U of T students should listen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Ford’s testimony is a familiar narrative for survivors of sexual assault on university campuses

U of T students should listen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Content warning: this article discusses sexual violence.

On September 27, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke publicly about her alleged sexual assault by then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Ford’s speech resonates with many survivors of sexual assault, particularly those who have experienced assault on university campuses. The connection between Ford’s alleged assault and the assaults experienced by many university students lies in the political implications of speaking out.   

Consider Victoria College’s web page for current students, ‘Let’s talk about sexual assault,’ which suggests that women attending university are more susceptible to sexual assault as “attitudes toward and expectations about alcohol and drug use, sexual activity, and social interaction are different in a university setting.”

These expectations work together to create an environment that does not shame those who perpetrate sexual assault, but rather shames the survivors. This environment normalizes a lack of consent during sexual encounters and allows alcohol use to excuse predatory actions. The reasons for the susceptibility of young women to sexual assault, as described by U of T, overlap with themes discussed by Ford: alcohol use, shame, adolescent sexuality, and uncertainty.

These themes create a discourse that prevents university students from speaking out, just as Ford was fearful of speaking out. Kavanaugh attempted to belittle Ford’s claims by detailing his alcohol use as something “almost everyone did,” and that because of this, he could not be guilty of sexual assault.  

While the climate of university campuses makes it difficult for survivors to speak out, the particular climate at U of T adds another layer of coming to terms with one’s sexual assault. It has recently been revealed that, in 2019, U of T will continue to hold its position as Canada’s top university. The pressure created by this ranking is twofold.

Firstly, the ranking persuades the university to maintain a pristine reputation a reputation that does not include sexual assault. Instead of taking preventative measures including discussing consent and sexual assault, the university has an incentive to conceal sexual assault cases by creating bureaucratic barriers that prevent individuals from reporting assault.

Universities in Ontario are required to have specific plans and procedures that encourage students to report assaults. However, U of T has been criticized for dismissing claims put forward by students and failing to provide support for survivors.

Secondly, the ranking may cause students to pressure themselves to be exemplary.  Ford had said, “I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details.Her inability to come forward due to the fear of being labelled deviant or untruthful is something that resonates with young students striving toward perfection.  

When Ford spoke out, she was scrutinized by Republican senators, the Supreme Court, and the entire US population. When a U of T student speaks out, they may be interrogated by the university administration and fellow students. Regardless of the different stakes, both Ford’s testimony and a U of T student’s testimony are susceptible to institutional scrutiny.  

Ultimately, it is the individual’s choice to speak about their assault. Ford detailed the challenges that she has faced since deciding to speak out and name her accuser: “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” She experienced ridicule from her close peers and from anonymous strangers. However, Ford has also “experienced an outpouring of support from people in every state of this country.”

Ford demonstrated that power does not necessarily come from naming her accuser. Rather, power comes from the support given by those who believe and listen to her story. The U of T campus may discourage sexual assault survivors from coming forward. However, we can empower survivors by letting them know that we are listening, that we believe them, and that we stand by them.  

Morgan Powell is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and Book and Media Studies student at Woodsworth College.

Verdict in trial of U of T student: guilty of assault causing bodily harm, not guilty of sexual assault

Samuel Marrello convicted in crime against fellow U of T student

Verdict in trial of U of T student: guilty of assault causing bodily harm, not guilty of sexual assault

Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence.

U of T student Samuel Marrello has been found guilty of assault causing bodily harm against a female U of T student, but not guilty of the more serious charge of sexual assault.

Marrello was charged in connection with an incident that took place on the night of April 1, 2017 near UTSG. The verdict of the months-long trial was delivered on September 25.

The complainant, who cannot be named due to a publication ban protecting her identity, alleged that Marrello hit her and sexually assaulted her while she was intermittently blacked out from intoxication and could not consent to sex.

The complainant used ‘blacked out’ to refer to a lack of memory but not necessarily a lack of consciousness.

Justice C. Ann Nelson ruled that Marrello was not guilty of sexual assault because there is a reasonable doubt about whether the complainant did not consent to it.

However, the sexual activity that they engaged in was rough sex that was found to have caused extensive bruising to the complainant, and Nelson found that Marrello “was reckless when he applied physical force towards [the complainant] not caring whether she consented or not.”

The complainant and Marrello had met when they went on a date in 2016 but had not remained in touch afterward. On the night of April 1, 2017, they both separately went to Einstein’s bar near UTSG and happened to meet again. They spent several hours together at the bar, and during that time, they both became intoxicated.

It was after they left the bar and went to the complainant’s apartment that the assault took place.

Charge of sexual assault

A large portion of the trial centred on the fact that, due to her intoxication, the complainant was unable to remember much of the time when the assault and alleged sexual assault occurred.

“I am of the view that [the complainant] tried to be an honest witness,” wrote Nelson. “Her state of intoxication on the night in question, however, interfered with her ability to accurately recall events.”

However, the complainant testified that she did have some flashes of memory, including that she remembered feeling blunt forces on her body, and feeling as if she was being physically manipulated.

The complainant testified that she was “jolted back to her senses” when Marrello allegedly asked if he could take off his condom, to which she claimed to respond: “I can’t consent to this. I am too drunk.” Marrello confirmed that she said this, but said that she had done so suddenly. They both testified that he immediately stopped and left at her request.

In her decision, Nelson wrote that, “While [the complainant] suffered from significant effects of alcohol consumption during her sexual interaction with Mr. Marrello, I am not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that she was so intoxicated that she lacked capacity to consent to that activity.”

This was based on, among other things, Marrello’s testimony that the complainant was a conscious and active participant during sexual activity, and it was possible that she consented but could not remember.

However, Nelson added, “A final note: A reasonable doubt as to an absence of consent is not an affirmative finding that [the complainant] consented to sexual activity in the bedroom.”

Charge of assault causing bodily harm

The morning after the assault, the complainant woke up to find extensive bruises on her face, neck, collarbone, inner thighs, and legs.

Nelson questioned whether the complainant’s lack of consent to hitting also meant that she had revoked her consent to sexual activity.

The judge ruled that since it was previously established that the complainant may have consented to sexual activity, finding Marrello guilty of assault causing bodily harm did not mean that he was guilty of sexual assault.

Marrello’s defence on this was his claim that he and the complainant had discussed their preferences for rough sex on the walk to her apartment.

