Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault and self-harm.
I have spent the last two years in a fight, struggling to accept that I have been sexually assaulted by another student, and that I am worthy despite what has happened to me. The first year, the fight was with myself, and I won; the second year, it was with McGill, and I lost miserably. It has become abundantly clear to me that, following the shameful example set by the Canadian justice system, McGill breeds predators, lacks adequate mechanisms to support its students, and refuses to put any in place. And in the past year, I have watched myself fall through its cracks.
In the first few months after the assault, I was in denial. I couldn’t even tell my therapist what had happened to me — she still doesn’t know. I spent most of my days sleeping, drinking, and smoking. I dodged my family. I regularly watched entire seasons of shows on Netflix in mere days. I had unpleasant sex with random people as I desperately attempted to regain control over my body. I took handfuls of Advil just to feel numb. I gained weight. I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to read a single page of a course reading in one sitting. I was weeks behind in my classes, and ended up withdrawing an entire semester worth of credits. I was toxic to my friends, and I wondered if killing myself would make them feel the pain that I was living with every day.
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It’s been almost two years. I still have to leave my classrooms whenever sexual assault is brought up without warning, and I regularly puke after seeing rape scenes in movies. Some days my anti-depressants don’t drug me enough to be able to walk across campus without panicking at the sight of every white man I see. I avoid certain buildings on campus that he frequents. I still cannot verbalize how it happened, though I still see it projected on the ceiling over my bed at night. Those are the most vivid memories I have of anything I’ve ever been through. Some days I remember something new: a colour, another object in his room, another word that was exchanged. Some days I wonder if it was all a bad dream.
No, I won’t tell you “what happened,” because it shouldn’t matter. Because your next question shouldn’t be about how I acted, or what I wore. Because you shouldn’t be evaluating the morality of his act of rape based on what I did before or after it happened, because you should trust women — and science — when we speak of the nature of memory, abuse, self-hatred, and trauma.
But since I’m going to be accused of lying no matter what, I will tell you this: let’s assume I have made this all up, for attention, for “revenge,” or any of those goals that women are supposedly so desperate to achieve that they resort to publicly lying about rape. McGill had no way of knowing that my story was false. They treated me the way they would treat a “perfect victim” that is raped at gunpoint in a dark alley wearing a skirt and shrieking in resistance. Now, may I continue?
Rape in a “McGill context”
In the first week of the Fall 2015 semester, following the instructions I received from an administrator, I went to see a disciplinary officer (DO) to file a cease-and-desist order against my assailant. Let’s call him C. This order would not get C expelled, since sexually assaulting another human being is not reason for expulsion at this institution — though plagiarism is — or have any effect on him after he graduated. It would only prevent him from contacting me, and to me, that was enough. I was afraid of running into him, being harassed, receiving booty calls or replies to my comments on public McGill-related Facebook groups or pages. But, really, I shouldn’t have to justify why I want the reassurance of not having to hear a word from the person that sexually assaulted me for as long as he is a McGill student.
The first thing that I asked the DO was whether C had graduated. She told me that this information could not be disclosed, not even if I filed a sexual assault case against him. It seemed as if my safety on campus, for which McGill is responsible, mattered less than a rapist’s confidentiality. I hastily messaged a friend that knew him. He was still on campus.
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“What happened?” The DO asked as she sat back and crossed her arms, not mirroring my body language at all — which is what you would do if you’ve been trained in active listening — but actually asserting her power. If only what happened was that easy to remember and retell. As I collected myself and shifted my focus to the grimmest day of my life, I requested a more specific question.
Did it happen on McGill property? No.
Did it happen at a McGill event? No.
Apologizing, she stated that since the incident hadn’t taken place in a “McGill context” (meaning on McGill property or at a McGill-related event), there was not much that McGill could do. This policy is bizarre, unrealistic, and inapplicable to our university, where the majority of students do not live in a “McGill context.” Next time I’m getting sexually assaulted, I should have said, I’ll make sure to pause so we can move it to Rez or a couch in a student lounge — if that’s what it takes to have McGill acknowledge my pain and address my needs. How convenient for McGill to only take responsibility for students’ conduct toward each other when it occurs on its own property, and ignore the impact of students’ off-campus interactions on their academic performance and safety on campus.
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The DO went on to justify this policy by comparing my mental and bodily integrity to an inanimate object: if I had my backpack stolen by a McGill student off campus, I was informed, the hands of the administration would be tied. I am a person, not a backpack, I should have said, and I would be happy to give her my backpack — tens of backpacks, actually — just to undo what happened to me. But instead I bit my tongue. I bit my tongue enough times at that meeting that it bled.
