(Warning: This post contains discussions of sexual assault. Practice self-care as needed.)
Nearly 7 years ago, I co-founded a group dedicated to creating a sexual assault centre at Carleton University.
Today, that centre opened.
I am filled with a whole hell of a lot of emotions.
In 2007, I started my Master’s in Canadian Studies at Carleton University. I’d been doing support work at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa for about a year and was a TA in Women’s Studies. That very September, a womyn was attacked and sexually assaulted in a lab late at night.
It was a brutal attack from a complete stranger. It made national headlines and had the entire campus on high alert. A creepy sketch of the suspect covered campus. People were rightfully, terrified.
I was TAing with an amazing womyn who came from the University of Alberta, which has a sexual assault centre on its campus. I distinctly remember that first meeting where she said “We should throw our weight behind the sexual assault centre. The phone is surely ringing off the hook”. I replied that Carleton had no such centre. Having only ever gone to Carleton (where I did my undergrad), I didn’t even know SASCs on campuses were a thing.
The rest, as they say, is herstory.
You can read our full story here. But what that story won’t include and what I’ve never publicly talked about until now, is my own experience.
Although I’ve been an ‘activist’ for a solid decade, it was the last 6-7 years that really solidified my experience as an activist, advocate and organizer.
Being a part of the Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Centre has completely changed my life; for better and for worse. Being a part of this group and doing this work has taught me more about feminism than anything I ever learned in my entire 4 year degree in Women’s Studies.
I learned a great deal about myself, too. I learned that I loathe collectives with a burning passion. I learned that I am most comfortable in a leadership position. I learned that I have infinite patience, often to the point of my own detriment.
With the Coalition, I learned the very important lesson that wolves really do arrive in sheep’s clothing. Namely, that you should never assume that just because someone is a womyn and/or identifies as a feminist, that they are an ally.
In 2009, the womyn who was assaulted in 2007 in that infamous attack in a lab, sued Carleton University for damages. Because they didn’t have functioning safety cameras, they were not able to get a proper description. Because Carleton did not provide adequate support services, Jane Doe’s grades suffered. And because Carleton failed to make the campus safe, she was attacked. You can disagree with Jane Doe’s lawsuit. Many intelligent, legitimate allies have disagreed and I support their right to do so.
What I did not support then and what I will forever refuse to accept is Carleton’s response to her lawsuit.
In their legal defense (a copy of which I have, lest you think I am exaggerating), Carleton University stated, amongst other things, that Jane Doe was responsible for her own assault because she failed to take adequate measures to protect herself. Translation: Your own fault, honey.
Two years into our battle for a centre on campus, I still had not been granted a meeting with Carleton’s President. This moment was my last straw. So, I sent her an e-mail asking to meet, once and for all, to finally hear from her directly. Why are you so opposed to a centre on campus? Why won’t you hear us out? How in the world could you possibly let that legal defense statement get issued? Why did you drag Jane Doe through the courts for 8 months? How can you possibly still be teaching in Women’s Studies with these views?
I got that meeting.
Thanks to the sheer brilliance of an ally whose friendship I will forever cherish, I brought someone with me. I wasn’t going to; I’d asked for a one-on-one meeting, so it felt unethical to show up with a buddy. I’m so grateful for the advice. So, I brought someone with me. A faculty member, in fact. And in front of that faculty member, the President sat me down in her office, folded her arms and asked me to pick up the dictionary and read her the definition of libel. When I refused, she insisted. She continued to insist until finally, she rose sharply, walked over to the dictionary, picked it up and read it to me, as though I was an insolent child.
Thus set the tone for an hour or so meeting in which she did everything from accuse me of perpetuating the stereotype that womyn can’t get along to accusing me of using Jane Doe’s assault for my own personal gain. She threatened to ruin my reputation and ensure that nobody ever hired me. This went on and on.
Not once did I ever get a clear answer as to why she was so opposed to a sexual assault centre on campus.
I’ve never gotten that answer.
I left that meeting completely stunned, but my true disillusionment came from within; from my own comrades.
Besides the threat of legal action from the president of a multi-million dollar institution, I went on to be threatened, disrespected and quite frankly, shat on by other activists, community members and feminist-identified faculty members.
I’m still a member of the Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Centre. I’m still a support worker on the support line. I still host workshops and trainings, speak to the media and mobilize on campus. My time there will end soon, but I am there now as I was in 2007.
My president threatening me with a lawsuit and in turn, proving to me how much power she held over my academic future never made me want to quit. Not once. What made me want to quit were my so-called allies who would spend hours and hours drafting horribly oppressive e-mails talking in circles about issues that could have easily been resolved if people had simply addressed the person in question right off the bat, rather than letting things fester through the rumour mill.
What made me want to quit were student politicians who called themselves an ally to our cause only to get elected and then drop us like it never happened.
What made me want to quit were those who had no time to do support line shifts but had innumerable hours to spend smack talking their colleagues in a meeting.
What made me want to quit was the realization that many, many campus activists are most interested in street cred and oppression olympics than doing the actual work.
What made me want to quit was the sheer hypocrisy of countless feminist-identified faculty members who would sit idly while we begged for their assistance but then approach me and whisper “Great work! Keep it up”. Far too many people with power stood by and let us go to slaughter because they cared more about keeping the peace than fighting for survivors on campus.
I spent 18 straight months on call every four hours. Every four hours of every single fucking day I had to transfer the line to the next person on call because we were so broke we couldn’t afford another system. Christmas Day, birthday, wedding, random Sunday afternoon. Every four hours, on the dot, I had to transfer the line to the next support worker and often, that meant tracking said person down. This meant always being within cellphone range. This meant not being able to go to the movies or taking a class between shifts, lest I was unable to transfer the phone. Until we were able to afford a new system, I spent 18 months tethered to that phone like a goddamn shackle.
Google my name and Carleton and you’ll find plenty of reasons why I should have given up.
I don’t know why I’ve stuck with it. Perhaps I’m too stubborn for my own good. Perhaps my own ego stopped me from quitting and in turn, proving the haters right. Perhaps it mattered that much to me.
I suppose this is the part where I’m supposed to say that “I never thought this day would come. I never thought we’d see a centre at Carleton”. But I did. I had to believe this day was possible, otherwise why wake up every single day and fight the same fight, over and over?
I never thought it would be so hard. I never thought I’d burn so many bridges; make so many enemies; hear so many horror stories; have so many sleepless nights. I never thought that the same people that I worked with so closely for years would become ghosts to me. I never thought it would take so many years.
But I always knew this day would come. I always believed.
When my words head for the clouds,
Will you have my back?
We were good children.
Darling, let it out.
Well, I am I am, I am I am a goddamn believer. – Cold Specks
Visit Julie’s original blog post here – http://www.yellowmanteau.com/blog/103-i-am-a-goddamn-believer.html