Everything about studying abroad is daunting ― unfamiliar, scary. All the excitement is met with a nervous twitch because at the end of the day, you’re in a foreign environment. Maybe you have to speak a foreign language. As a result, your room, your temporary home, becomes a sanctuary. It’s the one place you can retire to without fear ― at least, that’s how I felt until an employee, someone paid to protect me and everyone else in the building, made sexual advances towards me and entered my living space without permission.
One day, I got a phone call from my flatmate. She was in tears, very shaken up, trying to explain how someone from the front desk burst into our apartment, without the required 24 hours notice, saying he was looking for the building’s shared guitar and asking for me by name. When I wasn’t there, he yelled at her and threatened to slap us with a €500 fine for the subpar state of our kitchen. Later, we received an email requiring us to meet with the manager.
“He clarified: ‘We should get a drink and see what happens.’”
Rewind to a month prior to this event. I was hanging out at the front desk. They had cats during the week so it was a favourite spot of mine. I was chatting with the man supervising the desk, who we’ll call Jamie. From my perspective, it was just friendly banter. Jamie was funny and I thought it was nice to talk to someone while I had my cat therapy. He shifted the conversation, looked down at his feet and said: “We should hook-up while you’re here.” I asked what he meant, because surely this staff member had better sense than to make sexual advances towards a student. Then I thought, maybe it’s colloquial? If craic was harmless then maybe so was “hook-up”. He clarified: “We should get a drink and see what happens.” I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I made a mental note to avoid Jamie for the rest of my time.
I definitely felt uncomfortable, but I want to stress how often women experience something of this nature: a creepy older guy asking to hook up one day, catcalling another, comments, looks, and grabs. Sometimes you’re felt up, sometimes you get called one of the many insults directed towards women. Sometimes we’re even told to take it as a compliment, that it’s something we’ve asked for and are meant to be grateful for because someone finds us good-looking enough to violate us. But it’s not a compliment; it’s a constant invasion of privacy. It’s hard to gauge what should be brushed off and what to fight against. It is your right to correct a wrong, but I thought it was easier to just take it and go about my day. Sometimes I say something, sometimes I am too stunned. In this instance, I found Jamie relatively harmless and I’ve been in much more alarming situations. I did, however, say to a flatmate that it was incredibly inappropriate because he has a key to our flat. She said that her mother had made a note to tell her to watch out for him when she first moved in because he just gave her an odd feeling. A few other students made comments about how Jamie made them feel uncomfortable but I filed it away, hoping to not overthink it too much.
“He knew my name. He knew my flat number. He even knew which room I was in. Sometimes he worked nights. He could come in at any moment. He already proved he could, at any time, into my room, to my bed.”
When this mysterious man from the front desk entered our flat, I was not there, so I had no idea that it was Jamie. Who would do that? Who would angrily enter a flat belonging to four young women and patronize them for seemingly no reason? And who would know my name? The memory of what happened floated to the surface. I just knew all of a sudden it was Jamie. I asked my flatmate to describe what the man looked like. Neither of us knew his name so I couldn’t confirm until a few days later when we both saw him. It was like there was this dark, nameless cloud hovering over me. He knew my name. He knew my flat number. He even knew which room I was in. Sometimes he worked nights. He could come in at any moment. He had already proved that he could ― at any time, into my room, to my bed.
I couldn’t sleep for the rest of my time at Trinity. I slept next to my flatmate in her bed most nights. I was too scared to be alone. In this foreign land I had no safety net, no sanctuary, nowhere to truly feel safe. My home university, Rose Bruford College, was furious about the situation but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of the whole thing. I didn’t even realize it was sexual harassment until someone else said it. You always think you will know when someone is violating you, but I’ve been conditioned to let men walk all over me. When we had this mandatory meeting with the manager, my flatmates and I came ready to tell them the whole story. A €500 fine was hanging over our heads after all. My biggest fear was that the manager would question why I was just now bringing it up. And she did, questioning my credibility. “I was too embarrassed. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But I was scared because he had access to my room, and now he’s yielded that power.” We explained he came in asking for the guitar unannounced, and she refuted it, saying: “No, he said he was checking the fire and safety equipment. It’s a monthly occurrence and it’s in your contract.”
