Sexual assault

One and Five Chairs

Joseph Kosuth,

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs.” (1965)

Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.

ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS

The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;

I am fifteen years old.

They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,

so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.

When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity

in granting me “safe” passage.

O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin

the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,

knowing full well that it is not freedom

that awaits us when we disembark.

——-

The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;

I am sixteen years old.

Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,

grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.

It’s a joke, they say,

and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.

As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,

I run my fingers over my vertebrae.

It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,

perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands

that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.

——-

The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;

I am seventeen years old.

As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,

my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to

“keep going as if you were raping her.”

This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.

I am not permitted to file my objection, because

I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;

there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”

Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.

At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.

Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.

I want to say I am surprised,

but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.

——-

The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;

I am twenty-two years old.

He is a stranger, a fellow student.

His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.

Of course I am always polite.

Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge

from a late doctor’s appointment.

I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”

Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.

“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.

At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle

and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.

“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.

“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”

Mostly.

——-

The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;

I am twenty-four years old.

It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,

and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,

pressure against my sternum.

I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:

wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra

please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.

Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the

elevator doors that are in my field of view,

cannot scream,

cannot do anything.

A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.

I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.

Could have been worse, I say,

as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.

“She Asked For It”: Why Campus Safety at UBC Isn’t Just About Security Guards

Buchanan Tower, UBC.

Buchanan Tower, UBC.

The University of British Columbia has been in the local and national headlines a great deal this fall. At the beginning of this term, controversy arose when a group of frosh week leaders were found to have led incoming students in a chant that minimized the impact of sexual assault.

Now, as students are facing the frenzy of mid-term exams, UBC is in the headlines once more for issues regarding sexual violence. In the past three weeks, three separate incidents of sexual assault have been reported on campus. As the RCMP have now declared, it is believed that all three stranger-attacks, which took place on the weekends between midnight and 3 am, were perpetrated by the same individual.

When news of these assaults emerged, I reflected back to the seeming indifference of many of the rape-chant leaders, thinking that if there had been any lingering doubt in our campus community that sexual violence was  not a subject to be minimized, joked about, or taken lightly, that these heinous attacks on women, on members of our university community, would make it very clear that sexual assault is a serious issue.

Yet, while the outrage against the attacker and expressions of fear about campus safety have been clearly expressed, so too have contempt, mockery, and disdain for the three victims.

While the Tweets in question have now been deleted, there have been at least two publicly-visible incidents of victim-blaming stemming from members of our own campus community. Both alluded to the fact that women at UBC’s campus should be smarter (well, more specifically, that they shouldn’t be “dumb”), and one asserted, very bluntly, that the victims were “asking for it.”

It’s horrendous enough to know that our campus is currently in a state of fear because of the actions of one depraved individual, and even more horrifying to know that in 2013, even after the discussions we’ve had on campus and in the news about why sexual assault is not the fault of the victim, that we’re seeing these kinds of statements being made.

But don’t listen to my criticism alone: listen to the woman who was the 2nd survivor in the recent string of assaults. She published a piece in the campus newspaper, which clearly articulated both the frustration of being spoken about like a news story, and the callous indifference with which people still talk about assaults that take place when an woman is walking home late at night. She writes:

Imagine sitting in class and having the professor bring up your sexual assault. I wanted to stand up at say, “Yo, this is my story. Who are you to talk about how I could have prevented this? Don’t I have the right to walk home alone?”

Imagine having to read about this on Twitter. Or in the comments section of a news story. Imagine having to hear your professors or your peers analyzing and scrutinizing your actions, speculating on what you could have and should have done differently. That’s not an indignity that any sexual assault survivor deserves.

Here’s the thing: people who have been affected by sexual violence are all around us. Whether we know it or not, we all likely know at least one survivor of sexual violence. They may be our professors. They may be fellow staff members. They may be peers in our classrooms. They are of all genders, all sexual orientations, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, all socio-economic backgrounds, all professions. We never know who has been affected by it, and, as such, we never know who is hearing our words or reading them on the Internet.

