Confusing coercion with consent

Sexual assault awareness deserves more than a month on Queen's campus

Chloë Grande believes advocacy and awareness are key to survivors' healing after facing sexual assault.
Credit: 
Danielle Ouellette
This opinion piece discusses sexual assault. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal. 
 
May marked Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This month is particularly close to my heart—not only because I recently started working for the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres, but because I was sexually assaulted at Queen’s.
 
I was a second-year student at the time. After a night out with friends at Ale, I went back to his place. He wanted to have sex, but I said no. He kept asking, over and over and over again. This continued until I finally said yes—the next morning. 
 
To me, this incident didn’t “count” as a sexual assault because I eventually gave in. I’ve turned the question over in the back of my mind ever since: Was our sex consensual?
 
Absolutely not—coercion is not consent. Consent is enthusiastic, voluntary, and crystal clear.
 
It took a lot of counselling and reading for me to reach this conclusion. After years of self-blaming and shame, I understand why myths and stereotypes about sexual assault and rape prevent survivors from coming forward. It’s never your fault, though, for drinking or flirting or wearing a cute crop top. 
 
The fault lies entirely with the perpetrator for placing their needs and desires above yours, abusing their position of power, and inflicting suffering on another human. 
 
When I tell people now that I work for a sexual assault and domestic violence treatment centre, the response I commonly get is, “That sounds depressing.”
 
What’s depressing is that 75 per cent of assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows and trusts. What’s depressing is that one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual abuse or assault. And what’s most depressing to me is how many of us—myself included—bottle up our own traumatic experiences, yet encourage others to be open and trusting.
 
In the post-#MeToo era, treatment centres are seeing more survivors coming forward with their stories. Many people are just now processing the trauma of what occurred months, years or even decades ago. Yet every time a survivor is not believed, questioned for their sexual history or lost in our legal system, we perpetuate a vicious victim-blaming mentality.
 
It’s for these reasons that the results from Ontario’s Student Voices on Sexual Violence survey are so significant. In April, we found out Queen’s ranks second-highest for students who reported experiencing sexual harassment and fourth-highest for non-consensual sexual violence. I wasn’t surprised that the majority of our clients in downtown Toronto are female-identifying individuals in their late teens and early twenties. A lot of them also happen to be university students.
 
I’m thankful that in the seven years since my assault, many more resources and supports have been put into place at Queen’s. I’ve spoken to Barb Lotan, the Queen’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator, and I can attest that she’s a compassionate and knowledgeable advocate for anyone navigating what comes after experiencing sexual violence.
 
“Asking survivors what they want and need support to look like is important. Find the balance between being supportive and being too much,” Lotan said. “It’s also okay for supporters to ask questions about how they can be helpful.”
 
For the students who didn’t have a chance to fill out this survey and learn about the options out there, I recommend taking Barb’s advice to go to a safe space, first and foremost, and seek medical attention. Then you can think about the next steps, like reporting to police or speaking to a counsellor. Having a strong support system of friends and family who believe you unconditionally is another integralpart of the healing process. Therapy and talking to friends who have gone through a similar traumatic experience have helped me realize I’m not alone or overreacting. Sometimes, all you need is validation. 
 
This past Sexual Assault Awareness Month reminded me to check in on myself. Even if I felt uncomfortable and overwhelmed at times, I’m grateful for the courageous survivors who speak out and carve a path for the rest of us. 
 
With the flood of hashtags and online movements—#YesAllWomen, #BelieveSurvivors, #WhyIDidntReport, and more—remember, no matter what, it’s your story. There’s no right way to act after a sexual assault. It doesn’t matter how little or how much time has passed.
 
As a survivor, you have control over who you tell, who you trust and who you talk to.
 
I believe you.
 
Chloë Grande (ArtSci’15) is the Website and Outreach Associate at the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres. She was the Vol. 142 Lifestyle Editor at The Journal. 
 

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