I recently had the amazing opportunity to spend five weeks in a French immersion program at a university in Quebec City. I met amazing people, learned a lot of French, ate delicious food, and had an incredible time. It was a life-changing experience to say the least, but not always in the best way.
I go to a small liberal arts college in a calm, small city. I know most of the people in my school and adore the deep sense of community that I have there. I know that if I walked home after the bar, it would not only take me less than five minutes to get from any bar in town to residence, but that I would be safe. Being ingrained with rape culture, however, I do make sure I have a charged phone, some sort of weapon, and well-lit paths when I’m venturing alone. It was a change of scenery to go from that setting to a bustling campus with thousands living on residence, an overwhelming majority of whom were strangers. My residence was always open, featured glass walls, and had separate wings with their own elevators and staircases.
My second Wednesday in the program, I was coming home from a fun night of karaoke at a little past one in the morning. My friends, who lived in other residence buildings made it a point to stop at my residence despite their far walk so I didn’t have to walk alone. I walked across the lobby and down a hallway until I got to the elevator for my wing, tucked away in the corner of the square building. As soon as I pushed the button, I noticed footsteps pacing towards the elevator. Figuring it’s somebody who wanted to get home as well, I didn’t think much of it and began texting on my phone, telling my friends I got home safe and that I’ll see them tomorrow.
The man who started to wait for the elevator with me started talking to me. He asked me my name, to which I responded. Noticing I was an anglophone, he asked me if I was here for the immersion program and other related questions, to which I curtly answered. The elevator finally came and I got in and pressed my button. I asked the man what floor he was on and he said, “Whatever floor you’re going on.” As the door closed, my heart dropped. I froze.
The man began telling me that he could “show me a good time” and teach me French. He started inching closer. The elevator finally stopped at my floor, and I didn’t get off. I didn’t want to go to my room and have this guy knowing where I lived. Instinctively, I pushed the button back to the main floor, wanting to be where there were people. Although I was clearly uncomfortable, this man took that as a desire to go home with him and asked if I was coming with him. I told him no, that he should get off, and he grew visibly angry. When the elevator reached the lobby, he muttered foul things and stormed off. I immediately pressed the button for my seventh floor again, looked out for him when I got off, and ran immediately to my room and did not come out for the rest of the night, despite needing to use the bathroom. I was too scared to leave my room to pee in the school residence. Not being able to sleep, I laid awake the rest of the night and chewed over how messed up what I’d just experienced was.
This was the first time in my life where I experienced the consequences of patriarchal entitlement. This man made it clear that he didn’t leave in my wing, and I’m not sure if he even lives in my building- thankfully, I never saw him again after this incident. Although he had no business being there, this man chose to follow me from somewhere in the building to the elevator leading to the place I lived. This man might have been a stranger from the city because the residence had zero security features that would prevent non-residence students from wandering in. This man invaded my privacy and violated my sense of security by making advances and ignoring my obvious discomfort and somehow felt entitled to feel angry about my saying no. It infuriates me when I think about how he believed he deserved to be let into my room. I did not feel safe on campus for the rest of my stay. I was very uncomfortable every time I was in the elevator with somebody I didn’t know and was always antsy about having a similar experience.
I was very overwhelmed with what to do right after this incident happened. I was scared. What if people respond with victim-blaming comments that I would not be able to handle? Would people be indifferent because nothing physical happened? Is this a normal occurrence here? How would I be able to retell the story in French?
I decided that I did want to an authority figure about this but realized I lacked the resources to do so. We were given emergency security numbers and equipped with a red “in case of emergency” phone on every floor, but was never told of any other resources we could turn to for non-urgent but still dangerous situations like this. Then I remembered a presentation on the harassment prevention department in the beginning of the school year, and receiving a sheet. When I found the sheet and read it over, I couldn’t believe the “harassment prevention tips” that were given: consider what kind of a message you’re sending people, make sure you’re not dressed suggestively, control your drinking. All of these “tips” were slut-shaming, victim-blaming ideas presented as though the victim has a part in whether they get harassed or not. There was nothing along the lines of: if somebody does not reciprocate interest, leave them alone, make sure you’re creating a comfortable atmosphere for people, do not become aggressive to people, or anything that holds the harassers responsible and actually prevents rape.
I was pretty defeated at the lax and rape-apologist behavior that the school held, and when I expressed these concerns to my group of friends, not many of them seemed to recognize this as a problem. I did, however,I find out that several other girls had similar experiences within the residence building, from different men.
This incident was disturbing and unfortunate, but it did open my eyes to the fact that rape culture and the subsequent victim blaming and male entitlement do not merely exist but thrive, even in young minds. It was painful to have to describe my “not too bad” outfit to people and being dismissed when explaining that that it is an unimportant detail. People who heard what had happened even asked me what I was wearing, what time it was that night, and why I had talked to him if I wasn’t interested.The most upsetting comment I’d gotten was from a well meaning friend, who’d said “At least do anything serious.” That statement implied several things. A man invaded my security and tried to follow me home against my will and I am supposed to be glad he didn’t try to break in or physically assault me. What happened to me is not considered “serious” despite the fact I didn’t feel safe enough to leave my room the entire night.
Although that Wednesday night was definitely a dark part of my trip and tainted a lot of my experience overall, it helped me recognized the reality of rape culture and patriarchal entitlement and left me with a lasting impression. I plan on contacting various university officials regarding their ineffective wording and lack of resources. Truthfully, I am unsure of what more to do because of the omnipresent problem that is rape culture which goes beyond one school or one encounter.