Campus safety is not merely a question of how many security guards and police officers are on patrol, or of how many streetlights are installed to create visibility. It is also a question of how our campus community chooses to respond to survivors. If we take seriously the assertion that the University of British Columbia is a community of fellow students, faculty members, and staff members, ones who look out for and are concerned with the well-being of others, then it is simply unconscionable that we have members of the community who are actively seeking to blame and shame the victims of what are clearly horrendous and terrifying experiences. 

We can still have conversations about campus safety and precautions, but we can do this without blaming the women who were attacked.

We can still have conversations about our own fears about safety, without suggesting that if only the women had been “smarter,” they wouldn’t have been assaulted.

So long as there are individuals who are blaming women for their own assaults, no place, even a well-respected university campus, is a safe place for survivors.

An Open Letter To Mars, Incorporated: Why Using Rape Culture to Sell M&Ms Isn’t Okay

Dear Mars, Incorporated, and, specifically, those involved in creating advertisements for M&M chocolates,

There’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you’re a survivor of sexual violence, or if you study it for a living, or if you’re simply attuned to and interested in how sexual violence continues to permeate our society. You start to see sexual violence everywhere. You hear it referenced in songs, like Rick Ross’s “U.O.E.N.O.” that casually mention using date rape drugs. You notice it in rape chants sung on Canadian university campuses. You may start to find out that a large number of your friends, family members, and acquaintances (of all genders and sexualities) have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. And, most notably, you see sexual violence in numerous advertisements, especially in the fashion, alcohol, and luxury goods industries. In fact, once you look around, you tend to find it in more places than you might have previously liked to believe. You might even ask yourself: “How has this become a socially acceptable thing? Why is rape the punchline of a joke, the casual lyric of a song, or a popular image used to sell anything from handbags to shoes?”

Of course, once you start to notice this, people will probably tell you that you’re overreacting. They might tell you that the critiques of rape chants on university campuses are proof that “feminist ideologues” are just pushing their “pro-consent propaganda” on everyone, and that anti-oppression activists are always just looking for a way to ruin people’s fun. Because they’ll say, as you might have previously believed, that rape culture is just something that can “build community and bring people out of their bubbles,” like when they chant about it at a frosh week event. Or they might tell you that you’re totally missing the point, and that images of a woman’s bruised and battered face are just a creative choice and that you’re clearly not appreciating what constitutes art.

I was actually eating M&Ms while doing my research on sexual violence yesterday. An unhappy coincidence.

I was actually eating M&Ms while doing my research on sexual violence yesterday. An unhappy coincidence.

But, you see, there’s this problem. Rape chanting-students, Rick Ross, and Dolce & Gabbana aren’t the only ones who are using sexual violence as a means of having fun or selling products. You are too.

Last night, after unwinding from a long day of feeling sick and doing work, I decided to watch some television. Rather coincidentally, I had just spent the afternoon eating most of a bag of M&Ms. And that’s when I saw one of the commercials that you released earlier this year. You’re obviously familiar with it, since you created it, but for those who aren’t, here it is. I’m going to put a TRIGGER WARNING on this.

Now, here’s the thing. I wonder that you think your ad is kind of funny, I mean, these cute little M&Ms are about to be devoured by this big bad red-haired lady who totally just can’t help herself around chocolate! That’s not like rape at all, right? I mean, first of all, they’re animated chocolate characters. Plus, the “big bad devourer” who is unwittingly going to attack the little anthropomorphized M&M is a woman, so, obviously that’s way more funny, and way less rape-like than if it had been a man, right? And it’s an advertisement for chocolate, not for alcohol, so that totally has nothing to do with sexual violence, right?

I’m sorry. But I’m going to have to tell you that you’re wrong. 

The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.

The advertisement does not merely “imply,” “gesture towards,” or “hint” at what has happened to so many victims of sexual violence, it actually mirrors it and reproduces it, line by line, word by word, action by action.

