters with wording approved by an advisory council that includes representatives from women’s support groups. (CBC)

The old adage that “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us” is, as most of us know, patently untrue. We know the degree of injury can vary, depending on the language used, and depending on the individual who reads or sees the language in question. We know that our “intended” meanings may not necessarily be the received meanings, and it’s important to recognize that good intentions do not devalue or cancel out the harm that can be done. However, I firmly believe that with a greater understanding of the immense power of language (as well as the ability to speak and write about, well, how we speak and write!) we can use our words for great acts of compassion, education, and justice. sticksandstones

 

RESOURCES:

If you have a story to share about harassment/need resources:

Vancouver: Hollaback! Vancouver & Harassment on Translink

Vancouver Transit Police – check out their OnDuty App & find out about reporting via text message

Hollaback! International

Everyday Sexism

Stop Street Harassment

Where Art Meets Abuse: Terry Richardson and #AbuserDynamics

Content Warning: This post features graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

In my first year of university, I took an introductory theatre course. Having recently found my niche on the stage after four years of high-school drama classes, I was thrilled to be learning new acting techniques, to be dedicating myself to scene study, and to be collaborating with new actors. We worked in admittedly less-than-ideal conditions: the “temporary” spaces we were working in were more than 40 years old, trailers and buildings which had issues with mold, poor heating, and the occasional sounds of raccoons scurrying beneath the floorboards. But to us, to young actors who were keen to develop our craft, it was heaven. The small black-box theatre, in particular, was a place where countless generations of students had created original pieces of theatre, and had spent hours upon hours learning everything from mask work to Brechtian theories of theatrical “estrangement.”

A-Streetcar-Named-Desire-Poster.jpgOne of the major assignments of that first term was to perform a small scene with a partner. I was, admittedly, quite nervous. While I was (and still am) an avid performer, the type of person whose introversion and shyness is quelled only by the thrill of the stage, this was my first big scene with a new actor. My male acting partner and I had been given a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’re not familiar with the play, the climax occurs when the character of Blanche DuBois is raped by her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, an event which prompts Blanche’s psychotic break and her subsequent institutionalization. My partner and I were given a piece of the script that ends just before the actual rape, which, in Williams’ script, is not actually depicted onstage. It was difficult to perform, admittedly, as any high-tension piece of drama is, but it was not an actual rape scene. “Thank goodness,” I had thought.

At the final performance, as our scene was ending, my male acting partner scooped me up in his arms, as directed by the script. Unfortunately, he had lifted me up in a terribly awkward way, and the weight imbalance soon ended up with us falling to the floor, with him lying on top of me. That’s where the scene was supposed to end. We hadn’t rehearsed anything past that. At that point, I could only think about how mortified I was. All of that hard work, just for our final performance to end with a deeply embarrassing fall. The first thought going through my head in that instant was “oh my God, I must weigh a bajillion pounds if he can’t even lift me up without falling.”

But then, in a split second, everything changed.

Something happened that we hadn’t rehearsed, something that I wasn’t prepared for.

“Keep going as if you were raping her.”

I froze. There I was, lying on the floor of a theatre trailer, with my classmates looking on, with my scene partner lying on top of me (still in character, still angry, a vein starting to protrude from his heated forehead) and my acting professor was telling him to keep going, as though he were raping me. 

I struggled beneath him. At one point, I remember saying “those aren’t the lines,” not that I knew what the lines were. That’s the thing, there weren’t any lines. Remember – Williams does not feature the rape onstage. I remember feeling absolutely powerless, knowing that I wanted to get up and walk away, I wanted the scene to stop, I wanted to say “Cut! Scene over!” But I couldn’t. As an acting student, as a 17 year-old girl, I honestly didn’t think that I was able to say or do anything. Why?

I didn’t want to “ruin the artistic moment.” I didn’t want to be seen as not “tough enough” of an actor to improvise, to go to “dark places,” to test my boundaries and to push my limits.  Eventually, the professor put an end to the scene, and the next team took to the stage to perform their work. Nobody said anything to me. 

Needless to say, I was very rattled by this incident. But more than anything, I would say that I was pissed. I was livid that nobody had bothered to check in – with either of us – to see if we were okay with improvising a violent rape scene. I was fuming mad that it was merely assumed that I’d be fine with it, and that I hadn’t been given an option to opt-out. I was especially angry at my scene partner for not snapping the fuck out of character to ask me if I was okay before he grabbed at my clothes and pinned my arms over my head. 

