Banter in the Garden
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Tea and Strumpets
*Trigger Warnings for sexual assault and sexual harassment*
This is an article about an attack on a woman in Massey University Wellington.
Massey Wellington was my home both socially, professionally and academically for 3 years while I completed my degree. I worked on campus in the Student’s Association, I partied on the campus with my classmates and I spent a depressing amount of time half-asleep in the back of lecture theatres. I love its weird super-industrialised-ex-polytech-linoleum-everywhere vibe, the cavernous old museum creative arts spaces across the car park, the committed and warm staff and the diverse student body.
What I didn’t love was the fact that for almost the entire time I was studying, my female peers and I knew that the bathrooms on level B, block 5 had a resident ‘peeping tom’ and the library had a ‘flasher’. The student magazine reported on the reoccurring incidents involving these perpetrator/s with a mixture of seriousness and humour – because even though these were actually events of sexual harassment and sexual violence, they were very cliché and therefore somehow easy humour. I think the library flasher even had a trench coat.
I remember my younger self laughing a wee bit at these stories because I didn’t really understand them. I didn’t know what it would be like to have someone approach you while you were trying to find a book down a quiet row of shelves and get their penis out. I didn’t know what it would be like to have a guy hide in the toilet cubicle next to yours until he could hear you going to the toilet (so you couldn’t get up quickly) and look over the side of the cubicle before running away.
I didn’t have a feminist analysis of anything except my mother’s mantra of “girls can do anything” which was usually solely applied to home DIY. I didn’t know that ‘violence’ wasn’t just physical. I didn’t think about the fact that women were the sole targets of these campus attacks, or what that said about the world I lived in. I just read ‘peeping tom’ and saw a distant cartoonish villain to be laughed at.
That was until 2007 when I wandered into the bathrooms on level B, block 5 one day without thinking. I was working, and I was unusually in the area and really needed to pee. No one was around (as usual, the whole floor was a pretty creepy area actually) and I went into the barely-lit bathroom and found a cubicle. When I shut the door I saw a sign on the back of the stall that said “females in this area” had been “experiencing problems” with sexual harassment or something similar to that effect.
I suddenly realised that I was in a dark bathroom, on a floor with little-to-no regular foot traffic, in a room that had seen repeat occurrences of sexual violence, and Massey University had given me a small laminated sign. Multiple females had experienced a hugely distressing personal invasion, perhaps in the very cubicle I was standing in and Massey put up a notice. I promptly left the bathroom, and as many of us have done before, I figured that this was just life.
My partner is now a postgrad student at Massey University and when he’s on campus he is based on level B, block 5. I have discovered that the abandoned linoleum-heavy, echoey halls of level B are in fact inhabited by art students who are mostly all hiding in studios or computer labs which you would never know existed by the permeating 24/7 silence.
One day recently I was helping my partner with an assignment and needed to go to the bathrooms. Now forgive me, but nearly five years on I had almost completely forgotten about the bathroom incidents lending themselves to level B. I wandered in to that same dark bathroom, into a stall, closed the door behind me and found to my horror that I was faced with the same sign.
After 5 years, Massey University has not managed to shake their ‘peeping tom’, who by now I’m sure we can all agree is a repeat perpetrator of sexual violence and harassment, who gains pleasure and power from intruding on women. Women who will never use public bathrooms in the same way again. Women who no longer feel that their campus is a safe space for them, even in the middle of the day.
After five years, Massey University has done nothing obvious to me or any other student or visitor except to put up laminated signs warning potential victims of what they may expect to experience in this area. Warning victims. Not helping to protect victims, but asking them to protect themselves. This is a pretty common theme in rape culture (the norms and attitudes which allow victim blaming and a normalisation of sexual control over women) – the expectation that if you have experienced sexual assault or harassment you were probably putting yourself at risk, and you should have known better, so actually you’re partly to blame for the whole thing.
After five years, Massey appears to give such little of a shit about what happens to the students who use this bathroom that they haven’t even put brighter fucking lights in the room. There’s no security camera by the outside door, no security guard regularly knocking to see if everything’s okay. No swipe card only access to mitigate the potential for this attacker to walk in off the street, or to monitor who is entering the bathroom and match it with reports of harassment. No. Just a sign.
And now Massey is the subject of a news story about an attempted rape on campus. Not because this is rare for Massey or the surrounding area (Magneto, the student magazine publishes crime maps once a month and it is glaringly evident that this area is a hotspot for sexual assault), but because this woman got away through self defence. If she had have been raped, this story wouldn’t be news because it’s so common.
I can only hope that now Massey’s name is next to “sexual assault” in the media that they will wake up to the fact that they need to do more to protect their students. Because as it stands, acceptance of the constant possibility of sexual assault is becoming part of the campus culture. And that is totally unacceptable.