Regular readers of the Trinity News Comment section might be aware that I consider myself to be a victim of abuse. I write about it a lot. Not because it has ruined my life – it hasn’t – but because I think it is important to talk about. It’s important to consider how abuse happens, so that we can better stop it from happening again. For me, it happened in an on-campus apartment, and then it happened in a dingy flat in South Dublin, and then it happened in a student society. None of these abuses needed to happen, and I believe similar instances can be prevented in the future— but not if we don’t talk about the harms of the past. It is with this in mind that I spoke, under the condition of anonymity, to University Times (UT) about my experience of abuse within a student society.
Nothing I said was mentioned in the article that was eventually published, titled “Phil, Hist Accused of Perpetuating Culture of Harassment and Bullying”. My stories were old, trauma made details fuzzy, and they weren’t particularly salacious. It turned out, as we have seen over the past few days, that it didn’t matter; UT had lots to work with. On February 14, this newspaper published a story that contained testimony from other victims of abuse that spoke to UT for the same article. The victim testimony contains a number of allegations— namely, that reporters in UT leaked the anonymous stories of their sources, that those stories were “treated like bits of gossip.” Somebody heard their own story repeated back to them at a party. When I spoke to UT’s deputy editor, I was told not even the editor of University Times would know I spoke for the story, that their anonymisation processes were air-tight, and that the only person who could link my name back to some of the worst things that have ever happened to me was the deputy editor. One of the victims told Trinity News, “I still don’t know how far my story has gotten.”
I didn’t see TN’s article coming, and it was scary to read. Because of the culture in which we live – the one that asks us what we were wearing and how much we’d have to drink – shame is an emotion intimately connected to my sexual harm. But even more than the shame of people knowing what had happened to me (this is, after all, something I am trying to get over. I’m writing this article now, I’m tweeting out of frustration, I’m growing and shrinking) what dominates my mind is the fear. If my story got leaked, would any of my abusers recognise themselves in it? Would their names be part of that leak? Would they be angry? Would they try to contact me? The answer to all of these questions is: probably not. The things I had to tell Magure were not particularly salacious, and they happened long enough ago that the people who hurt me aren’t exactly knocking about student publications’ offices. The really scary thing is the absolute uncertainty of it all, how I have to come to terms with the idea that this is something I will never know.
“If my story got leaked, would any of my abusers recognise themselves in it? Would their names be part of that leak? Would they be angry?”
If these allegations weren’t enough to obsessively re-litigate in the precious minutes before I fall asleep every night, then came the response. The editor and acting-deputy editor of University Times wrote: “sources who spoke to Trinity News allege that Mairead treated their experiences as “gossip”. This is, in itself, no more than gossip.” This response is blistering in its race to accuse the oft-not-believed victims of abuse of lying, and in its lack of clarity about why such victims are lying. But more than the logical confusion of such a defence, there is an emotional heart to my discomfort with it. When will victims stop being told that they’re lying? Over and over again we are instrumentalised. The act of abuse is, itself, a theft of agency. Then our stories are taken and twisted by media to write a story that is out of our hands. Finally, when we speak up against this, we are called defamatory gossips.
I have written for this paper before about the “ideal victim”, and how I have struggled with the notion in the past. It only occurs to me now, after a week of this, that the ideal victim is simple: she’s whatever you want her to be. She speaks for your story and she doesn’t care when you tell other people all the little details about what happened to her, she certainly doesn’t complain publicly. When she follows this script, you can’t even begin to thank her for sharing her story; when she deviates, she’s cynically attempting to ruin your career.
“I’m tired of it; I’m tired of denials in the face of evidence; I’m tired of being believed only when it is convenient, blamed when it’s not; and I am tired of this election cycle.”
This is all happening, unfortunately, in the eye of a student’s union election. As usual, the deputy editor is running for University Times editor. Unusually, this means that these opinions and defences aren’t going to end for a good while yet. We’ll see them at hustings, we’ll see them in the recently announced RON campaign, and we’ll see them on our social media feeds. To be clear, it’s a good thing that University Times is facing scrutiny for both the initial act, and the response to the allegations. It is simply difficult, as a survivor of sexual violence, to see your identity dragged all over the campus-conversation for two weeks.
Sometimes, it really seems like we’ve come far in our discussions of abuse and sexual harm, and I suppose we have. But the last week of campus politics has shown me that we still don’t want angry victims, we don’t want ones that disrupt election campaigns or promising careers in journalism. We want what has always been asked of them— to bend to someone else’s will. I’m tired of it; I’m tired of denials in the face of evidence; I’m tired of being believed only when it is convenient, blamed when it’s not; I am tired of this election cycle.
You can vote for whoever you want in the UT election, or you can not vote at all. I don’t care, I’ll be gone next year. Maybe that’s selfish, maybe it’s cruel, maybe oppression demands more action than fatigue, and maybe I’ll have a different opinion in the morning. But right now, it’s a Wednesday night, it’s raining, I can hear Trinity Choir rehearsing in House Six, and what I want most is to forget any of this ever happened.