Nelson said that was “implausible” because the complainant had testified that she did not have that preference; only Marrello “admitted that he [had] a preference for rough sex.”

Furthermore, while Marrello did admit to gently slapping the complainant on the face twice, which he claimed to do so at her request, that did not explain why there were bruises elsewhere on her body.

As such, based on, among other things, the complainant’s memory of being hit, her lack of preference for rough sex, and the bruises on her body, Nelson ruled that Marrello was guilty of assault causing bodily harm.

The court will reconvene on October 4 to decide on a date for sentencing.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you can call:

  • Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 (Toll Free), 1-866-863-7868 (TTY), and 416-863-0511 (Toronto)
  • Support Services for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse at 1-866-887-0015
  • Toronto Rape Crisis Centre: Multicultural Women Against Rape at 416-597-8808
  • Good2Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Gerstein Crisis Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

The Varsity has reached out to the defence and the complainant for comment.

Crown prosecutors declined a request for comment.

Scenes from the shadows

Four stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from members of U of T campus theatre

Scenes from the shadows

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse.

“The theatre community… helped me get through a lot of difficult things in my life. There’s a lot of people there I will love forever,” Janet* says. “But there’s also people there who, if I never see them again, I’ll be happy. That’s not just because they did anything to me [or to someone else]… but because they stood by and let things happen.”

Janet was involved in campus theatre during her time at U of T, and her ambivalence about the experience resonates with others. While many students consider theatre a wonderfully welcoming place, the stories of others reveal a darker side of the picture.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to fame, and it’s well worth considering what lessons it has to bear for theatre at U of T. With that goal in mind, I spoke to students within campus theatre at the university who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse from fellow cast or crew members.

Women in power, men in control

A unifying thread in #MeToo cases was that men in powerful positions within the industry exploited their ranks to dominate women. On a smaller scale, gendered attitudes still play a role in many university interactions, and campus theatre is no exception.

Sabrina* held an executive leadership role in campus theatre in 2017–2018. An interesting thing about the U of T theatre community, Sabrina explains, is that unlike in Hollywood or other male-dominated environments, many of those in positions of power are women. But sexism doesn’t disappear when women have power; it just takes on a different form. As Sabrina puts it, “It’s almost like [men] are trying to get power in a female-driven community.”

Sabrina and fellow female executives have had numerous negative experiences working with men who didn’t respect their authority. Male directors would often scrutinize their leadership decisions or devalue their opinions in ways that Sabrina felt were unfair; some of this was accompanied by sexist remarks. Other men mocked the capabilities of female set designers, reflecting the common stereotype that women somehow aren’t suited for technical work.

During Janet’s time in theatre, while some theatre executives enforced “zero tolerance” policies for harassment, in many cases she saw men push boundaries and then get off the hook. Sometimes this would happen during productions scripted to include romantic scenes. In one audition Janet witnessed, one actor suddenly pulled their scene partner into a kiss without consulting them first. Incidents like these, Janet tells me, are often brushed off as “trying to make the scene better,” though she feels that some actors use intimacy scenes as excuses to be inappropriately physical.

Female representation in U of T theatre may also come with unintended consequences. Janet was frustrated to see men whom executives and cast knew as harassers continually get cast in plays, simply because there were too few men available for the part. Gender-blind casting could have avoided that problem altogether: her response was always, “Cast a girl.”

There’s no real way to quantify sexism, let alone to determine how pervasive it is within certain campus environments. But testimonies like these are significant, particularly coming from women in relatively senior positions. Repeated microaggressions, disrespect for women’s authority, and lack of accountability can lay the groundwork.

A similar toxic cocktail underlies the allegations against the now over 200 powerful people engulfed by #MeToo, most of them powerful men — from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching to full-fledged sexual assault.

Even when nefarious motives aren’t in the picture, theatre is an environment of intense closeness. The enormous amount of time cast and crew spend together can blur personal and professional boundaries, particularly in the campus context, where students are mostly young and often friends as well as colleagues.

Sabrina recounts multiple instances of male colleagues who seemed to get the wrong idea about the nature of their relationships with the women they worked with. One female crew member was repeatedly badgered by a male colleague until Sabrina and the executive delivered a pointed reminder about professionalism to the entire cast.

In another case, Sabrina and a female friend went to a cast party. Both of them held management roles and presumably deserved to celebrate their work on the production. An intoxicated male colleague’s aggressive advances made them so uncomfortable that they decided to just leave.


No typical abuser

#MeToo shone a light mainly on powerful men within the industry. But an inclusive perspective on the movement demands accountability for all perpetrators, even if they aren’t who we might expect.

When Melanie*, an assistant stage manager, became intoxicated at a cast party, a female theatre executive insisted on accompanying her home to her residence. Exhausted and ill, Melanie got into bed, but the woman refused to leave her alone. Taking advantage of Melanie’s condition, she forced herself on her and then stayed the night.

“The next thing I know, she’s in my bed and kissing me, and then she just didn’t stop,” Melanie says. “It took me a while to figure out that it was rape.”

In previous weeks, Melanie had noticed executives making inappropriate sexual comments and being overly touchy with the cast. She considered this inappropriate, but it wasn’t until her sexual assault that the significance of those incidents started to resonate. Melanie confided in a female cast member, and she found common ground — her friend confessed that a female director had also pestered her with uncomfortable comments like, “I only cast you so I could stare at you all day,” or “I only cast you because I wanted to fuck you at the cast party.”

But until it happened, Melanie didn’t feel unsafe around the woman who assaulted her. The theatre executive was a queer woman who advocated for equity and sex positivity, widely respected by her peers. The woman’s gender and the position she occupied within the community made it all the more difficult to process that she was capable of what she had done. It was only afterward, when Melanie was already traumatized and wracked with anxiety and guilt, that she found out the woman who sexually assaulted her had also raped two others.

While marginalized people have benefited from generally ‘safe spaces’ like theatre, Melanie is now concerned that myopic approaches to progressivism can isolate certain people from scrutiny. “They’re women and they’re gay and they promote female empowerment and self-love and hate the straight white male,” Melanie says. “They couldn’t possibly be dangerous — right?”

People who occupy powerful or privileged positions can be guilty of misusing them for their own gain. In big industry or professional entertainment circles, it’s often men who occupy those positions. Given the survivors I spoke with, that’s not necessarily true.

