Pleasantly weary from a beautiful evening of dining, dancing and catching up with long lost friends at Law Ball, I wandered out of the Peninsula Ballroom. The masses had just begun making their way to the party buses to carry on the festivities elsewhere. I, however, was making my way home, thanks to an inconveniently early start at work the following morning. A short distance from the venue doors, still swamped by crowds of merry law students, I bent down to assist my housemate with something.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp thwack on my arse.
Initially simply confused, I looked around. A group of four young men, all strangers to me, had just passed and were looking back at me. “HEY!” I yelled, as the confusion passed and the anger kicked in. “Are you fucking kidding me??!!” Their response to my distress? All four laughed. Looking right at me. Then, they turned and hightailed it to the party bus as fast as they could.
In my imagination I would race after those sorry excuses for human beings and give them an eloquent piece of my mind; discovering their identities, perhaps summoning security and phoning the police. However, the reality was far less heroic. Confined by my maxi-dress, heels and delayed by my initial confusion, all I managed was to send a few more expletives floating after them.
Then I realised, I was shaking. I was left with a sinking feeling of humiliation: I felt vulnerable; angry; and disrespected. My pleasant evening had now been tainted.
An overreaction? Some of you may think. I had that thought too. It was no big deal, I tried to convince myself; there’s always a few dickheads around. Let it go. But the truth is, we can’t afford to let these things go. For too long unwanted sexual violence has simply been seen as just part of a night out. That handsy guy on the dance floor. The fleeting grope in a crowded tram. Unpleasant, but, well, boys will be boys, some say.
I say, let’s call it what it is. Let’s call it sexual assault (a.k.a. any unwanted sexual behaviour or activity that makes the victim feel uncomfortable, frightened or threatened). We cannot afford to normalize sexual violence of any degree. There is nothing funny about objectifying a person. There is nothing respectable about seeking sexual gratification at another’s (unconsenting) expense. There should be no thrill to be found in another’s distress. And alcohol consumption provides no excuse for any of these behaviours.
In part I think I felt especially rattled that night because I simply didn’t expect this amongst the law school community. For all of our flaws, on the whole we law students carry a strong sense of justice and a deep understanding of what it means to be a member of a supportive community. Granted, those cowards I encountered might not be MLS students, and I sincerely hope they aren’t. But regardless, I did not expect to be violently slapped while attending a Ball with my peers. I did not expect to feel alone and embarrassed as crowds of fellow students around me looked away awkwardly and continued walking, in spite of my obvious distress. While thankfully this experience has not been the norm during my time at MLS, even one experience like this at an MULSS event was one too many. But sadly, I am quite sure that I would not be the only one with such a story to tell following the Law Ball.
I urge the MLS student community to speak up every time you see or hear something that even so much as hints at sexual violence, or even simply sexism. We must stop convincing ourselves that these events are ‘no big deal’ and be ruthless in our efforts to combat sexual violence of all degrees. It is only through open and honest discussion that we will ever be able to address this all too common experience.
Gemma Freeman is a third-year JD student.