You don’t know me but I want you to know that you were my tipping point.
The story that I am about to tell is an unfortunately familiar tale. It could be any law school in North America. It was my third year and while I didn’t intend to ‘mail it in’, my course selection was secondary to my weekend trip with my girlfriends to Chicago. You came into my life just after that trip. I don’t know much just that you were at a party, you were drinking and you didn’t consent. He faced zero consequences.
To be fair, the people who knew about it were angry but they felt trapped by a lack of options.
When I heard about your situation I was outraged. This is not the first time I was angry about something like this but this time felt different, this time it was my tipping point. On reflection I’m not sure why this particular event pushed me into action.
Why wasn’t it the summer before I left for university when one of the strongest and most rational people I know called me sobbing explaining that she was assaulted by a ‘friend’ at a party and no she wouldn’t tell anybody because who would believe her?
Why wasn’t it in my third year of university when a close friend received an e-mail from a man she worked with saying he dreamed he raped her? When she disclosed the e-mail to her boss(es) they expressed sympathy. That’s it.
Why wasn’t it when a woman I considered family, fearing pregnancy after an assault, asked me to go to the pharmacy with her for Plan B? When we arrived she couldn’t speak so I asked the pharmacist (a female) for the drug. She directed me to the condom rack and asked if I’d ever heard of them before. My friend, who stood beside me, cried.
Why wasn’t it in my graduate studies program when I spent 10 months reading about sexual assault and violence against women all over the world and the largely ineffective international response to the issue?
Why this time?
On some level I could relate to this event, I had an intimate understanding of what it was like to not be believed and pushing me to my tipping point were the stories of the women I discussed above. I guarantee that any person reading this can relate to one of these stories. Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and yet, the appalling lack of institutional and often individual responses to these issues makes us feel as if maybe we are dreaming, or making this up.
Gunpowder meet fuse.
I was in law school and I thought things should be different. To sit by without doing something felt about the same as allowing a patient to bleed out in the atrium of a medical school.
If somebody was going around and breaking legs we would do something about it; we would put a cast on the leg, we would teach those with broken bones how to move around on crutches and we would ensure that the leg breaker faced consequences.
Here’s what we wouldn’t do. We wouldn’t tell you to keep your broken leg a secret. We wouldn’t expect you to heal on your own. And we sure as hell wouldn’t make you believe that maybe you broke your own leg.
Finally, my tipping point was directly related to my confidence. In first year I was unsure of my place. I was made to believe that my reputation was inherently linked to my opinions. To have an opinion distinct from the mainstream was to risk social and professional isolation. I recognize that reputation and credibility are important to success as a lawyer but why is that affected by speaking up? Unfortunately, I think the pressures of the civility movement are especially detrimental to women and what it means to have a ‘good reputation.’
I revisited those same fears in writing this: would a future employer not want to hire me because I was too ‘outspoken’ or, god forbid, a ‘man hater’? Would they think I had an agenda that I would bring to my job?
Note to any future employer who may be reading this: I don’t hate men, I have never burned my bra (that sounds expensive/law school was not cheap) and my only agenda is to wake up feeling like I did the right thing. (I realize I have made this point before but it seems worth reiterating).
There is something to be said for being secure. Professor Alice Woolley, former Supreme Court of Canada clerk, lawyer and tenured professor wrote about her own experiences with sexual harassment. She explained that one of the reason she came forward now was because she was secure enough professionally and personally to disclose her experience. Her piece was courageous and important but I could not help but feel overwhelmingly sad. It added to my fear that speaking out before I had any of that same security would impact my future. The closest I would ever come to the SCC was their website. If a former clerk felt suffocated by barriers perhaps a 25 year old not-even-called to the Bar-yet-but-thank-god-for-an-articling job ought to keep her mouth shut?
I recognize that in shrugging off this fear I am trusting that my future colleagues will not think less of me or at the very least will not behave in a retributive fashion. I am taking a risk and I’m at peace with that. At least I am while I write this – when it hits the Internet I may be less confident.
I could not wait this time because when my tipping point came it was clear that the moment was now.
So friend, I want to thank you. Thank you for your courage and for speaking up.
Thank you to the brave women who have entrusted me with their experiences, including those not mentioned in this piece. You inspire me. You push me to do more. You contributed to my tipping point and you are the reason this blog exists.
Tipping points are never a guarantee of change but they are a powerful catalyst for action. What’s your’s?