  • People setting up their friends to be assaulted? Definitely happens.
  • People having to be warned of the predatory nature of certain partygoers? Definitely happens.
  • Perpetrators being justified in their actions because they or others say that they “just couldn’t help themselves?” Definitely happens.
  • Individuals being isolated, especially in cars, by their perpetrators? Definitely happens.
  • Women being the perpetrators of sexual assault? Definitely happens, even though society keeps treating male victims and female perpetrators as a source of comedy. [Just read, if you can stomach it, the absolutely abhorrent article that Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote following the gang assault of a young man in Toronto.]

M&M has a long history of being a successful and well-known product, and the Mars Chocolate company has a long history of being a successful and profitable corporation. You certainly don’t need to stoop to shock-tactic advertising in order to garner more sales.

Corporate responsibility goes far beyond product safety and health standards about how many calories are in M&Ms and are there peanut-free facilities, etc. Your responsibility extends into social responsibility. As a consumer, especially one who has bought your products, I do not need to be reminded that rape is taken so lightly in this culture that it is being used to sell candy. I do not need to hear the lock of a car door and a scream, to be reminded of what once happened to me in a car. Male victims, especially, do not need to be reminded that they face an uphill battle in being taken seriously.

You don’t have to sell out rape victims in order to maintain a hefty profit margin, or or in order to keep your consumers amused. Your website says that you “take [your] responsibility for marketing brands appropriately very seriously.” As a well-known global brand, it is your duty to live up to that statement.

In the meantime, consider me a lost customer. Not surprisingly, I’ve lost my appetite.

It Happened On My Campus, Too: Rape Chants at UBC

Just two days ago, I published an article  (which was also republished on Rabble.ca) detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described—repetitively—being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.

Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members. While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.

Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?

Wrong.

Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during Sauder FROSH, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS)” (Rosenfeld, Ubyssey). Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group” (Rosenfeld).

Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.

I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.

It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.

It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18th to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools—that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.

As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.

As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.

As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.

I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging—and actively encouraging others to engage—in the mockery and dismissal of violence.

UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”

It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.

It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.

It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.

For nearly 4 years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.

  • If you would like to contact me about this article: llorenzi@alumni.ubc.ca

Articles Referenced:

Tucker, Erika. “Difference between SMU and chants of froshes past is these students got caught.” GlobalBC. September 6th, 2013. 

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre – PRESS RELEASE: Frosh Week Chant Validates and Perpetuates Rape Culture 

Willick, Frances.  “SMU rape chant a mistake ‘heat of the moment’.” The Chronicle Herald. September 5th, 2013. 

“SMU president calls sexual assault chant ‘biggest mistake I’ve made.'” CTV Atlantic. September 5th, 2013. 

Rosenfeld, Arno. “‘N is for no consent!’ Sauder first-years led in offensive chant.” The Ubyssey. September 6th, 2013. 

Other Resources and Articles:

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Vancouver Sexual Assault Support Centres/Crisis Lines

Draw The Line Ontario (explore your attitudes/responses to various types of sexual violence)

People as Pixels, Daughters as Data: Thoughts on the Tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons’ Suicide

It’s been five days since Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year-old girl from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, was taken off life support following a suicide attempt that left her in a coma. As her family grieves her death, and outrage spreads throughout the global community, many are left wondering how we managed to fail – yet again – a young girl who experienced sexual violence and harassment at the hands of her peers, and who was so tormented by them that she took her own life.

After the gang rape of a young woman in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, after the gang rape of a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, and after the suicide of Amanda Todd, a young woman who lived in my own community of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, I had hoped – perhaps somewhat naively – that we were all learning our lessons, youth and adults alike. I had hoped that the anti-bullying campaigns, the days of wearing pink shirts, and the insistence that such tragedies will never happen again would somehow materialize into a cultural shift in our attitudes towards both the teenage perpetrators of rape, other forms of sexualized violence/harassment, and their victims. While I am acutely aware that change takes time, I am increasingly doubtful that the current rhetoric of “bullying awareness” is at all a viable strategy. What I am convinced of, now more than ever, is that we need to teach our youth – and do this by modeling it ourselves – a deep form of empathy based on how we treat others’ experiences and stories.

