One Saturday afternoon last June, I got a call from London, Ont.’s police service. A young woman had allegedly been raped at a party I attended the previous November and they were gathering evidence. Would I give a statement? I agreed, and in less than 24 hours, two middle-aged police officers in casual clothing arrived at my apartment door. As we talked, they asked me to recount the night of the party: Who was there? Did I see anything unusual?
Working with law enforcement to assist in sexual assault cases is nothing new for me. As a frontline worker for Legal Aid Ontario, I help survivors of sexual violence seek justice and help them heal. And in the wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, there has been no shortage of women who need help. I’ve noticed that more women are willing to speak about their experiences, and even when a woman is reluctant to speak out, she usually feels reassured knowing that we are here to assist and have additional resources to offer.
That’s why, when the police got in touch with me after a friend gave them my name, I immediately agreed to answer their questions. I knew just how important my recollection of the night might be to the investigation, and not just because of my work—I’m also a survivor of rape, and five years prior, I had been the girl asking the police for help.
I provided the detectives with as many details as possible. I told them how there was a door leading to what I believed to be the basement, which had a sign saying, “DO NOT ENTER” taped to it. One by one, couples (or what I assumed to be couples) would enter and not resurface for a while. I gave them the pictures and videos I had taken that night and the names of all the people I knew at the party. And I hoped that maybe this time, justice could be served.
The night that changed everything
Until I was 17, I thought I was invincible. In my senior year of high school, I was captain of the Step Squad team and making straight As. I didn’t expect that what was supposed to be the “best year of my life” would quickly turn into the worst.
At my Hamilton, Ont. high school, it was a tradition for all the senior students to spend their last March Break together partying in Montreal. My girlfriends and I got two beautiful rooms at the Espresso Hotel, compiled a list of different parties we were going to check out, planned our outfits and packed our drinks for the week. The first two nights were great, but on the third night, we ended up at an after-party at a Best Western with some friends of friends. When we got to the hotel room, a friend I knew from cheerleading introduced us to some guys. I remember sitting on the bed and taking two shots with the group.
After that, everything goes dark. The next thing I remember was waking up in my hotel room the following morning with bruises on my body and a bump on my forehead. I couldn’t remember what happened after those two shots, but something didn’t feel right. How did I get back to my hotel? Why did I feel like I had been beaten up?
I knew something bad had happened, but I just didn’t know what.
My rape became a tweet
I didn’t get answers until I got home.
One of the few things I remembered about that night was the name of one of the guys involved, so I began lurking social media to find out who he was. To my surprise, I discovered that he had retweeted a post from another boy who had been at the hotel that night. It read, “Four little monkeys sitting on a bed, two got raped and one just bled.” Another tweet contained a video of me, semi-nude and clearly out of it.
I felt like someone had put a plastic bag over my head and left me to desperately gasp for air. I was overcome with so much anxiety, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. I sat on my bed for what felt like hours reading and re-reading the tweet, trying to make sense of it. I had no idea what the correct response would be. Was I supposed to cry? Send them a message requesting they take it down? Or was I supposed to feel guilty and accept my role in this incident?
I thought back to that morning in Montreal. When I asked my friends about the bruises, they said, “Oh, that’s weird” and explained how I had gotten back to the hotel. They didn’t know how to tell me the truth. But now, I needed to know the whole story.
Did this happen to me because I’m Black?
They told me that the group of five guys and four girls had quickly paired off. I was led into the bathroom. Two guys were either already there, or joined me and my “partner” shortly after. My friends say they began to worry because it seemed like I had been in the washroom for a really long time. They started to bang on the door. When we all emptied out of the bathroom, I was told that someone grabbed me and threw me on the bed and started to rape me. Other guys stood by yelling, “I’m next, I’m next!” eventually having their turn with me while my friends begged them to get off me. It wasn’t until I began bleeding that they decided they were finished and released me. And I wasn’t the only one; another friend had also been assaulted that night.
This tweet not only confirmed that I had been violated, it also referred to me and my girlfriends as “monkeys,” making me wonder if the assaults were racially motivated. To read the words “rape,” “blood,” and “monkeys” attached to a video footage of my bare breast, posted on social media for the world to see, made me viscerally realize something that I had only understood intellectually before: that as Black women, we’re always deemed undesirable—especially when compared to white women and women of other racialized backgrounds. It also reinforced a negative perception that I already had about myself: that I was somehow defective and worthy of abuse. Inside, I was still the insecure 13-year-old girl who desperately and religiously bleached her skin to achieve the complexion of a “more beautiful” woman. In that moment, I honestly wondered if this would have happened to me had I been a couple shades lighter.