During their involvement in various campus productions, Lake* was thrust into an abusive relationship with Nate*. Nate leveraged their management position to exercise increasing control over Lake’s life, creating intense anxiety and splintering Lake’s existing relationship in the process. Though Lake has now broken off the relationship and reunited with their former partner, it still haunts them that Nate was able to abuse their position and get away unscathed.

Nate’s responsibilities included scheduling the cast, which, given the intensive hours associated with theatre, effectively allowed them to control Lake’s whereabouts. “It became very clear that they enjoyed being a stage manager not because, you know, theatre is fun, but because they enjoy power and they enjoy control,” Lake says.

On top of this, Nate was an experienced sex educator; offering to answer Lake’s questions about sex, Nate adopted a twisted sort of ‘mentorship’ role and thereby pulled Lake into a toxic sexual dynamic. In public, Nate brought elements of their sexual relationship onto the set without Lake’s consent, in one instance pulling their hair during a rehearsal. In private, Nate disregarded Lake’s boundaries and pressured them to use kinks as a method of conflict resolution, resulting in repeated physical and sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to come forward as a survivor in the first place, and it’s even harder when the person who hurt you is someone in power. Underlying both Melanie’s and Lake’s testimonies is a common dilemma. Keep quiet about your trauma, and you have to live with it alone. Come forward, and you may be judged, and you may not be believed.

Certainly, in an industry environment, it’s a bad thing to get a reputation, but that extends to smaller semi-professional and extracurricular spaces, too. “You’re so unsure about your position in the community, you don’t want to be known as difficult or causing a problem,” Janet says.

Then there’s the concern that even if you talk, no one will listen. When Lake told others about the abuse, a few were shocked, despite Lake feeling that the signs were obvious. Disturbingly, others revealed they were aware of Lake’s situation but were unsure whether to interfere — and ultimately decided it was none of their business.

“[Nate] not facing consequences is one thing,” Lake explains. “But the fact that there is this community that I feel in a lot of ways enabled this to happen, through not paying attention to what was going on, [that] says a lot.”

Change through conversation

Janet, Sabrina, Melanie, and Lake tell four different but related stories. Their stories don’t represent everyone’s experiences with campus theatre — but they’re also likely not the only ones.

We have to encourage survivors to come forward, and one approach is through policy. Many student-led theatre groups don’t have specific anti-harassment policies, but complainants can seek redress through standard U of T reporting procedures, through the policies of student society offices that oversee certain campus groups, or alternatively, through informal practices.

According to co-executive producers Marie Song and Sonny Nightingale, the Victoria College Drama Society requires its executives members to attend equity training, and it consults with the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Equity Commissioner when they put on shows with sensitive content. The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production manager, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, says that the group seeks to ensure members’ safety by holding actors and crew accountable to the university’s general anti-harassment policies. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) and the University College (UC) Follies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Brownrigg, Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education and Chief Program Officer at Hart House, oversees Hart House Theatre. Brownrigg’s team is cognizant that its productions involve a mix of student volunteers, recent graduates, and professional and semi-professional designers, which cuts across age and experience. Hart House requires all of its members to conform to guidelines within an “artists’ handbook,” which provides clear expectations for cast and crew no matter who they are. The handbook also contains information about the university’s anti-harassment policies and procedures for filing complaints.

Hart House has also supported the U of T Drama Coalition by funding the launch of  “intimacy direction” workshops in 2017. Originating with Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, intimacy direction focuses on challenging power dynamics that could give rise to harassment. Inspired, Coco Lee, then the coalition’s alumni advisor, brought the practice to U of T.

“A lot of what intimacy directors do is be proactive about building a culture of consent in the rehearsal room,” Lee explains. As trained professionals, intimacy directors guide cast through choreography of intimacy scenes, from romance to physical fights; they also facilitate exercises that safely build emotional chemistry between cast members.

A challenge with programs like intimacy direction, however, lies in showing theatre groups the merit they have to offer. Although Lee received positive feedback from those who participated, uptake was limited, and Lee hopes that this will change. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to fit additional sessions within already-packed rehearsal schedules, but she is also disappointed that “people often don’t think they can spare the time to create that safety.”

It’s also important to convince directors that they can adopt these measures without losing control. “It wasn’t until the end of the year when we clued into the feedback from people that there was a fear that their agency in the process would be taken away,” Lee says. She notes a bit of irony in that: the purpose of intimacy direction is to give actors agency, and presumably, that will result in better productions and working environments.

Beyond institutionalized changes, a more positive environment will come with small, proactive steps from members of theatre groups themselves. Janet tells me that she made it her mission throughout her time at U of T to raise concerns whenever she saw something going wrong. She looked out for younger students at cast parties and made seemingly small gestures, like asking audition partners if they were comfortable with physical touch. Over time, a number of her colleagues had started to do the same, so Janet tried to keep people talking. Sometimes they listened, and sometimes they didn’t.

The beautiful thing about theatre, though, is that it can force people to pay attention. The medium itself is a vessel for conversation, and campus productions like What She Said by the UC Follies in 2016 or TCDS’ How I Learned to Drive in 2018 have critically engaged with stories of sexism and harassment and elevated the stories of survivors.

Like a hashtag, pieces like these can spark dialogue. And coupled with policies and proactive moves, the ideas behind them can help ensure that theatre remains the safe space that it’s meant to be.

“Bad behaviour like sexual harassment lives in the shadows where we feel we can’t talk about it,” Lee says.

It’s time to switch on the spotlight.

*Names have been changed.

Story against policy

Navigating U of T’s bureaucracy as a bipolar student with PTSD

Story against policy

Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence and suicide.

On January 29, 2017, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a bipolar mixed episode gone wrong.

On June 12, 2017, I was readmitted for a suicide attempt.

On June 27, 2018, the University of Toronto’s Governing Council approved the mandated leave of absence policy, cementing tools administrators had to remove students in crisis from their studies. Had the policy or similar policies been used a year ago, it would have upended my life. This policy will upend the lives of numerous students who also struggle with their mental health.

During my last year of high school in Switzerland, I was being treated for depression. I discontinued treatment and therapy when I came to U of T in the fall of 2014. I figured a new country and new phase in my life would allow for a fresh start, and to some extent, this was true.

