For many, physical safety seems like a pretty straightforward issue. We would probably agree that our community members shouldn’t be forced to contend with physical attacks. But what if someone asked you this: should we be able to go wherever, whenever, with whomever, wearing whatever, without risking physical attack? What about verbal attacks? Catcalls? You might, at the very least, think a bit harder about your answer.
These things happen on a regular basis, and as a result, the onus is placed on us to “be careful” and “exercise personal responsibility.” We accept this as our responsibility and put up with it. We change our behaviours to feel less “at risk.” And when we refuse, we are told – and indeed, tell ourselves – that we could have done something differently.
Let’s rethink where safety comes from.
So many of us have come to equate safety with restricting our movements (“I’m starving, but I’d be crazy to walk to the dépanneur at this time of night”), or altering our routine (“I used to love that place, only I don’t go anymore, because I heard someone got attacked in front of there”), or policing our wardrobes (“This is my favourite top, but I know I’ll be catcalled if I wear it, and I’m too tired to deal with that”). These have become rational choices, but they place the burden of avoiding assault squarely on the survivor. What about the perpetrator? When we talk about preventing sexual assault, too often the conversation devolves into what the person on the receiving end could have done to stop it. Discussions of few, if any, other crimes focus so relentlessly on what the perpetrator could have done to avoid it, rather than on the perpetrator’s actions.
It’s immensely difficult to even begin to imagine what a world without sexual assault would look like. Indeed, some of our services – for example, our Support Groups branch and Crisis Intervention helpline – exist precisely because this world is yet to be achieved. But some of them, like our Outreach branch, which gives workshops on sexual assault awareness, healthy relationships, and personal boundaries in high schools and youth organizations throughout Montreal, are working every day to get there.
As SACOMSS volunteers, what we do know is that creating a world free of sexual assault does not begin with the survivor. Sexual assault is systemic, and it will not end with any amount of being careful and taking measures of personal responsibility. The university we want is one that recognizes this as well.
The Centre is committed to a pro-survivor stance – supporting, believing, and not judging the experiences of the people that utilize our services. Safety isn’t just physical: it’s emotional as well. We can all help to achieve a safe space in our interactions with each other.
If we want McGill to be safe, the answer doesn’t lie in demanding that people change behaviours to which they are perfectly entitled. The answer lies in not assaulting people. You are entitled to go to the dep if you’re hungry. You’re allowed to visit the places you want to visit. You should wear the clothes you love. If someone is physically or verbally harassed while doing any of these things, the fault lies with the perpetrator – not with the person on the receiving end. Your body is your own: nobody has the right to take that autonomy away from you.
Ideally, we envision a world free of sexual assault. Until then, let’s challenge the mentality of self-blame, as well as the misguided notion that the responsibility for being safe is ours alone. It’s not.
Lendon Ebbels and Maha Hussain are SACOMSS’ external coordinators. SACOMSS can be reached at 398-8500 or in room B-27 of the Shatner building.