My first fall at SFU I was studying, my bag and books spread on the seat next to me, when a man I’d never met asked to sit where the books were. The area was full of space, but he wanted mine.
“Hey, I’m a TA for that class,”, he said to gesturing towards my textbook. Taken aback, I had a flush of embarrassment that I had reluctantly moved my things, as if my unladylike manners could affect my grade. Still, the conversation went on. He spoke about material that would be on the midterm and asked me my opinions on communist theory, technological surveillance, and then my name, building, and floor in Residence. “You don’t have to study, I have the midterm right here,” he said.
He went on to describe that he would only show exams and give A’s to students that provide him with sexual favors. That was how his cousin got a good grade in the class—by giving him a blowjob. He made the actions to go with the statement, pretending to give head. I thought that this must be some kind of joke. An inappropriate joke but a joke just the same.
He didn’t laugh.
I got up to leave, then he told me to wait, that he had to grab something and would be right back: to just wait. He disappeared down the hallway. The girl beside me furrowed her brows and said, “You need to leave right now.”
I left and tore my name tag off my residence door, hoping that he wouldn’t look for me there. Then I opened the Canvas page for the course and checked the tab for TAs. He wasn’t one of them. I spent the night alone in my room confused about what happened and scared about a potential knock on my door that very night.
The knock never came.
I saw him again the first day of the next semester, in whole new classes. The man who said he was my TA. He walked straight towards me and I looked away, music blasting in my ears. He began speaking to me. Frustrated that I did not acknowledge him he began swearing and yelling. I stared at the floor and felt the flicker of real fear.
The class began and he watched me not as a TA, but as a student. The walls felt as if they were closing in on me and the teacher’s words became a jumble in my thoughts.
It was my nineteenth birthday.
I continued to miss the class until my grade dropped. I emailed my TA explaining why I wanted to switch class times. She forwarded it to the professor, they asked me to take my case to the student conduct office, and ultimately I attended a new tutorial time.
Still, he became all I saw. Over the next few weeks, in lecture and in the dining hall, he was always approaching me. And it wasn’t just me: similar stories circulated about this man and how he was harassing other girls. That was when I decided to make that appointment.
The woman at student conduct met me, and I explained what happened, then about how he asked me for my name and where I lived. She scolded me, saying that was the wrong way to handle the situation. She said I should have “just walked away” and asked if he ever “actually touched me.” After barely writing anything down, she told me that the incident cannot be categorized as sexual harassment, wished me a good day, and ushered me out.
As the door closed behind me I felt embarrassed for wasting her time and walked down the AQ. Despite this, I felt the cold February air sting against my hot tears.
It was Valentine’s day.
The rest of the semester spiralled. I told my parents about what happened, and met with more people from the University. Some were furious with what happened and said they would ban him right away, but did not have the authority. Others explained that it is a long process to put sanctions on where in the school he can be. One person told me to get as many girls to email the school with complaints as possible. So I did.
I shared my story on the Facebook group INPOWER and asked girls who had come in contact with this individual to email their stories. The response was overwhelming. The post got thousands of comments, likes, and pledges to emails.
Then I had the attention of security. They had gotten an overwhelming amount of emails and met with me to discuss.
The head of security told me that the accusations of “hearsay” were useless to my case and harmful to the TA man’s “academic reputation” . He told me to get the girls to stop emailing, as if his only concern was saving the state of his overflowing inbox.
Security did nothing. Walking home that night I felt someone was following me. No one was around and I cried in fear. I was afraid of men everywhere, and they became easy to hate as a whole, once I hated the man who wasn’t my TA, representives from security, the men who whistled at me on the street, who hit on me in the club. I was afraid of men everywhere. I hated; them, him, the man from security, the men who whistled at me on the street, the men hit on me in the club. I hated the guys that threw frat parties, sat beside me on the bus and who I thought were my friends, yet when they were drunk put their arms around me and asked to sleep with me. I hated them all.
Security ‘resolved’ the situation by showing the TA man my photo ID and name. He found me not an hour later in a locked computer lab. I left immediately, ignoring his words but turned around upon leaving and saw he’d written in capitals on the whiteboard: B I T C H.
I applied to other universities. I called Safe Walk. Security guards stood outside the classes we shared. People talked. He was still around. He got suspended for a week, but came back. The school did nothing more.
The TA man got expelled eventually. It wasn’t my efforts that caused the breakthrough, but another girl’s story.
The professor who originally emailed me, announced the expulsion of the TA man in lecture and was greeted with applause. I sat between students who I thought would never hear this story and blinked back the tears.
I now attend class with a renewed hope that the camaraderie and strength of women standing together against adversity at this school, and in the world,will make real social change.It will be the female peers that I’m in class with every day who will fight for our right to have our voices heard against the rigid rules of patriarchy.
Speak out. Claim your space. Make your voice heard. We’re listening.