But mental illness doesn’t stay behind in the country you leave. I suppressed this truth and revelled in the novelty of university life.

I suppressed this truth until I returned to Switzerland over my first winter break.

It happened on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I went for an early-morning run in my hometown. The crisp winter air filled my lungs and the familiar scenery filled me with bittersweet nostalgia. I was running along a beaten path lined with trees. A man jumped out from behind one of the trees and, as the stereotype goes, he sexually assaulted me. I remember running across the road. I remember screaming “no” on the sidewalk. Cars passed. Some drivers slowed down to see a display of hysteria before driving away. One person’s trauma is another person’s spectacle.

When I left Geneva a few days later, home didn’t feel like home anymore. Over the next month, I ignored my parents’ advice to contact U of T’s sexual assault counsellors. I didn’t want to revert to my high school self, a depressed person sitting in a therapist’s office. Meanwhile, I had regular Skype calls with the police in Geneva as part of the year-long process to prosecute my assailant. I thought that I could balance the re-traumatizing bureaucracy behind the investigation with schoolwork. I thought that I could handle it — until I couldn’t.

My nightmares turned into night terrors. When I wasn’t in class, I stayed in bed, too afraid to leave my dorm room. I drank alone. I gained 20 pounds. I fell back into depression, a familiar sadness that came with an unfamiliar trauma. I finally made an appointment with the sexual assault counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

When I arrived, a receptionist at CAPS handed me a pen and a clipboard with a questionnaire. I filled it out in the waiting room, accidentally chewing the pen. When I was halfway through reducing my depression to a numerical value, the assault counsellor called me into her office.

“What brings you in today?” she asked. That’s how therapy starts. I had been in this situation before.

“I was assaulted,” I replied, clinging to the comforting ambiguity. I didn’t want to say ‘sexually assaulted.’ I didn’t want to say what happened.

The counsellor wanted me to say what happened. I racked my English literature brain for an escape route via euphemisms or circumlocution. “I was running and there was a man behind a tree and it just happened.”

The grammatically indefinite ‘it’ buffered me from the shock of retelling a violent story. But the counsellor pried for more.“

Did he put his penis against your body? I just want a better picture of what happened.”

I wanted to say ‘no.’ No to the question. No to re-traumatizing retelling. No to graphic details for the sake of graphic details. Instead, I said “yes.” One person’s trauma is another person’s picture.

After four appointments, the assault counsellor decided that I needed to see a psychiatrist instead. The re-triggering sessions were all for nothing.

After a few months on a waitlist, I got an appointment with a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants and asked me questions about why I wanted to die. She seemed bored by my case during our 15-minute appointments. It’s difficult to explain suicidal ideation in a tight timeframe.

I stopped seeing her after two months.

When I returned to Geneva the summer after first year to see my family and attend the prosecution of my assailant, my body got sick. I underwent a series of tests, including blood work, an MRI scan, an ultrasound, a bone density scan, and a smell test (which I failed).

I was misdiagnosed with partial Kallmanns Syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and hyposmia — an impaired sense of smell. I was accurately diagnosed with a pituitary microadenoma (which sounds scarier than it is) and osteoporosis (which, to a 19-year-old, sounds as scary as it is).

My body matched my mind: both were starting to break down.

I entered second year feeling older, and not in a good way. I made an appointment with a doctor at the Health & Wellness Centre to discuss management options for my osteoporosis. This doctor was kind and thorough. She also recognized that I was depressed. She prescribed medication I was comfortable with and put me on a waitlist to see a different psychiatrist at CAPS.

My doctor continued to see me regularly and offered me more help than I had received from either the sexual assault counsellor or the psychiatrist in first year. For the first time, I experienced good care at Health & Wellness.

I continued to receive good care with an excellent psychiatrist at CAPS. Although my medical care got better, I got worse. I experienced not only depression but also psychosomatic reactions to trauma, a response which manifested in tics and a stutter.

It started in January 2016, about a year after my assault. My head jerked insistently to the left, keeping me in a constant state of negation, and my shoulders shook like laughter. I felt like a modern-day hysteric. I could handle the physical pain of these motor tics. What I could not handle was my loss of language.

With the thick stutter clipping my words, I could no longer speak in class or be the engaged English student that I wanted to be. I dropped one of my classes because I couldn’t stand the looks I was getting from the other students. Fewer classes meant fewer people had to see my awkward twitching body.

Over a few months, my psychiatrist and doctor treated my psychosomatic symptoms.

Although I still twitch whenever I get stressed, startled, or over-caffeinated, my tics are no longer a 24-hour full-body workout. Aside from depression, panic attacks, night terrors, motor tics, osteoporosis, and a faulty sense of smell, I finished second year relatively scot-free.

In retrospect, second year was a breeze compared to the years that followed. Things took a turn when I started experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

During the fall of third year, I felt good. Too good. I was energized in a way that I had never been before. Everything looked sharp, as though someone had increased the saturation and resolution of the world around me. I wrote thousands of words of terrible poetry, convinced that I had to publish a book immediately. My pressured speech and racing thoughts demanded an audience.

I would waltz around the Junior Common Room (JCR) to find someone to listen to my latest theories on behavioural homeostasis, the physical antimatter of our bodies, and Greek etymological connections to a specific musical chord progression. Friends would often stop me mid-speech to tell me they couldn’t follow. I was elated, electric. I could write an A-grade paper on modern poetry in a few hours and spend the rest of the night running around the city.

But this dream-like, sleepless state didn’t last. Eventually, I’d crash. After every high-energy episode, I’d spend weeks in bed, incapable of reading, writing, or thinking. These drastic mood and energy fluctuations would happen several times a month, stretching my brain like an overused elastic band.

My psychiatrist eventually identified these high-energy episodes as hypomania and diagnosed me with rapid cycling bipolar disorder type II. Afraid of losing the thrill of hypomania, I resisted the mood stabilizer and antipsychotic she suggested until my fluctuations landed me in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

I stayed in an in-patient unit during February 2017. Had U of T used the new mandatory leave policy that year, or the existing Code of Student Conduct, the administrators could have removed me from school. Throughout my hospitalization, a Student Crisis Response Coordinator helped me manage my course work. She sent me comforting emails, telling me, “We will do everything possible to make sure things stay on track.”