A cease-and-desist order against C could only be imposed until a tribunal, after which point it would expire, she told me. I would lose the tribunal for not having been sexually assaulted in a “McGill context,” I was informed, and I surely wouldn’t want to give C the pleasure of knowing that McGill couldn’t do anything for me? I was having a head rush. I said, I don’t know, I guess. My bodily integrity had been taken away from me; now, with her suggested advice, it seemed that so had my ability to make my own decisions about how to respond to this situation.
“I don’t mean he’s going to rape you again”
The DO asked me if there was a reason I didn’t file a police report. Yes, I should have said, because of people like you. But I was speechless at the DO’s ignorance of the reality of the criminal (in)justice system’s treatment of survivors. She told me that there is a staff member in Security Services that could tell me honestly and confidentially if my case could have any legal weight. Except that I already knew it didn’t.
She asked me why I had waited an entire year to file a report, as if the passing of time delegitimized my experience. She asked if any recent interaction with C had triggered me. I was already on trial. Sorry, I should have said, next time I get raped I’ll make sure the first thing I do immediately after is to run to your office. She didn’t seem to know that you have to take time to heal to even be able to utter the word “sexual assault” while talking about yourself.
She asked if I had a fear of C harming me. She generously clarified, “And by harm I don’t mean if he’s going to rape you again.” When I heard the word “rape,” which I had not used at that meeting nor verbally in any other context to describe my experience, I started scratching my thighs over and over, until I could feel the dead skin gathering underneath my nails. I don’t think so, I said, thinking back to the last time I had a nightmare of that incident.
Then she asked me if C had contacted me lately at all, and when I said no, she asked me why I was there. I didn’t know why I was there anymore either. I said, “You realize that he is still out there, doing the same things.”
She replied, “Even if we kick him out, he may not be raping McGill women anymore, he’s still going to rape Montreal women.” Let me paraphrase: rape is tolerated in this institution because rape is everywhere.
She asked me, in a pitying voice, if I was seeking support. I was frustrated. I was there for concrete action, and I certainly hadn’t taken an entire year to process trauma only to go to a DO for mental health advice. Workshops on anti-oppression, active listening, consent, and allyship happen all over campus all year round, and I could tell that the DO had probably not attended a single one of those. Was she required to undergo such training before being trusted to meet with survivors of sexual violence?
I couldn’t get the phrase “rape you again” out of my head. I apologized and left the DO’s office in tears. I was ready to let go of the cease-and-desist order before I found out that I was in the same math class as C. There was another section available that I could switch into, but anyone who has ever taken a math class at McGill knows that it is common for students to attend other sections of a class or go to the office hours of the other sections’ professors and teaching assistants. Plus, I hadn’t done anything wrong, why did I have to be the person switching sections? Switching would have been an acceptance of C’s continued domination over my body. I couldn’t let him win. Trauma had turned my life into a competition. I wish I had switched, if only to spare myself from the suffering that was to follow.
For two weeks, I cried myself to sleep the nights before my math class and got over my anxiety by burning my ankles with cigarettes in the morning, only to spend the entire lecture scanning the room for C. I panicked every time someone entered the classroom. After class, I ran out of the room quickly and took stairs connected to other buildings to lower the chance of potentially running into him. I was afraid to stay after class for a clarification, of going to office hours, of walking into class late lest I’d have to be the centre of attention. This wasn’t sustainable.
In mid-September, I went to see a member of the senior administration. He had forwarded my email about a request for a meeting, which included a note about my sexual assault, to his secretary without my consent. The DO, I learned, had actually given me false information about what McGill could do for me. The administrator told me that he would meet with C and ask him to switch sections.
Despite sending him a reminder email two weeks later, he never contacted me about his meeting with C and the situation with my class. I shouldn’t have to justify why I didn’t send him more than one reminder to do his job, but I will. I had come to fear this email so much that I rarely even checked my McGill email anymore, afraid of being blamed, shamed, or accused of lying. This had dragged on for so long that the semester was about to end. If no meeting with C had taken place yet, there was little point in arranging one now. But also, in mid-November, C disappeared from the class list of both sections of my course. Had he withdrawn from the course? Had the administration removed him from the class list to fool me? Had he left McGill?
