*Trigger warning this post discusses sexual assault.
On March 5th the University of Windsor Faculty of Law will be hosting a sexual assault awareness day that emphasizes breaking the silence. In the days and weeks leading up to this event I have often been asked why such a day is necessary. I have also reflected on whether #lawstudentsbreakthesilence is really the best way to conceptualize the issue. For me, this day has been 6 years in the making.
You see, one time I was a 19 year old university student who got drunk, let a guy convince her that he could not find his way home and allowed him to ‘crash’ on her couch. What happened next was confusing. You see he wasn’t that drunk, he knew his way home as demonstrated by his ability to walk there the next morning, and he didn’t want to just ‘crash’. It wasn’t the worst thing that could ever happen as he would retort months later, “it wasn’t like [he] raped [me].’ He’s right, he didn’t. It nonetheless left me feeling ashamed. The weird thing is that in the back of my head, I knew that he didn’t want to crash, but he was a varsity athlete, and I was an insecure 19-year-old girl. I was afraid to not be ‘nice,’ I was afraid of being ostracized, I was concerned that to act differently would be to overreact.
The next day, I went to my friends to talk about what happened and they told me I should go to the Campus Police. When we got there I lied. I told the officers that I was working on a paper involving sexual assault – and I wanted some information. They started to question me about my paper, I fell apart and left.
I was a Resident Assistant at the University of Windsor and that night I was in my room hanging out with a friend. One of the girls in my building came into my room crying hysterically she had been sexually assaulted by a stranger as she walked home. I took her to the Sexual Assault Centre and the next day to Campus Police who called Windsor City Police. Three days later the police showed up at my door and told me that if I continued to lie to them I could be held criminally responsible. The theory? I told this student to make up a sexual assault for my paper. I, of course, wasn’t writing a paper. I lied because I was confused. I kept asking myself if I was being over-dramatic. I blamed myself for what happened because I thought I was ‘smarter’ than that.
To this day, I still struggle.
I continued to experience the feelings of shame, that I was the liar, as the the police had called me, while at the same time feeling confident that my discomfort with the situation was instinctively valid. Through this I realized that women needed more information about how to access resources if they are sexually assaulted. I often wondered how universities could improve their policies to make accessing support easier. As a Resident Assistant and active member of the university community I realized that sexual assault and violence impacted many of my colleagues and friends. Then I came to law school.
As it turns out, law school was my call to action. When you ask me why we should break the silence, I think of my summer at the Crown Attorney’s Office when a sexual assault complainant’s mother asked me if I ever thought her daughter would be whole again. I think of the women in my life who have disclosed a terrible experience and then said, ‘well it’s not like he broke the law’. I think of the cross-examinations I have witnessed where defence attorneys seem to rely on stereotypes about female complainants to destroy their credibility; “you’re a smart girl” they say “why didn’t you come forward sooner?” or “you’ve taken health class, you know the difference between good touching and bad touching. Why would you let somebody abuse her for so long?” Why do law students need to break the silence?
We need to recognize that sexual assault still happens in law school. We need to understand and talk about the stereotypes that continue to prevent women from coming forward. We are entering a profession where we will interact with complainants and accused and need to understand how to navigate that ethically. We need to talk about it because we can do better. We need to break the silence because my couch crasher is not a ‘bad guy.’ He is not inherently evil. He and I were born and raised in a hyper-sexualized culture where ‘no means yes’ is a joke we chant. We both could have benefited from education like the Bystander program that addresses these issues. We need only look at recent media stories to understand that sexual assault and rape culture is a problem on university campuses: University of Ottawa’s hockey team was just suspended for sexual misconduct; the President of their student federation was recently subject to sexual harassment by five of her colleagues, a situation she handled with elegance and grace.
Talking about it may not be for everybody; I know first-hand that confronting our unique experiences may be hard. Breaking the silence will not end sexual assault, but it is the start of an important conversation. To my colleagues who have helped me organize this day, thank you. I have explained why I think it’s important to break the silence, but I am not the only voice. I am joined by a chorus of incredible men and women, in my family, in my friendships, in my undergraduate and graduate studies, in the legal profession who have equally demonstrated a commitment to this cause and who inspire me. Together, we need to do more because there is so much work to be done.
Today #lawstudentsbreakthesilence so that one day breaking the silence won’t be a ‘one day’ it will be an everyday.
Yours in solidarity & love,