One of my professors also messaged me while I was in the hospital: “Kristen, just checking in — do you need books? Can you have visitors? Please let me know — I’d be happy to come see you and bring you what you need.” Professor S. not only accommodated me as a student but also cared about me as a person.

I used one of my hour-long hospital passes to visit this professor. I’m not saying that all professors should offer to bring their students books in psychiatric hospitals. But if all professors had this level of compassion toward struggling students, perhaps we wouldn’t struggle as much.

I returned to school the week after I was discharged. If the current mandatory leave policy had been applied to me, this return would have been impossible. Students on enforced leave “must apply in writing” 30 days before the next school term. Along with asking an already vulnerable person to perform the emotional labour of self-advocacy, the policy expects people to schedule their crises.

If a student does not meet the 30-day timeframe, the university may “terminate the student’s registration.” I could not have written that application in the hospital. Would U of T have ended my undergraduate degree?

A month after I left the hospital, my psychiatrist went on maternity leave and CAPS transferred my care to someone different. When I asked my new psychiatrist if I could have therapy for my post-traumatic stress disorder, she refused. She said she wanted only to focus on treating my bipolarity, primarily with medication, because I “wasn’t ready” for trauma-informed counselling.

I acquiesced and dealt with the flashbacks and nightmares alone, ashamed that I had asked for help in the first place.

I rapid-cycled my way through the rest of third year. Since I missed my course deadlines, I petitioned for extensions during the summer. While my professors agreed to the deadlines I requested, the petition officers did not: “It is not reasonable to expect special considerations for substantial amounts of outstanding coursework after the courses have ended.” This email sank me.

The three Fs on my transcript replaced my 4.0. Failure, failure, failure.

I closed the email.

That night, I punished myself and, with a bipolar penchant for extremes, I took things too far. When I realized that what I was doing could end my life, I scribbled an apology and the names of some important people in my life (names that included Professor S). Most people would judge my reaction as melodramatic, and they wouldn’t be wrong.

But most people don’t have an illness that heightens emotions and fuels destructive impulsivity.

My mind is one of extremes: I experience happiness only as elation, sadness only as despair. When I woke up the next morning, my body was fine, but it also wasn’t. I rationalized that since I was still here, I had to seek medical help.

I went to CAPS for an emergency walk-in appointment with my psychiatrist. She called Campus Police. Campus Police called the emergency medical technicians after one officer asked to see the damage. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t really have a choice. The medical model, which the mandatory leave mirrors, seldom offers Mad people choices; instead, it intimidates. I was in a room full of police officers, a psychiatrist, and a mental health nurse.

Paramedics eventually joined the party. The police officers and paramedics escorted me out of CAPS. I felt like a criminal walking through the Koffler Centre. Inside the ambulance, a paramedic took my vitals and attempted small talk.

“So, what do you study?”


“Cool, what kind of English?”

“Modern poetry.”

“Cool, and how’s modern poetry?”

“It’s fine.”

“Well, you know, we all have bad days. You just have to stay positive.”

A Campus Police officer stayed with me in the waiting room. She showed me pictures of her dog on her iPhone. I didn’t feel like talking about her dog. I didn’t feel like talking.

A security guard joined the police officer to observe me. A doctor examined me before making her final assessment: “You know this could have killed you, right?”

I shrugged off her finger-wagging. She then established whether I posed a physical threat to myself and/or other people.

The slash is a convenient punctuation mark.

Incidentally, the threshold for intervention for a mandated leave also conflates “harm to self or others.” Since it’s easier to justify a mandated leave of absence for students at risk to others than it is to mandate a leave for students at risk to themselves, the policy combines the two scenarios. I would have met this threshold.

If a denied petition was enough to push me over the edge, what would a mandatory leave do to students like me? After treatment and observation in Mount Sinai Hospital, practitioners sent me to CAMH, where I stayed the night. I returned to school and my work-study position the next day.

I appealed my denied petition, finished my coursework, finished my summer class, and finished third year — three very different Fs.

Toward the end of the summer, I returned to Switzerland, and, unfortunately, another trauma occurred. It happened on the night of August 22, 2017. I was raped in an alleyway behind the bus stop where I used to wait as a kid. My parents took me to a hospital, where I stayed overnight.

A nurse drew my blood and brought me to an adjustable bed. I pulled the papery white blanket over my body. There would be more tests, examinations, preventative injections, and pills to take when I woke up. Given my psychiatric hospitalizations that year, it was strange to be in a hospital for purely physical reasons.

Back in Toronto a few weeks later, I felt sick from the antibiotics and post-exposure prophylaxis pills I was taking in addition to psychotropic medication. I knew how trauma worked after my first assault; school would be hard, so I booked an appointment with my accessibility counsellor to discuss accommodations.

“Something traumatic happened,” I told her, hoping that was enough of a story to have my academic needs met. I clung to the indefiniteness of “something,” but my counsellor asked for more.

“Was it sexual trauma?” I wanted to say ‘no.’ No to invasive questions. No to prurient curiosity veiled as concern. No to counselling that so desperately lacks trauma-informed approaches. Again, I said “yes.” One person’s trauma is another person’s intrigue.

It was only after this second assault that my former psychiatrist agreed to transfer my care to a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. For the first time, I experienced an appropriate approach to treating trauma. In my first appointment, the new psychiatrist said, “You can tell me as much or as little as you like. We don’t even have to talk about it.”

Different counsellors at U of T led me to believe that trauma therapy required traumatic retelling. This psychiatrist showed me an exit route without my having to search for one. He gave me the option to say ‘no,’ a ‘no’ I knew he’d respect. My care got better, but I got worse.

Toward the end of fall term in 2017, trauma took its toll and sparked a bipolar mixed episode. This episode included racing thoughts, heightened irritability, pressured speech, erratic energy, and about two hours of sleep a night over two weeks.

I hallucinated while trying to write a seminar presentation and paper on Virginia Woolf and Jacques Derrida (two writers who can make anyone’s head spin). I heard voices saying, “There’s something you need to show, there’s something you know.” I started seeing things that weren’t there.

Words transformed. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library turned into Rape Fisher. I saw a mangled skeleton on College Street. After a rare nap, I woke up to a man in a mask. I saw devils on the day of my presentation. An hour before class, I ran around the JCR talking about Derrida and “what it all means” to anyone who would listen. My apologies to all these people.