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that incident in a long time. I realize, looking back, that my professor was terribly misguided and out of line, but very likely not intentionally abusive. It was, however, incredibly unsafe. It was dangerous. 

I was prompted to think about that that day, and about the very precarious and blurry line between danger and safety when it comes to art and performance, when I read New York Magazine’s recently profile of Terry Richardson, entitled “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” The article, which has been written in the light of numerous women coming forward to disclose their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at Richardson’s hands (including the phenomenal model’s-rights advocate Sara Ziff), takes a long look at Richardson’s career, his upbringing, as well as the numerous allegations against “Uncle Terry.”

As Jezebel’s Callie Beusman has cogently pointed out, the major problem with NYMag’s cover story is precisely the title’s implication that one is either an artist or a predator, that abuse and artistic production simply cannot co-exist in the same space. Beusman writes:

Phrasing the proposition in that way — as an either-or binary — is not only insultingly reductive, it’s also wildly misleading: as though it’s possible that the end product justifies the sexual coercion that created it, or that a respected photographer isn’t capable of preying on the women who pose for him.”

Many of the comments on the NYMag article, however, continue to suggest that Richardson’s models should have “known what they were getting into,” that they should have been able to put a stop to things when, for instance, Richardson whipped out his penis and pressed it to models’ mouths, or, with his penis already exposed, asked the models for hand-jobs.

On the one hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is partially due to a continued failure to understand the dynamics of abuse. As the very recent Twitter hashtag #AbuserDynamics so painfully illustrates, abuse (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological) isn’t a simple case of suddenly being raped, beaten, or emotionally terrorized. Abuse works best, as abusers themselves know, when victims are either groomed to introduce abuse bit by bit, and/or in situations where victims are made to feel that their refusal or their protests will be seen as uncooperative, as the target for blame, or as damaging to their careers.

Marina Abramović performing "Rhythm 0". 1974.
Marina Abramović performing “Rhythm 0”. 1974.

On the other hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is due to the ongoing belief that art (especially “edgy” art) is that which has to push through, even violate the boundaries of actors and spectators. Certainly, art, whether theatre, performance art, or modelling, have long histories of using the body as a vehicle for unsettlement. Depicting the body in vulnerable or violent settings is not inherently antithetical to artistic expression, whether it be Caravaggio’s painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes” or the performance art of Marina Abramović, especially her 1970 piece “Rhythm 0,” in which Abramović allowed audience members to use 72 different objects on her body, including scissors, a scalpel, a gun, and a single bullet. Depicting the body as sexual, even explicitly, is also not necessarily antithetical to artistic expression. [Of course, there are important and necessary discussions to be had about the line between erotic depiction and exploitation, the line between attempting to represent rape/other violence, and the aestheticization or fetishization of violence (especially against women).]

Artists, whether they be actors, performance artists, or models, are well aware of the precarious balance between adequate preparation for a scene/shoot, and the need for improvisation and spontaneity to emerge as a means of accessing emotion, even when these performances or shoots involve vulnerability – especially nudity and scenes of violence. Even those performers who are part of scenes of extreme violence, such as rape scenes, describe the need for plenty of rehearsal, a safe environment, trust, as well as space for figuring things out in the moment. Each performer or model, too, has individual levels of comfort, and varying needs of the amount of time that they require to rehearse/prepare.

As Monica Bellucci stated in a 2003 interview with Film Monthly’s Paul Fischer about her performance in Irreversible, which features an incredibly brutal rape scene,

“I rehearsed the scene one day before so I knew very well all the positions because after the rape scene, there are all these violent moments. Those moments are really difficult because if you take something on your head, you’re going to die. So, I had to rehearse everything, but how I would shoot the scene, the feelings, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what I would have done five minutes before shooting, because it’s something, I think you have everything inside you. You just have to find it.”

Echoing Bellucci’s statements, Descent director Talia Lugacy notes with regards to the film’s rape scene featuring Rosario Dawson, that

“It was harrowing. You try to prepare yourself for something you know is going to be harrowing, but how can you? None of us really knew what this was going to feel like. We had four days to rehearse the whole movie. Rosario, Chad [Faust] and Marcus [Patrick] are brave, to their guts. […] You know, you don’t understand fully the risk you’re taking until on the day you do something of this nature and the question stares each of you in the face: how far out of your body will your honesty go, right now?”

I acknowledge that preparation is not always possible, especially when you are on a shoot with folks that you have only just met, or have only had one interview. It’s for that very reason that artists need to trust that their fellow artists, their directors, and their photographers will not use the context of performers’ vulnerability, especially physical vulnerability, as a means of abusing or assaulting them.