I didn’t go to class all semester, nor did I go to office hours or tutorials. I missed my midterm to write the make-up exam just to lessen the chances of being in the same room as C. I wrote my final exam in a state of panic expecting to see C at any minute. And I failed the course. My professor, although sympathetic, told me that he couldn’t raise my grade to a passing one since apparently being too afraid to go to class is a “matter unrelated to the course.” I wasn’t looking for an unearned raise, but perhaps another chance, some special considerations short of having to write a supplementary exam in May after my other finals.
In January, an advisor implied in an email to me that, since I had failed my math course, I was academically incompetent to take computer science courses. I told her all I needed was safety in my classes, and that if the administration had done their job right, I would have, too. She never replied. How many other stories of sexual assault are heard by the administration in this school and swept under the rug?
I didn’t have the mental or emotional stamina to pursue this any further. My friend contacted the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) on my behalf and corresponded with them throughout the semester as their volunteers met with the administration. While the administration was often incredibly unresponsive, I also took too long to decide how to proceed at different stages. I wanted to bury this story and never look back, not to remind myself of it over and over as I navigated the many ambiguities of McGill’s administrative channels. But I had to. I already had five “withdrawal” grades from the earlier semester on my transcript, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my future further by having a low GPA as well.
It was already spring break by the time the administration offered to negotiate accommodations with my SACOMSS representatives, but I couldn’t make a meaningful decision without knowing what information about me had been exchanged between the administration and C. The semester was going to be over in a few weeks. I was confused, lost, and tired.
Earlier in the semester, the administration promised to take care of having the F on my transcript E-flagged — meaning, even though it would still be on my transcript, the F would not affect my GPA. Later, they told me that it was my obligation to contact an advisor about my request and, aware of my experience but insensitive to it, suggested that I contact the same DO that I’d talked to earlier. I knew that if it was left to me, I would never be able to recount and relive my rape once more for another stranger, so my friend wrote the text of the email for me. Since I don’t have an assigned advisor, I sent this email to a general email address that could be read by any Arts advisors and god knows whoever else.
Despite a vague email an administrator sent me immediately after I called him out publicly on a Facebook event, I still have not been updated with meaningful details about my case. I don’t know if there is a cease-and-desist order against C in place and I don’t know when he graduates. After eight months of requests and reminders for accommodation and information, not only have I lost all trust in this administration, I would also not believe them if they communicated with me now.
No national legislation to protect survivors
In the U.S., Title IX, a portion of a law that forbids gender-based discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, often comes in handy when students protest their university’s disgraceful treatment of survivors on campus. In Canada, we don’t even have that. Here, universities are not even required to make statistical information about campus crimes public, a disclosure mandated in the U.S. by the Clery Act. In Canadian universities, the fate of survivors is entirely at the mercy of whoever happens to hold relevant positions in the administration, and the corporatization of our universities has stripped administrations of the decency required to treat their students as more than a mere revenue source.
Sexual assault is an unfortunate rite of passage for many young women. Rape happens here more often than we think, committed against people we know, by people we trust. Yet, McGill has no official policy on sexual assault. Just this month, administrators explicitly refused to bring the Sexual Assault Policy drafted by student activists to Senate due to its emphasis on being intersectional and pro-survivor. Without this policy, I cannot in good conscience encourage anyone to report their sexual assault and to put themselves through McGill’s maze of outdated and inefficient policies and insensitive and untrained administrators that offer nothing but cheap words, empty promises, and conflicting information.
If I hadn’t reported, I would have still suffered, but I would have at least suffered without feeling disposable to, and dehumanized by, my university. I have been stripped of my self-worth once by C, and once more by McGill. Reporting didn’t make me feel safer, but more vulnerable. Reporting didn’t benefit me at all, and, because I did report, there are now people on this campus who see me as the “liar” who “changed her mind” after sex, as the girl who “cried rape.”
I wonder to this day, McGill, what other terrible thing needed to have happened to my body in order for it to be worthy of your attention? To be bruised and covered in blood? To get pregnant? To get raped in front of the administration — how’s that for a “McGill context?” Go on, McGill, go on and protect rapists that roam freely on this campus looking for fresh meat. I won’t be chasing a justice that is impossible within the current system anymore. You’ve worn me out. Go on, McGill, and cover up your complicity in sexual violence by adding to a trauma that will take me years, if not a lifetime, to heal from.
Paniz Khosroshahy is a women’s studies major at McGill University interested in exploring diaspora, homonationalism and orientalism. She also enjoys biking in a sundress, rolling her eyes at edgy white liberals and making Iranian food. Follow her on Twitter @panizkoochooloo.
This article originally appeared in the McGill Daily. It is reprinted here with permission.
Image: Sarah Meghan Mah