It is strange, as someone who survived rape as a teenager, to say, with utmost confidence, that I am very grateful that my assaults took place more than a decade ago, when social media and cell phones were scarce, if not completely nonexistent. When I was raped at 15  (the same age as Rehtaeh was when she was raped) I was most certainly isolated and silenced in my experience, but at least I knew that my story, my awful secret, my most vulnerable moment, was mine to tell. The fear of having photographs of myself distributed amongst my classmates with a click of a mouse or the pressing of a button was not a fear that ever crossed my mind. The terror of being relentlessly pursued online – and knowing that the harassment against me could seemingly forever be preserved in the archive of the Internet – was also not a fear that ever crossed my mind. Despite the fact that when I finally chose to tell my story, I was met with an appalling lack of inaction, I at least had the option of being able to maintain my privacy.

The late media expert Marshall McLuhan told us, quite famously, that “the medium is the message.” As media that rapidly duplicate and publicize experiences, texting and the internet not only share victims’ rapes with the world, but suggest that as pieces of information that can be rapidly and casually shared, photographs and stories about rape, can be quick, casual things that we take as seriously as any of the number of memes that circulate online. But we all remember the ways in which the childhood game of “Telephone” taught us that messages and stories can be rapidly distorted as they are passed from person to person: the same principle applies to how a victim’s story, identity, and sense of security can be distorted, mangled, ripped apart, and destroyed.

This form of invalidation, casual indifference, or, at worst, malicious mocking, is not merely “bullying” or “harassment.” It is a form of secondary traumatization, and as any victim of rape will agree, can be as bad if not worse than the actual assault itself.

Rape is an experience in which control is taken away from a victim, often viciously, and by the people we expect it from the least. What I recognize now, as someone who researches trauma and storytelling every day, is that it is not only the opportunity to tell one’s story that matters, but the ability to reassert control by deciding how, where, when, why, and to whom we tell that story. For Rehtaeh, and other young women who experienced similar situations, I can painfully imagine that the culmination of several losses of control over her story – from the distribution of photographs, to the harassment, to the gossip, and to the lack of a day in court to speak out against her attackers – was simply too much to bear.

And lest we believe that we, as adults, must not be part of the problem of this culture of second-hand victimization, I would suggest that we think carefully about how we speak about others, and what kinds of information we casually pass around online. When I see others gleefully sharing allegedly-hilarious photographs of overweight individuals in Walmart, “slutty” girls in nightclubs, or not-so-witty advertisements that clearly promote rape culture, I realize how easy it is for many to start seeing people as pixels, and daughters as data.

We must not only teach our children media literacy, but recognize that it is profoundly connected to emotional literacy. Programs that teach empathy cannot stop before youth transition into high school, when relationships, sexuality, and issues of consent absolutely require ongoing reinforcement of emotional intelligence and moral and ethical action.

We must not shy away from including a frank discussion of sexual assault and violence alongside sex education in our schools.

We must empower our children to understand that photography is not merely a 2D representation of a person, but a powerful and life-altering medium, and that the schoolyard chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words can never hurt me” is nothing more than a lie that has been passed down from dysfunctional generation to dysfunctional generation.

I wish I had answers. I wish I had a curriculum to implement, or justice to serve. At the moment, however, all I have is a deep sense of sadness for Rehtaeh and her family. All I can do is keep speaking about my own experience, offering an ear to those who have survived sexual violence and harassment, and keep trying to advocate for change. Tomorrow I go back to work, writing with a heavy heart and reluctantly adding another name to add to the list of those to whom I dedicate my research:

For those whose names I will never know.
For the Jane Does of Pitt Meadows and Steubenville.
For Amanda Todd, November 27th, 1996 – October 10th, 2012.

For Rehtaeh Parsons, December 9th, 1995 – April 7th, 2013.