*Trigger warning this post discusses sexual assault.
EDITORS NOTE: The author has chosen to post anonymously; a decision we respect and admire. Let us not turn her story into a conversation about who it was and who did it, but focus on the greater problem, which is that it happens here too. We all have a responsibility to confront injustice.
Everything happened in April. The last party of the school year before we buckled down for exams. Like a good houseguest, I had brought a bottle of wine to share. I drank from my mug of white wine keenly and with purpose, as boozy future lawyers engaged in lubricated conversation quantifying the remaining weeks in the school year – how much had to be revised, how much had to be written, how many days stood between now and freedom. This is when my one or two glasses became one or two glasses too many. My sense of presence left me.
I remember asking a trusted sort-of-friend and fellow 1L for a ride home. And I remember being surprised that he was able to drive. He didn’t really have anything to drink, he told me. He didn’t want to go over the legal limit and he didn’t want to break the law. Well, that law, anyways.
I don’t remember the drive home, I don’t remember unlocking my front door, and I don’t remember letting him into my house. I remember all the lights being on and feeling like I was on an examining table. I had to rely on bruising and physical sensation and not my own memories to determine whether we had actually had sex.
After it happened, I called my closest friend in law school. She answered the phone and I was tasked with coming up with a sentence to explain my reason for calling. And that was the first time I cried about what had happened. The thing that had happened to me was rape.
While at my friends’ home, I received an inbox notification on Facebook, and it was him. Still reeling from trauma and confused about what had happened, he decided that he had a right to enter my space. At first I could see that he was trying to make sure I didn’t think he’d sexually assaulted me.
Still a law student.
Still in law school.
Life goes on.
Claiming My Right to Space
As a law student, you don’t get to separate your work life from your personal life. The people who you see in class are the people who you see at social events. They’re the people you’ll encounter at the gym, in the library, at coffee shops, and while walking to school. They’re also the people who you must choose from to fill your support network. And when there are only about a hundred and sixty of you, your actions and presence are always on display. One hundred percent visibility one hundred percent of the time. I liken it to being locked in a room with your coworkers for 3 years nonstop. Nothing is eraseable and everything sticks. All of it becomes a part of the narrative your colleagues draw upon when assessing your worth and what you bring to the table, and I didn’t want this on my rap sheet.
My parents drove from Toronto to Windsor to pick me up that day itself.
My parents must have wondered why I was crying to them on the phone about being unable to handle a throat infection. I’m guessing they assumed it was exam stress. They didn’t press me any further.
I also deferred an exam for the first time in my academic career after that incident. I remember staring at my petition and feeling like someone else had written it. My stated reasons for deferring were of so little consequence compared to what had actually happened; what I didn’t want to name. Thank God I had another reason to defer an exam. Would I have even gotten a deferral otherwise? How much of my experience would I have needed to share to earn the right to deal with my trauma and not Trusts? Would it have looked bad if I revealed that I had been drinking alcohol? Would I get more exams deferred if I had sustained physical injury? Would naming my attacker and starting a process be ‘advisable’? I had no idea, but the thought that a committee might quantify my trauma made me feel like vomiting.
There’s almost more violence in the idea of bringing such a matter to an Academic Status Committee than there is in reporting the sexual assault to the police. The latter is about making your attacker accountable for how they have wronged you. The former is converting your trauma into currency and terminology that you inevitably have to use to purchase your right to process and grieve.
The terms we have to name our experiences are as varied as the experiences themselves. Sometimes victim-chosen terminology is compatible with ‘official’ definitions, but often they are not. Yet, these are the terms that people listen to, that are seen as significant and important. These are the terms that demarcate the parameters inherent in converting a violence done to another human being into something triable.
This experience would have made more sense to me if I were still a sexual assault centre volunteer enrolled in gender studies. When I existed within that space I had ownership of the terms I used to define sexual assault. Yet there I was, a mere 18 months removed from my feminist undergraduate degree, looking up supreme court decisions and reading the criminal code in search of ‘correct’ answers about what I had experienced. I never doubted that I was right, but I wanted to know that others would think I was right too.
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault”
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault & capacity & consent”
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault & legal profession”
Quicklaw Search: “sexual assault & no consent obtained”
I am still trying to forgive myself for allowing these search results to provide me with a modicum of closure. In just under one year I had learned to devalue my own definitions and trust what was ‘official’ and ‘accepted’. I kept thinking back to a methodology paper I wrote on the value of qualitative research when discussing sexual assault.
In writing this post I want to reclaim my definitions and apply them to what’s happened to me here. Framing what happened to me as an individual experience of sexual assault is like calling a forest fire a series of burning trees, to borrow the phrase from University of Ottawa Law Professor Teresa Scassa’s article entitled Violence Against Women in Law Schools. I want to point out that this article was written the year some of the 1Ls were born, and should not still be relevant. But it is.
I think that our law school has a violence problem that isn’t encapsulated by any standard outlined in the criminal code. I believe that my experience is on a spectrum of gender violence that is manifested in incidents that reinforce rape culture.
…when male law students are overheard rating and ranking the attractiveness of their female counterparts in the pit.
…when male students have nicknames for female students based on their STIs.
…when a female student makes a announcement in Property about the Charity Fashion Show, and a male student hollers that she ‘give us a fashion show right now’.
…when a guest lecturer thinks this:
These are all occurrences that lie on a spectrum that every law student is implicated in perpetuating or reversing.
Past, Present, and Future
I ended up deferring another exam that April. Two experiences of trauma, two petitions to the Academic Status Committee. I was assaulted on April 7th, and I returned to Windsor ten days later to write an exam on April 17th. On Saturday, April 20th at five in the morning, I received a call from my sister – our mother had had a heart attack. She was critical, and being transferred from a regular hospital to a heart hospital. I took a five hundred dollar cab ride from Windsor to Toronto and stared at my phone screen the entire time, willing it to stay black. My mother was fine, but from that point onwards there was no more space for my trauma. I was spending 8-hour days at the hospital for two weeks, downloading my mother’s favourite shows on a tablet, playing travel scrabble, and making sure her mental health was okay. I was able to support her through her trauma only by suppressing my own.
Why am I coming forward with this now, one year to the week after it happened? For many reasons. One, is that I feel I owe it to the courageous women who have carved out this space for students to disclose and heal and hurt and mobilize. I want to support what these women are doing to break the silence. Another reason is that this writing process is providing me with closure. I include the very personal story involving my family to explain why I never received closure, why I never processed. I still have problems walking through the pit, I still have to take nights off and self-care when I see my attacker. What you have just read is not a part of my history- it is a part of my reality as one specific student in this specific law school. Now that I have written this post I am leaving Windsor for two weeks. I need to study and this process has triggered me in a way that makes this campus unsafe for me right now. This is the reality of trauma and sexual assault, and this is how one of your colleagues is dealing with it given the circumstances that we have all created by saying what we say and doing what we do in this bubble that we all call home. Windsor Law can stop being an unsafe space, I believe that. But that takes time. And we all need to be accountable for making things better. We all need to be accountable for creating a space where survivors feel safe enough to break their silence.