Those who support the mandated leave policy would argue that I should have taken a leave of absence. But while students in these situations often need more time, more time does not mean mandated time away from one’s school community.

Last winter term, I took a creative writing course with Professor S. She let me write about my rape in a personal essay. Writing this essay restored my ability to write. It took me five months, but I eventually finished that Woolf paper. Had I been placed on leave, I would have lost the support I got from my professor.

On June 27, 2018, I joined a group of students in protest while Governing Council held a meeting to pass the mandated leave policy. We chanted and gave speeches outside Simcoe Hall. The noise we made reached Hart House, and our message reached the news.

While we made ourselves heard, the governors did not listen. At the end of the meeting, our voices were raw, and the policy passed. It rained that day.

I worry about students who could lose their jobs, their residency, their international student visas. I worry about marginalized students, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Colour, who will face the additional stress and discrimination of a mandatory leave. I worry about Disabled and Mad/Mentally Ill students. I worry about students dealing with difficult life experiences.

When the proposal first came to light, many of my friends and I were afraid to be on campus, afraid to be seen in CAPS and Accessibility Services. This policy will dissuade students from seeking help. This policy will divest Mad and Mentally Ill students of the dignity and agency they deserve. This policy will put people’s lives at risk.

The day after the mandatory leave policy passed, Professor S. emailed me: “Keep fighting — we studied human rights together, and your right to participate at your university is one.” Students will keep fighting against the policy. We will hold the policy administrators accountable for their discrimination until we’re guaranteed barrier-free access to education.

We will keep telling our stories. This was mine.

U of T releases survey on sexual violence

Survey driven by provincial legislation

U of T releases survey on sexual violence

Students are receiving email invitations from the administration to participate in a ‘Student Voices on Sexual Violence’ survey, an initiative mandated by the provincial government.

U of T is surveying all full-time students from February 26 to March 26 as a “tool for benchmarking and understanding sexual violence on university campuses,” according to a statement from Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh.

The survey is being conducted at institutions across the province by CCI Research Inc. on behalf of the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Ontario Bill 132, which amended the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act to include a section on sexual violence, is the legal mandate behind the survey.

The amendment sets requirements for Ontario postsecondary institutions regarding data collection and sexual violence reporting.

It also defines sexual violence as “any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent, and includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.”

Students are incentivized to complete the 20-minute survey with a $5 electronic gift card for Amazon, Starbucks, or Indigo.

The survey includes questions regarding personal information, experiences with sexual violence, understanding of consent, knowledge of support and reporting resources, and level of satisfaction with the university’s handling of sexual violence cases.

Silence is Violence (SiV), an anti-sexual violence student advocacy group on campus, has had its own sexual violence survey open to the public since February 13. SiV’s survey was launched after a year and a half of development, and it was not created in response to the university’s survey.

Jessica Wright, who conducts research at SiV, is critical of the fact that the initiative for the survey came from a government mandate. Wright expressed skepticism about how the information will be used and about whether the U of T survey will be effective. “Part of the culture of the university perpetuates the cultural conditions that make rape and sexual assault so horrifyingly common,” she said.

In a statement on U of T News, Welsh said that the feedback from the survey “will help us better understand the experiences of our students and their needs and concerns.”

Welsh further added, “This will ultimately help us improve the university’s support services for our community.”

If you have experienced sexual violence you can call Campus Police at (416) 978-2222 for UTSG and UTSC or (905) 569-4333 for UTM.

Support is also available through the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, which can be reached by phone at (416) 978-2266 and is located at 702 Spadina Avenue at UTSG, Room 3094G in the Davis Building at UTM, and Room 141 in the Environmental Science & Chemistry Building at UTSC.

Changes to U of T’s Sexual Violence Centre parallel recent global events

Re: “Sexual violence centre sees structural changes in leadership”

Changes to U of T’s Sexual Violence Centre parallel recent global events

Just this past weekend at the Golden Globes, women in the entertainment industry made a bold statement against sexual violence. Many prominent actresses invited women’s rights advocates to accompany them to the event, and together they raised awareness for the #TimesUp campaign, which raises money to help pay the legal fees of sexual assault victims.

This, along with movements such as the widespread #MeToo campaign, suggests that our culture is beginning to face up to the startling realities of sexual violence. In many respects, the current discussion we are having will lead to seismic changes, as it should. In others, changes will be small, but should nevertheless not go without their due praise.

The recent changes made by the university to restructure the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, for instance, is a relatively small change. The centre has split a portfolio between two staff members, stating that delegating responsibility in this way will ensure each part of this portfolio is granted more time and attention.

The willingness to make this change seems to indicate that those in charge actually care about the work they do and about improving their services for students. This sentiment is also supported by the fact that that the centre promises to try to minimize disruptions, vowing that students who seek assistance over a period of time will be able to work with the exact same staff.

It is unclear whether the restructuring of this portfolio was in direct response to the current conversation taking place, or merely in the spirit of improving services long-term. However, any attempt to improve the quality of care to those who have suffered from sexual violence should be noted and appreciated, particularly within the current social climate.

Vidhant Pal is a graduate student at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.

Putting trauma in print

As sexual assault allegations continue to surface in the media, journalists must critically examine their responsibilities as storytellers and public informants

Putting trauma in print

Significant media attention has been focused on the explosive accusations of sexual assault and misconduct recently leveled against some of the most powerful men in entertainment and politics. As story after story has been broken — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Louis CK — the voices of those victimized by sexual violence have reached the ears of international audiences.

More disturbing still is that many of these highly publicized outcries are paralleled by the experiences of the people around us. The social media campaign #MeToo has emboldened hundreds of our peers to share that they have been victims of sexual violence and harassment. Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against Trinity College and the University of Toronto for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault case is still ongoing. Around the same time the CK story came out, one of The Varsity’s masthead members received a wholly unsolicited pornographic photo from another student.

Sexual violence is not limited to what is portrayed by international headlines: it is a nefarious reality that will affect most people in some way during their lives. It is also something that has proven very difficult to talk about for many people. These cases involve vulnerable persons and deeply intrusive information, not to mention facts that can be muddled by stereotypes and by the competing interests of the implicated parties.

It is the media who are given the incredibly important task of consolidating the facts into a narrative, of informing the public in the way that is both ethical and true. In light of the sensitive nature of sexual violence cases, journalists must critically examine the means by which they carry out their duties in this respect.

