I need to start this by saying that I wish I didn’t have to talk about what I’m going to talk about. I wish my thesis topic didn’t exist. But here I am. I am here because sexual violence is not just a small, sometimes thing. Sexual violence is a global, human rights tragedy. And we have got to start talking about it.
If my presentation triggers you in any way, my hope is that you will prioritize self care, in whatever capacity you need to. There is a resource sheet on the table as you exit the room.
My thesis is on Lived Experiences with Sexual Violence.
When I talk about Lived Experiences, I am making a statement that the things that individuals experience, and how they understand their experiences, matters. My whole thesis exists around two facts: firstly, everyone’s lived experiences are unique to them. Secondly, sexual violence is a social issue that has got to be given more attention.
When I did my undergraduate degree, I started reading literature on sexual violence as a means of understanding my own experiences. And what I found was that very seldom did what I was reading actually represent how I understood my lived experiences. While the literature talked about differences between “sexual assault”/“rape”, and “victim”/“survivor”, none of those words encapsulated my feelings. Literature made it seem as though it was all wrapped in a neat little box, and the truth of the matter is that I was a fucking mess.
There are a lot of words that people use to describe the experience of sexual violence. Most often, we hear people use “rape”/“sexual assault”. I choose to recognize my experiences as “sexual violence”, because it feels more inclusive to my experiences of each sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment. There is one commonality among all of those experiences: violence. When I talk about violence, I don’t mean violence in Webster-dictionary, physical force kind of way. I mean violence in the sense that someones physical, emotional, spiritual, mental humanity is being disregarded.
What I found was that while there were themes running through the interviews, everyone had a different or slightly nuanced understanding of the issues. While all ten of my participants were able to conceptualize sexual violence, every single definition was different than the next. The same thing happened when I asked my participants how they understand consent, and how they conceptualized blame. Their lived-experiences drove their understandings.
Interestingly, for most of my participants, it was the chance to share their stories that drew them to participate. Most people who contacted me didn’t acknowledge that I was doing research; they wanted to share their stories with me.
My hope is that you have someone to share your story with. My hope is that you know that your experiences, like mine, and my participants’, matter.
This is [some version of] what I would have shared, had I participated in Lakehead Universities 3 Minute Thesis competition. I initially signed up for the competition, and shared with one of my thesis supervisors that I was excited to participate in the competition and bring the subject of sexual violence to a space that it likely wouldn’t otherwise be.
As I have with any other time I’ve spoken about sexual violence, I wanted to be able to include a resource document that shares names and contact information for community resources. On February 25th, I e-mailed the Graduate Student Association (GSA) to ask that they put my document on the table, so that if someone in the room experiences a trigger during my presentation, they could grab the document on their way out.
That same day, they responded that the competition “disallows props or additional materials that would be used to enhance the presentation”, and then asked for clarification on what exactly the list was. They asked if it would be used as a part of the spoken presentation.
I responded within a half hour that it was not a prop, but a document containing community organizations and campus-based supports that would be useful for anyone who might experience a trigger due to my presentation. I further clarified that regarding my spoken presentation, I had a trigger/content warning at the start, which simply (but importantly) asks individuals to prioritize self-care and informs folks that there would be the document at the back of the room for anyone who may need it. As I wrote in the e-mail, “I by no means talk about the contents of the document; I simply make its existence in the room known.”
After this e-mail, I put thinking about the Three Minute Thesis on hold and started focusing on other things in life (including working on my thesis itself).
On March 11th, there was an e-mail sent out to everyone by the GSA reminding us of some rules surrounding the Three Minute Thesis.
I responded the next day noting that I would be removing myself from the competition, because on an ethical level, I refuse to present my research materials without those resources and a trigger warning, and it was two days before the competition and I had not yet heard back from anyone. I noted in the e-mail that it was a shame that the GSA could not provide me with a simple and timely response to a question that, on an ethical level, should have been a very simple “yes”.
That same day, which was a Saturday, I received a response stating that “after some back and forth on the topic with the provincial organizers, we have decided these resources you mentioned are not against any rules.” They then asked that I reconsider suspending my registration due to the fact that the Three Minute Thesis competition is “a great opportunity for graduate students like yourself to show case not only your presentation skill but also what you have worked so hard on in your graduate studies”. They then asked me to advise if I would be competing or not, and thanked me for my “patience in this matter”.
I e-mailed back that I find it problematic that it took two and a half weeks of supposed back and forth to decide to do something that most people recognize is an ethical responsibility. I posed the following question in my e-mail: “At what point does researcher responsibility become secondary to a competition?” I then informed them that, while my thesis work is important (and clearly needs to be shared widely), because I was not communicated with in a timely matter I had not fine-tuned nor spent time rehearsing, and therefore I would not participate. There was no response.
The very simple reason for me not wanting to participate is that I refused to stand in front of an audience and potentially misrepresent my participants due to not being adequately prepared. Further, I did not want to chance misrepresenting myself as a professional/researcher/VISA (Victim as Survivor and Advocate)/friend due to not having adequately prepared for the competition. Beyond that, I also didn’t want to misrepresent the team that has been backing me through my research (particularly my thesis supervisors, my departments (Sociology and Women’s Studies), as well as the GIC and Pride (who have opened their spaces for me to interview in)).
I have to reiterate my biggest issue (beyond a fear of misrepresentation) with this whole thing: it apparently took two and a half weeks of back and forth with the provincial organizers of the Three Minute Thesis for the Lakehead University GSA to conclude that my resource document, which was designed to assist people experiencing triggers related to sexual violence was, indeed, allowed at the competition, and that I could do a verbal trigger waning at the start of my presentation, and note in that trigger warning that these resource documents were available.
Two and a half weeks.
Given that content warnings are often done at events like Take Back The Night, where more people than not in the room understand concepts of self-care and triggers, I absolutely had an ethical responsibility as a researcher and decent human being do one in a space where most individuals have no clue that the subject of sexual violence is going to come up. On a very simple, ethical level, there is no reason that the GSA should not have immediately responded “sure, no problem”. In fact, that it did not happen in that way shows that people have no understanding whatsoever about the immensity of sexual violence. The fact that the GSA even considered, however briefly, that a competition (for monetary gain) was more important than the mental health of that competitions attendees infuriates me to the core. If it doesn’t do the same for you, perhaps you, like the GSA and Three Minute Thesis organizers, need to read my thesis.