As Bellucci and Lugacy’s statements demonstrate, the factor of vulnerability, the descent into the unknown, is a big part of artistic production. While it may not involve such extreme levels of violence, all artists know how much trust collaborative processes require. It’s within – and only within – that context that art can be produced. When an actor signs on to do a rape scene in a movie, they need to trust that their fellow actor isn’t actually going to start raping them. When a model signs on to do any shoot – a nude art shoot, a bathing suit shoot, or a lingerie shoot, even an erotic shoot – that the photographer is not going to put his dick in their face unless that’s something they’ve talked about first.

Which brings me back, of course, to Terry Richardson.

What distresses me precisely about Richardson’s story, and the numerous stories of his sexual harassment and abuse that have emerged in the past few years, are the ways in which the discourse of “taking risks” and “being spontaneous” are being so carefully exploited, not only by Richardson himself, but by his assistants. And, more disturbingly, the allegations that abuse can’t occur on a set – within plain sight of others – is what allows people such as Richardson to do what he does without a care in the world, and, moreover, get accolades and millions of dollars for it. It doesn’t matter that Richardson has taken consensual images of other models and celebrities. It doesn’t matter that some models have, in their words, happily consented to graphic photographs of sex acts with him. It doesn’t matter that he has some work that we could call “art” (depending on what your opinion of art is, I suppose).

It matters that young women (especially women who are not protected by labour laws) are being abused. It matters that they are being coerced, manipulated, and assaulted, and that the language of “artistic expression” is being thrown in their faces as a means of victim-blaming.

Not only do Richardson’s actions affect his victims, but it is also horrendously damaging to artists who work hard to create safe spaces, and I think that photographers, directors, and artists themselves need to take a strong stand against these abusers within their communities, as Sara Ziff, Sena Cech, and so many other brave models have done.

Carré Otis has spoken extensively about the abuses she faced within the industry. Image via The Model Alliance.
Carré Otis has spoken extensively about the abuses she faced within the industry. Image via The Model Alliance.

Whether we are artists or activists, abuse that occurs within the context (or under the cover of) the spaces and the discourses that we treasure and defend (the theatre, the modelling industry, the social justice movement, just to name a few) is a double-betrayal. We trust that the people we are working with, creatively, will keep us safe. We trust that those in positions of power within those creative spaces will keep us safe. We need it all the more when we are challenging beliefs, when we are depicting violence, when we are modelling clothes – we need it at any point when our bodies are on the line.

At this point, I’m not sure what will happen to Terry Richardson. Like many other abusers within artistic spheres, his career continues to flourish, and he continues to receive accolades. As with the Roman Polanskis of the world, there will be people who continue to say things like “but he made such great films/photographs/whatever.” And that’s even if you think that Richardson’s highly overexposed images are “artistic.” Abusers are not lacking support in our world, whether they be photographers, directors, athletes, or politicians.

At the end of the day, what this latest story about Terry Richardson has reminded me is that in my view, art is much like sex. If it’s not consensual, if it’s not produced within conditions of safety, then we shouldn’t call it art, but rather, we ought to call it what it is: abuse.

———————–

Relating Reading/Resources (Content Warnings For All Of These):

Summer School on #AbuserDynamics, hosted by Suey Park and Lauren Chief Elk, featuring @bad_dominicana

Anonymous article via Black Girl Dangerous about abuse by feminist “allies.”

A Timeline of Allegations Against Terry Richardson, by Hannah Ongley at Stylite

Your Words are Not Victimless: Rape Culture and David Choe’s “Bad Storytelling”

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.

BooksIn my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.

As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt. 

One such story, one such incidence of the absolute violence of words, is one that was recently told by graffiti artist David Choe, on a podcast that aired in March of 2014.

I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.

As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.

According to Choe, none of this actually happened.

Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”

Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beast here.]

To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of  the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.

The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.

It’s JUST art.

It’s JUST a story.

It’s JUST harmless fun.

I’m JUST kidding.

All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.

from RAINN.org
from RAINN.org

Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.

The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself? 

I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.

Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.

Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).

Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.

“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.

Running the Gauntlet: Thoughts on the Legacy of the Montréal Massacre

Marker of Change Women's Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)
Marker of Change Women’s Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.

The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.

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As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.

december6_DSC_2918And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued? 

I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.

I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.

But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.

Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.

And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.

1441307_10151724417901829_1385872681_nBut ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.

Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.