On November 15, in partnership with Silence is Violence, The Varsity hosted a panel entitled “Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence.” Led by Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Life writer Lauren McKeon, and  activist and co-founder of grassroots organization femifesto Shannon Giannitsopoulo, the discussion centred on how media professionals can adopt appropriate reporting practices and reconcile any legal or ethical conflicts they encounter.

In the Unfounded series Doolittle spearheaded at the Globe, it was revealed that one in five claims of sexual assault in Canada are dismissed by police as baseless. While some complaints may indeed have been unfounded, in other cases, blatant negligence or misogyny on the part of police forces — such as in the famous case of Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police — have left complainants out in the cold, aggravating feelings of fear or mistrust when dealing with police in general.

When complainants do not feel comfortable dealing with police, or they feel as if their cases are not being taken seriously, the media can play a role in helping them achieve justice. In this sense, journalists are often known both for blowing the whistle on powerful people and for battling against efforts being made to bury the hatchet.

The Harvey Weinstein case is particularly galling given the complicity and wilful blindness demonstrated by Weinstein’s many enablers, and the lengths to which the producer went to cover up his actions. In a follow-up to his original exposé in The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow revealed that Weinstein had enlisted ex-Mossad agents to get close to some of his victims and mine them for information, sometimes under the guise of being women’s rights advocates. Journalists who were in dogged pursuit of Weinstein, including Jodi Kantor of The New York Times and Farrow himself, were also targeted by Weinstein for investigation.

Given the influence of the media in shaping people’s perceptions of events, journalists must ensure that their work does not further contribute to the conditions that can make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult. At the same time, many people are genuinely concerned about the influence media coverage might have on the public’s perception of accused persons. What is often alluded to in this regard is the presumption of innocence under section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which requires the accused to be presumed innocent until the  Crown can prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt and before an independent and impartial tribunal.

The presumption of innocence is an important and often misconstrued idea that, in the context of sexual assault cases, squarely applies to representatives in the criminal justice system. Given that the media is neither a criminal law institution nor a representative of the government, it does not owe the accused the same right; rather, it finds its obligations within defamation law, an entirely different set of standards.

Nevertheless, media professionals are also required to be watchful of baseless allegations — in acknowledgment that a false or misleading story can potentially ruin the life of the person about whom it is written. As Doolittle pointed out, journalists tend to be extremely cautious when writing about sexual assault, including through the use of words like ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ when discussing claims yet to be confirmed by the courts.

Reporting on these stories can therefore involve a delicate balancing act, one often sorted out case by case. The discussion that took place at the panel last week provided insight into the steps journalists can take to ensure they are engaging in appropriate practices.

For one, journalists should be keenly aware of the impact stories might have on the people represented in them. Before publishing the Unfounded series, Doolittle gave each of her interviewees the option to be quoted anonymously or to withdraw from the story altogether. She was careful to emphasize the importance of explaining to complainants how their lives would be affected by going public with their stories.

Another point of caution pertains to language usage. In a guide entitled “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,”  femifesto advises journalists to omit details about the accused that might serve to imply that they are not ‘the type’ to commit such acts. This is to avoid the pitfalls of media attention centred on people like Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was convicted of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman. Turner was often referred to in headlines as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than, for example, ‘the convicted felon.’

Finally, accusations made against certain people cannot be differentially treated on the basis of the institutions in which they work, or ‘the type’ of people we think they are. As allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Mark Halperin, and others have shown, the media itself is hardly immune to outbreaks of sexual misconduct. An anonymous spreadsheet entitled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” — the virtual embodiment of a whisper network — circulated online last month, allowing women to document their disturbing experiences with men in the media. This means that journalists should not only take great care when reporting on the experiences of others, but they must also watch for any violence happening around them.

Reporting on sexual violence is an immensely important responsibility, and the integrity and critical self-reflection that must underlie journalistic practices in this regard cannot be understated. The sheer number of accused abusers and misogynists seemingly crawling out of the woodwork might make us enraged or pessimistic, particularly since so many stories festered for years before being brought to the surface. But as McKeon put it, the current momentum of these stories also provides journalists with an opportunity to shed light on those not being told.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

Robyn Doolittle, Shannon Giannitsopoulou, and Lauren McKeon joined The Varsity to discuss responsible journalism for difficult subject matter

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

At the end of the last academic year, my friend Tamsyn Riddle announced she was filing a human rights complaint against U of T and Trinity College for their handling of her sexual violence complaint. Shortly after, I was elected as The Varsity’s Features Editor. Throughout the summer, while working a nine-to-five job, I began preparing potential feature stories for this year. Following the aftermath of ex-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault acquittal, I was adamant that the issue of sexual violence needed to be covered in-depth in my section — I just didn’t know how.

It was sometime during my two-hour commute to work that I came up with the idea for a series on the subject. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would look, but I knew it would be a multifaceted endeavor.

In the middle of the summer I caught up with Riddle in a small Annex diner. I wanted to get her opinion on the potential series. She liked the idea, agreed the issue should be covered, and expressed interest in writing a feature on her experience reporting her assault to the university.

Her article was published on September 25. In the process of editing the story, I had multiple conversations with the Editor-in-Chief and Riddle herself on whether to name faculty and staff members relevant to her story. Because the story was a first-person narrative, it didn’t make sense to reach out to those mentioned for comment. Instead, with Riddle’s permission, we included an editor’s note at the top of the article explaining that “allegations made toward the faculty members and staff members identified in this article are unproven in court;” Riddle could write an open account of her experience, and The Varsity could protect itself legally.

The conversations we had in the newsroom regarding this article were crucial. We all recognized the importance of publishing the story, but the path to doing so was not clear-cut. I wanted Riddle’s story published, but I also wanted to ensure I was being fair to all those involved. Ultimately, the topic of the Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence panel, hosted at The Varsity on November 15, stemmed from this tension: how should journalists cover stories of sexual violence in a respectful and responsible way?

I had the privilege of hosting this panel discussion and moderating it with Riddle. The Varsity collaborated on the event with a sexual violence activist organization at U of T that Riddle is a member of called Silence is Violence. The panelists came from an array of backgrounds and spoke from varying perspectives. Shannon Giannitsopoulou is the co-founder of femifesto, a feminist organization based in Toronto. She is also a contributing writer for “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a guide for the media when covering issues concerning sexual violence. Her perspective was valuable at the panel because it is not from inside the media itself, but rather from working to educate those who work in the media and how they should cover the subject.