And, for the first time in my life, I felt true fear. The realization that this could be racially motivated scared me—if that was the case, I knew I’d have to call the police. But Black women don’t always receive fair treatment from law enforcement.
Going to the police doesn’t feel safe for everyone
We live in a patriarchal society where women are held responsible for sexual acts in a way men just aren’t. And that’s particularly true of Black women, who have historically been stereotyped as exotic and promiscuous. We were even nicknamed “Black jezebels,” a moniker that implies lewd and even predatory behaviour. Worse, “in most [American] states, Black women—free and enslaved—were excluded from rape laws. In fact, no Southern states made it legally possible for slave women to file rape charges against a white man before 1861,” writes Crystal N. Feimster, associate professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies at Yale University.
Those injustices still resonate today. Black girls and women experience higher rates of sexual assault and rape than their white, Asian and Latina counterparts, but when we try to go to the police, we’re often not believed. According to the Women of Color Network, “stereotypes regarding [Black] women’s sexuality perpetuate the notion that [Black] women are willing participants in their own victimization.”
In retrospect, it’s no wonder I was so reluctant to go to the police. I had internalized these stereotypes. I was scared that the police would tell me I was responsible for my own rape. And since I hadn’t gone to the hospital, where nurses would likely have administered a rape kit exam, I was worried that a tweet and my friends’ recollection of the night would not be enough to build a solid case. Besides, my claim was against five white boys—and in the back of my mind, I suspected the police wouldn’t believe me over them.
“Don’t drink so much next time”
Still, I held out hope that the authorities would help me—or at least ensure the boys who raped me wouldn’t do this again. Unfortunately, my fears were justified—I wasn’t treated fairly. When I was just a witness to an alleged rape, the detectives drove two and a half hours from London, Ont. to Hamilton, Ont. to interview me. I sat down with two officers and they took my statements. I got to see the detectives in person, something I did not get to do during my own case, where I only spoke to my detective over the phone. They recorded our entire conversation, presumably to ensure accuracy, something that was not done for me. And what was the biggest difference between this woman’s case and my case? She was white.
I recently requested my case file to figure what exactly was said and what was done during the investigation. Two of the five men present that night told the police they did not assault me, and apparently that was enough to convince the police that they didn’t. When they were unable to reach the other three men, they stopped trying to get their statements. The police didn’t even consider the tweet evidence! In the end, it was still my word against the words of two young, white, promising men with “bright futures.”
I don’t even believe a thorough investigation was conducted. The detective I spoke to clearly didn’t take my case seriously, giving me “advice” like, “Don’t drink so much next time” and telling me to really think before I pressed charges, because the perpetrators, “would be registered as sex offenders and it would ruin their lives.” My case was shut and sealed, never to be transferred to the Montreal police for investigation, and according to my case file, I was “happy about the resolution, because I wanted to know what happened to me.” But to this day, I don’t truly know what happened that night.
What I hope my story will do
As a survivor and frontline worker, I believe that in the conversation around sexual violence, that the voices of racialized women need to be amplified in the same magnitude as those of white women. In our communities, we need to have access to resources that prepare us and teach us how to deal with incidents of sexual assault and make these services easily accessible in every community. When resources are inaccessible, especially for women who live in racialized and impoverished communities, many are discouraged to seek help or to utilize these services. We also need to ensure that in every police department, in every victim and witness assistance program and community support program that survivors can speak with workers who represent and reflect them.
We need to make Black women part of the conversation, and actively fight against the narratives and stereotypes that have kept women like me from getting the justice we deserve. Once we stop policing Black bodies, stop hypersexualizing Black women and specifically address the issues, ideologies and differences that impact a woman’s willingness to disclose sexual assault, I believe that Black women who felt discouraged from speaking out by fear, shame and guilt will instead feel motivated to share their experiences.
I did just that this year when I shared my story for the Violence 360 campaign, an initiative that leverages the cultural art of storytelling to explore the points where race, youth, and violence intersect. I did it with the hope that it would change the stigma surrounding the issue of rape, sexual assault and violation in the Black community. I told my story on camera, and realized that I am not what was done to me; now, I feel empowered by my resilience and the power I choose to walk in every day.
I hope my story gets men to understand that if a woman—of any background—is unable to consent, or if they notice a change in her behaviour after she gave consent, they should take the opportunity to do right by her.
And to the women who have ever been hurt and violated, it was never your fault.
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