“There’s always a but. ‘But I have to do further investigating.'”
Not only did she take this man’s side, but she was still missing the point. We need notice; it’s in the contract and it’s for our safety. We were ignored. I repeated exactly what was said to me. “We should hook-up while you’re here; we should get a drink and see what happens.” I told her how unsafe I felt. My flatmates confirmed everything, even that I told them when he first hit on me a month prior. I couldn’t help the tears welling up in my eyes. Tears of shame and utter embarrassment. She apologised, confirmed that “hook-up” was not a colloquial term and that it is against the rules for staff to get involved sexually with students but- But. There’s always a but. “But I have to do further investigating.”
When she asked Jamie if he did it or not, he said no. When she called me to tell me her findings – not in person, despite that I was living in the building – I replied with a very angry “of course he said no!” Of course his denial was obvious to me. She told me the situation was too “he said/she said”, so unfortunately she couldn’t take it any further. She gave me the number of someone in student services, and for my “well-being” added the number of a Trinity counsellor as a solution for my newfound sleeping problems. Now my work was also suffering from not sleeping and constantly being stressed and distracted. She also assured me that Jamie did not have a key to my room anymore and was advised to stay away from me. Every road I went down after that was a dead end. I didn’t even know what to fight or who to bring it to. Student services let me know that their contract was ending with this particular company anyway. So they just advised me to get counselling. Rose Bruford College also offered to help, but they needed me to take it forward. What was it I even wanted anyway? What justice is there for something like this? I mean, he could be fired. But I didn’t want a person to lose their job. I felt like I had to do something, like keeping it secret was selfish. But what did I have to do? How do I protect other students? And then the bigger question gnawing at me: was I just blowing this out of proportion? When enough people tell you nothing happened, you start to question if it ever did. Maybe they’re right and I’m dramatic, but I wasn’t.
“Students are vulnerable people.”
I felt like when I finally learned his name it made it all real — not some cloud hanging overhead but a real man that worked on these grounds with potential to harm. Student accommodations have a huge responsibility. Students are vulnerable people. There is a duty to protect them from trauma and potentially triggering circumstances so they can be proactive students. Students are allocated study rooms to aid that, yes? Making sure the environment is safe is also a study aid. This building charges €250 per week and then doesn’t even offer physical or mental security. The administration should be going above and beyond to ensure that students feel safe. Many of the students in the building were Erasmus and study-abroad students. The building supervisors threw parties to welcome us in, but turned cold when they were meant to protect.
Sexual trauma is a very real thing. We cannot keep pretending like it’s not something a large percentage of students on college campuses have to deal with. The system is so broken that I finally understand why victims do not report. This was not my first time dealing with sexual harassment, but it was my first time coming forward. It was even scarier than I ever imagined. If I couldn’t get justice for the minuscule situation that re-traumatized me, how would I ever get justice for the big stuff? There is no fairness in being lied to, being made to feel like you’re a liar, being questioned, being told your case isn’t strong enough, being dropped because it’s too “he said/she said”. It all builds up and everything becomes the big stuff. A brush on the shoulder can send you spiraling. I’m not really sure what the next step is. I would like to say it starts with a discourse around consent, but it feels too big, like a huge conspiracy against victims, gaslighting them into thinking it’s not true, or if it is, that it’s somehow their fault. But I know something’s got to give, because we all deserve a good night’s sleep.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, support is available from the following services:
TCD Student Counselling Service: (01) 8961407; Address: 3rd floor of 7-9 South Leinster Street, Dublin 2
Samaritans: 116 123
TCDSU Welfare Officer: [email protected]
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 77 8888