Lauren McKeon, our second panelist, has primarily worked in magazines. She is currently the digital editor at The Walrus and a contributing editor at Toronto Life. McKeon also taught at Humber College and is the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism. Her article for Toronto Life, “Fifteen years of silence: I was raped three times in less than 10 years. I knew all of my attackers. This is my story,” was an honest and raw portrayal of the experiences of a sexual violence survivor. I was grateful to have her speak at the event.

Our final panelist, Robyn Doolittle, broke one of the largest stories in recent Canadian history on police treatment of those who formally report their sexual assaults. Her investigation took approximately 20 months, during which she explored instances of police dismissing sexual assault cases as “unfounded” — essentially, when police believed the assault never occurred. Before this “Unfounded,” article, Doolittle wrote for the Toronto Star covering former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Given the breadth of her coverage and implications it has had on policy, we were happy to have her attend the panel.

With the unique experiences of these three women, the conversation was extremely insightful. It explored questions that I had as a student journalist who has covered this topic, and it showcased perspectives I hadn’t considered. In this vein, I thought it was fitting to break down the key issues discussed at the event — for the public, for journalists, and for myself.

We need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told…what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.


Over the last few weeks, the outcry of sexual assault allegations against multiple men in Hollywood has been astonishing. Riddle asked the panelists how these stories and similar ones impacted conversations about sexual violence and its media coverage.

Giannitsopoulou began by mentioning that, when working on femifesto’s guide in 2011, a lot of these large stories were not yet published. She’s pleased that the guide was created before the Ghomeshi case and the Harvey Weinstein scandal because it’s readily available at a time when reporters need it.

Giannitsopoulou also discussed the importance of diversity of stories, paying particular attention to whose stories are told and which stories garner attention and space. She said, “Indigenous women from Saskatchewan that were missing… have 3.5 times less coverage than women in Ontario that were also murdered and missing. And they were less likely to have images of the women.” Giannitsopoulou continued by pointing out that Indigenous women who are shown in newspapers are more likely to be “on the corner of the page and not on the front page.”

McKeon agreed with Giannitsopoulou, saying, “I think we need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told… what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.” Given the increasing coverage of this subject, McKeon said that “now’s the time that there is this appetite for [sexual violence coverage] and people are really listening… which is both encouraging and a little depressing.”

Doolittle discussed the impact these stories have had on policy given the increased attention. She specifically spoke about the implications of her Unfounded series: “since Unfounded ran in February… something like half of the police services in this country have reviewed thousands of sexual assault cases, they’re passing policies around having supervisors involved in decisions, they’re doing a training overhaul that takes the neurobiology of trauma into account, the federal government has committed a hundred million dollars to address violence against women.”



Language was, unsurprisingly, discussed at length. I asked the panelists what process journalists should follow when choosing language and phrasing about sexual violence. The question stemmed from my understanding of sexual violence terminology, specifically the common use of the term ‘survivor’ over ‘victim.’

Acknowledging that wording can be “tricky,” Giannitsopoulou stressed the importance of ensuring the consent of a source when deciding how they will be identified in a story: “I personally prefer the word ‘survivor.’ I think it underlines resilience. But some people don’t like the word ‘survivor’, some people prefer the word ‘victim’ because it speaks to their experience of healing.”

While objectivity is key when reporting, Giannitsopoulou mentioned that all language has connotations and that “no language is neutral.”

Doolittle mentioned that the “Use the Right Words” campaign Giannitsopoulou has worked on in femifesto has taught her a lot as a journalist. “What it’s really taught me is that journalists are very careful about some of the language they use around sexual assault allegations and not careful around allegations for other crimes.”

Instead of removing the term ‘allegedly’ when reporting on sexual violence, Doolittle suggested that news reporters and investigative journalists actively include the term when referring to other types of crime. In doing so, the term ‘allegedly’ is no longer associated with sexual violence but rather all unproven crimes. Additionally, Doolittle doesn’t use the terms ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ in her reporting unless a court ruling is made — she often uses the term ‘complainant’ instead.

“If I say someone was a victim of sexual assault, I am saying it happened. If I say they were a victim, I am saying it happened. And, it’s not that I don’t believe them… but I do the story a disservice by not being as objective as possible,” said Doolittle.

McKeon spoke on the relationship between language, communication, and trust, saying that once trust is broken between a reporter and their source there’s little way to reclaim it. Because sexual violence survivors already face high rates of skepticism, confidence in a reporter for accurately sharing their stories is imperative, McKeon added.


Given the virality of the #MeToo campaign following Weinstein’s coverage and the popularity of the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported a few years earlier, I was interested in what the panelists thought about social media activism, if it has helped progress conversations, and if it has influenced their work.

McKeon said that social media activism encouraged her to come forward with her own story, and that online activism and hashtags have the potential to build a community. However, she said that journalists should use online sexual violence trends as “a launching off point.”

“What we have to do though is find a way to move beyond those hashtags in our reporting, because they don’t tell the whole story,” said McKeon.

Doolittle expressed that the power of #MeToo was in demonstrating both explicit instances of sexual violence and injustices that women face on a daily basis.

Giannitsopoulou discussed the subject of social media activism and the #MeToo campaign as requiring nuance: “I’m glad that people are sharing their stories, but I don’t want survivors to feel like if they’re not feeling safe or if they don’t want to share their stories that their experience as a survivor is not valid.

“I would also not like to put the onus on survivors to have to keep telling our stories when we know one in three women, one in six men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and [for] trans and non-binary folks it’s disproportionately higher than that,” said Giannitsopoulou.

Throughout my process of organizing and moderating this panel, one common theme stood out: consent in reporting. While there are a variety of considerations to take into account when reporting on issues of sexual violence — and I definitely learned a lot — it’s important to remember that, as McKeon stated, “No survivor owes you their story.”

It is crucial for us as journalists to ensure open communication, respect, and to uphold the consent of survivors in each step of the publishing process. This includes consent with terminology, consent to going on record, and consent to sharing their story.

— With files from Priyanka Sharma.


Watch the full livestream on the panel on Facebook.