Newsletter: Silenced students and stories of resilience

There are many different ways survivors can be silenced. That’s what I learned after months of collecting the testimonies of survivors of sexual violence on college and university campuses in Canada.

One survivor from a small community college told me she was sexually assaulted in her room but didn’t report because she felt it “wasn’t that bad.”  

Another student, who alleged she was assaulted by a professor, says she didn’t report or speak out because she did not think her university “would do anything and did not want to go through being let down.”

I set out to explore a particular kind of silencing. For the past few months, I’ve been investigating “gag orders” in university sexual violence policies. Survivors from nine Canadian universities are being muzzled, one study says, prevented by confidentiality restrictions in their school’s policies and practices from talking about the assault and harassment they’ve faced. So I created a survey to ask survivors of on-campus sexual violence what they would have shared if they had not been silenced by these policies. What I found was that policy only played a small role in the many ways survivors are being silenced.

Another survey respondent, who said she was assaulted by two male students in her residence room, said she didn’t report because “the cost of going forward would’ve been my mental health, as I would have to experience that trauma all over again without the guarantee that anything would be done.”

It’s really hard to hear these stories of trauma and systemic victim-blaming. They’re reminding me of how much work we need to do to continue to shift the dialogue around gender-based violence, so that survivors are not only believed when they share their stories, but provided with the supports they need to meet their justice goals and to heal.

This is my last newsletter for The Discourse, at least for now. I want to sincerely thank each of you for being a part of this community, and take a moment to reflect on the conversations we’ve had over the past two years.  

We’ve been able to dive deeply into issues that aren’t easy to talk about, from the impacts of resource extraction projects on Indigenous women, to student survivors combatting “gag orders” on Canada’s university campuses, and the resilient women holding up British Columbia’s anti-violence sector. Along the way, you informed my workgave me advice about how to cover gender issues more thoughtfully, and pushed me to think critically about my own feminism and allyship.

It’s been an incredibly powerful time to be reporting in this space. After news broke in October 2017 that dozens of women had accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse, women from around the world came forward to say #MeToo and share their own experiences with sexual violence. These stories were pushed from whisper networks to front pages everywhere. It’s been amazing to watch survivors across countries and industries change the narrative. And as a journalist, it’s an honour to have been able to play a small role in amplifying some of their stories.

While many of my stories have addressed violence against women, I want to acknowledge I barely scratched the surface of the broad spectrum of gender issues. While the #MeToo moment has primarily highlighted cisgender women’s experiences of misogyny and violence, transgender experiences are often left out of the conversation, even though trans and gender nonconforming people, and especially trans women of colour, experience disproportionate rates of violence. There are many more stories to tell and voices to value and amplify, and I look forward to being part of that in all the ways I can.

For now, The Discourse is winding down for the summer to spend some time learning from what we’ve done over the past year. We’ll be quieter in August, but back with a big announcement in the fall. You can follow along by signing up for our weekly newsletter and keep in touch with me on Twitter.[end]

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