From exams to cross-examinations: What it’s like to be a survivor and a student

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The Ryerson student who submitted this essay chose to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Trigger warning for descriptions of legal and court proceedings in relation to sexual assault.

Like many of you, I walked through the doors of the gym in Kerr Hall this September to attend a mandatory first-year orientation session. That was almost exactly two months after I had been raped during the NBA finals. While many students were lining up at Muji to purchase school supplies and fondly reminiscing about our victory, I was waiting for that fateful phone call from a detective informing me that my rapist had been arrested.

When I finally did get the call, I knew better than to feel victorious. I’d heard enough horror stories about the criminal justice system and its treatment of sexual assault survivors. I am already preparing myself for the scrutiny that is likely in my future. Many have heard these horror stories or have their own—we all know the names Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Brett Kavanaugh and, of course, the recently convicted Harvey Weinstein. (Hopefully by now we also know the names Chanel Miller, Andrea Constand and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.) 

According to the Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey conducted in 2018 on behalf of the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU), 23.3 per cent of Ryerson students have been victims of a non-consenual sexual experience. 

Other reports cite even higher numbers. According to a paper entitled Sexual Violence Policies on Campus, published by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) in 2014, “four out of five female undergraduate students surveyed at Canadian universities report experiencing dating violence…and of that number, 29 [per cent] report experiencing sexual assault.”

Although my rapist was arrested and charged in the summer of 2019, there have only been a handful of administrative court dates—approximately one per month—all of which I was told I could not attend as it would breach the no-contact order. I still have not been able to arrange a meeting with the Crown attorney to discuss the logistics or details of the case. The notes app on my phone keeps filling up with more and more questions to ask him.

“Instead of studying the structure of the Canadian government, I spend my nights desperately googling Canadian legal jargon”

I’m immensely grateful that I’m in the small percentage of victims that will be able to face their rapist in court to seek justice. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), only 4.6 per cent of sexual assault perpetrators are arrested while only 0.5 per cent receive a felony conviction. This is compared to a 4.1 per cent felony conviction rate of assaults and batteries. 

However, it’s been five months since the rape and my life is still on hold. I’m in a state of suspension, stuck in a blurry mess of emails, phone calls and appointments. They last minutes but can take weeks to schedule. 

Consent Comes First (CCF), Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education (OSVSE), has been amazing with helping me mitigate this stress, but many survivors—even at Ryerson—are not lucky enough to have access to such resources. According to the Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey, only 57.8 per cent of Ryerson students knew about sexual violence supports, resources and reporting procedures at school.

Beyond Ryerson, sexual violence supports in Ontario are dwindling. The Doug Ford administration has significantly reduced funding to rape crisis centres across the province while simultaneously cutting victim compensation by $18 million. Anything for a balanced budget, I suppose.

Supports like these are fundamental to surviving the aftermath of sexual assault. The pain doesn’t come only from the sexual violence—it also comes with trying to go on with your life despite what happened.

Every text I send my mother, every silly Snapchat video I record, every documentable action I make, I censor myself in fear of fueling any argument a defence attorney could use to undermine me. Even writing this, I am cautious of being branded as vindictive, exploitative or politically motivated. You’re only reading this because a lawyer has first assured me that it likely would not jeopardize my case.

My walk home from school often consists of a phone call to the detective or my victim service worker—their phone numbers already in the muscle memory of my fingers because I don’t want to acknowledge their existence long enough to add them to my contacts list. They occupy the space in my mind that was once reserved for physics formulas, music history, or the novel I was assigned to read.

Instead of studying the structure of the Canadian government, I spend my nights desperately googling Canadian legal jargon. What’s the difference between a summary conviction and an indictable offence? What’s the difference between a restraining order and a no-contact order? I still could barely tell you the differences. 

“Pain doesn’t come only from the sexual violence—it comes with trying to go on with your life despite what happened”

Instead of writing my overdue film analysis, I sit here writing this. My victim impact statement is over 3,000 words—the longest essay I’ve written this semester—and I have yet to find out if I’ll ever get the chance to read it to the man who needs to hear it most.

I struggle to make commitments because I am never sure of when I’ll have to leave the room to take a call telling me more upsetting news about the case. I must then spend time collecting myself, forcing myself to stop shaking, to steady my breathing, before I can re-enter the room. When I was told I had to meet with the Crown, all they asked was if I would be in town for a certain week. I offered to send my class schedule, but they declined. I was expected to drop everything with very little notice, to sacrifice school and any extra-curricular commitment, to be there.

I recently found out that my case is likely going to trial, which means several more months of fighting a system that is decidedly not in my favour while somehow trying to keep up with school. Soon after, I found out that my rapist had missed his court date—he was breaking court orders.

How could I explain to my prof that I was going to miss night classes until my rapist was located because I was so scared he was going to come to find me on my walk to school? How do I explain to my classmates that, no, I didn’t write that quiz yet, because I have tacitly court-ordered priorities that don’t account for schoolwork? How do I explain to my peers that I can’t really give them a time that I’m free because I’m not sure myself?

I’m very aware that this is just the beginning and that the worst—the trial—is yet to come. But for now it feels like my brain is on loan to the Crown, exhibit A in a case with my humanity on the line, and I am just expected to wait patiently until I can get it back. 

“I didn’t write that quiz yet because I have tacitly court-ordered priorities that don’t account for schoolwork”

For anyone reading this now who relates to my words, survivors and secondary survivors alike, I want you to know that although the system may not always be on your side, I certainly am. Our experiences may differ, but our strength is shared. 

For those of you who may not relate, I urge you to remember this. I am in your classes. I am the woman behind you in line at Tim’s, I sit beside you on the subway, I accidentally bump into you on the steps of SLC. I am your sister, your mother, your best friend, your roommate, your barista at Balzac’s, your waitress at Oakham, your prof and your TA. 

Survivors are not strangers. We hear your words. I’d like to say that all I ask of you is to hear ours too, but the reality is, survivors need more than that. 

Emotional support just doesn’t cut it when there is a lack of legal, financial, and mental health support. We need more than a friend to wait with us in the dark until the gavel hits.

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