Trigger warning: this article contains references to sexual assault.
In January, I was sexually assaulted. It was difficult to accept what had happened and even more difficult to say it out loud. I told my friends that I was harassed, but I didn’t start using the term “sexual assault” until later when I could begin to process the truth. I realized that sexual assault is any form of unwanted sexual advance that is brought about through force and can cause physical, mental, or emotional abuse. Calling sexual assault by its true name would have meant that I was a victim, and that would have made the events too real.
To my bewilderment and anger, what had happened apparently wasn’t a big deal to the person who violated my privacy and autonomy, because in some fucked up idea of “chivalry,” they asked me out to a concert the next day. But for me, my pre-existing fear of men skyrocketed and I couldn’t even get into an elevator with a man without feeling afraid. I couldn’t sleep, I most definitely couldn’t keep up with my course work, and I even ended up failing a class.
After months of mental and emotional anguish, I realized that pursuing legal action against the perpetrator would give me closure and security. However, I still felt vulnerable and afraid to act on my own. The thought of recounting my experience to a judge was unthinkable, I called the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) drop-in line and asked if I could receive any legal advice or be accompanied to the police station to fill out a report. I was denied support because SACOMSS only offers therapeutic aid. SACOMSS then referred me to the McGill Legal Information Clinic, which, it turns out, doesn’t offer advice in criminal cases.
Sexual assault is the only crime where the presumption of innocence takes precedence over the crime itself.
I was beyond furious that no one at McGill could offer me any of the support I needed. I couldn’t believe that the onus was on me – the victim and survivor – to pursue putting a sexual assault perpetrator in jail or at least under investigation. Making the victim responsible for their own rights, and making sure their aggressors are punished, forces them to be strong when they’re vulnerable. It forces them to relive their experience and asks them to prove the legitimacy of their trauma.
Last week, I found out that the McGill administration responded with lightning speed in suspending a student athlete from the football team who had been had been charged with assault – while dawdling passively after three McGill football players were charged with sexual assault in 2012. I became very upset and began to question why I even attended this institution, one that is supposed to guarantee me a safe space to learn. I remembered the loneliness I felt when I was denied support from McGill and realized that my safety was not the University’s priority.
The McGill administration does not take sexual assault seriously. This is a problem that not only affects those who have experienced sexual assault like I have – it also enforces rape culture and creates the precedent that equity is just another bureaucratic box that can be checked. So far, all actions regarding social issues have been student-led, while McGill has been dragging its feet. This is not okay. I am done with feeling like a victim and what I want now is for the McGill administration to take a hard look at itself and realize that their shortcomings have real consequences on real people.
I was beyond furious that no one at McGill could offer me any of the support I needed. I couldn’t believe that the onus was on me – the victim and survivor – to pursue putting a sexual assault perpetrator in jail or at least under investigation.
Regarding the three McGill student athletes who were charged with sexual assault in 2012, taking no action is unacceptable. Allowing the three men to stay on the football team is unacceptable. Hiring one of them at a McGill summer camp for children is unacceptable. While we must respect the presumption of innocence before someone is proven guilty, we must also change the focus of the issue from the perpetrator to the victim. We must make ourselves as accessible as possible for victims to feel safe.
The first section of the Guide to Varsity Athletics for Student-Athletes states that it is committed to representing McGill’s ethical ideals. It then goes on to “[caution] all varsity student-athletes about what they post on their social media profiles, including inappropriate photos,” and states that “varsity student-athletes are subject to sanctions if their profiles are found to contain inappropriate images, sexual content, as well as references to underage drinking or illegal drug use.”
So, McGill athletes can be sanctioned for posting inappropriate content on Facebook, but receive no disciplinary punishment for committing sexual assault, a crime that leaves the victim traumatized for the rest of their life, which no form of compensation can make better.
After the recent assault incident, the McGill administration released a statement on September 26, stating that “the recurrence of these incidents demands an in-depth review of our rules and regulations governing participation in varsity sports,” and that “we neither tolerate violence on campus nor behaviours that are contrary to the values and principles of our community.” It has been years now since the three McGill football players were charged with assaulting a woman and the varsity guidelines still haven’t changed.
So far, all actions regarding social issues have been student-led, while McGill has been dragging its feet. This is not okay.
If having an irresponsible social media presence constitutes grounds for punishment, then being charged with sexual assault is a definite ground for suspension from extracurricular activities. Sexual assault is the only crime where the presumption of innocence takes precedence over the crime itself. This is the only kind of crime where people will question the validity and legitimacy of the victim’s claims in order to protect a perpetrator. Questions like: “Are you sure that happened?” or “Was it really sexual assault?” are not asked after any other violent crime. Allowing these McGill men to continue participating in varsity sports is not a privilege they deserve. Accusations of sexual assault need to be taken just as seriously as armed robbery and aggravated assault. In the case of sexual assault, McGill is trying its best to protect the presumption of innocence of the perpetrators, whereas in the case of assault, McGill took immediate action, showing us that it thinks that one sort of violence is more legitimate and damaging than the other.
The administration needs to step up and take responsibility. Instead of trying to hide these incidents, McGill needs to create a campus-wide sexual assault policy that protects survivors and offers the proper resources to help them. It also needs to enforce preventative measures by teaching people what sexual assault is and why it happens. The people that are affected by sexual assault are real people, and to deny the experience of victims and survivors is to deny their right to feel safe. McGill is responsible for ensuring a safe space for its students. As a powerful institution, it has the ability to, at the very least, provide aid to those it has failed. Instead, McGill refuses to recognize these failures, perhaps in the hope that they will simply fade away. For survivors, however, they remain all too real.
Isabel Lee is an AUS Equity Commissioner. To contact her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.