IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Attacked by Fellow Grad Students Because of My Outspoken Feminism

No one should ever have to demand someone stop confining them in a small space and throwing pornographic images at them.
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Sarah Sahagian
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No one should ever have to demand someone stop confining them in a small space and throwing pornographic images at them.

I didn't always know people would hate me for being a feminist. I had a charmed upbringing with a proudly feminist mother. I was privileged to attend a feminist all-girls high school where sexism was not something that limited how my peers and I perceived ourselves. And then I went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in gender studies at university. 

For the first two decades of my life, I lived mostly in a sort of feminist utopia — one I wish every woman could access. In 12th grade, a bunch of my friends and I walked around wearing buttons that read, "Ask first — sex is supposed to be fun!" During my undergraduate degree, my days were mostly spent reading Audre Lorde, meditating on her thesis that "the master's tools can never destroy the master's house." I took university courses in queer theory and ran workshops on the gender spectrum. I was basically a feminist unicorn.

Of course, even during my childhood and early adulthood, I knew sexism existed in the world outside my own little bubble. I knew misogyny was real, but I didn't know about that specific form of anti-feminist hate I was opening myself up to by believing in intersectional notions of gender equality. I didn't know that feminists frequently become the targets of a particularly vitriolic form of sexist discrimination for having the audacity to oppose sexism. I certainly didn't know I personally would go on to experience this sort of abuse, until I did, one night when I was 22. 

It was the day I lost my feminist innocence. It was the day I learned feminism was still a bad word to many. It was the day I learned my commitment to feminist politics would require me to be stronger than I ever thought I could be. It was the day I learned that going forward, I would be vulnerable to abuse for having the gaul to believe I was a valuable human being.

It was a crisp fall day in 2008. I was a couple of months into a master's degree in gender studies at The London School of Economics. I made several wonderful friends during my time at The LSE, and overall, I'm happy I had the privilege of studying there. Some of the friends I made were fellow gender-studies grad students, while others were studying things like economics, history, or law. I have countless fond memories of my year there, but unfortunately, I cannot forget the night I was abused for my feminist beliefs.

Because I had moved to London to attend the LSE's renowned Gender Institute, I foolishly thought everyone I met during my time at this institution would automatically accept the importance of gender equality. I thought, because the LSE had produced some of the world's most influential feminist academics, all students at the school would have immense respect for intersectional ways of thinking. Of course, I understood most people at the school were not actively studying gender and feminism like I was; however, I was certain all the people I met would at least accept my right to espouse feminist beliefs, even if they didn't share them.

The night I was harassed and attacked seemed like any other night at first. I had been out with friends. We went to the local Whetherspoons, which is a chain of British pubs that serves cheap drinks. I wasn't drunk when I got home from the pub so much as exhausted. I'd had only two glasses of wine, but I had been up for about 20 hours by that point. Because I couldn't afford the high rent prices in London on my student budget, I was living in what the British call halls of residence (dorms). Suffice it to say, there was a communal bathroom situation I was not thrilled about.

As I got ready for bed, I was in good spirits. I was tired, but happy from a night of discussing EU politics and Simone de Beauvoir with my friends. I gently hummed the lyrics to Estelle's "American Boy" under my breath. It was the theme song for our time in London my fellow international grad students and I had adopted; we favoured it despite the fact that most of us were Canadian. Looking back, it seems absurd how safe and at-home I felt, given what was 30 seconds away from happening.

That night, when I exited the shared washroom, I found two of my fellow students waiting for me. They were guys I was acquainted with because they lived on my floor, but I didn't know them well. For their part, all they knew about me was that I was a vocal and proud feminist; I was the girl known for discussing sexist representations of women in video games over dinner in the cafeteria; however, I doubt they could have told you my last name. I'd never had a long or meaningful conversation with either of them.

As I opened that bathroom door that night, the first thing I noticed was one of the young men was brandishing a broom. He lunged at me with it. He poked me a couple of times but luckily, he did no significant physical harm. Of course, that doesn't mean he didn't terrify me. 

The other young man threw pornographic phone-sex ads at me; they featured topless women asking you to call the number below. They had likely found the ads at our local bus stop, which was always littered with that sort of thing. 

The symbolism was pretty clear: as a woman, I was supposed to be a sexual object and a domestic servant, not a thinking, breathing person who advocated gender equality. I'd never had the opportunity to say something hurtful or particularly controversial to the guys who abused me. And yet, there they were, ready to attack me with misogynistic props.

I screamed when I first saw them blocking the doorway. I couldn't speak; I didn't have the words to demand they leave me alone. And, well, no one should ever have to demand someone stop confining them in a small space and throwing pornographic images at them. No one should have to demand not to be imprisoned by a broom used as a weapon.

I believe the two young men who ambushed me when I was trying to pee safely were drunk, but I can't be sure. What I do know, however, is that their reflexes seemed slightly delayed. Because of this, once I regained my senses, I was able to dart between them. I quickly opened my bedroom door, dashing inside and locking the door behind me. The boys tried to follow me, but mercifully, they were too slow.

 Me on a hike during grad school, a few months after the incident

 Me on a hike during grad school, a few months after the incident

When I was safe, I had a panic attack. It was like my body could only hold out as long as it needed to. I hyperventilated into my childhood teddy bear's fur (yes, I brought it to grad school with me). I could hear the boys outside my door, banging it, hitting it with the broom, demanding I reemerge to endure more of their misogynistic attacks with domestic supplies and porn. I cannot remember the exact words they used, but I remember how they made me feel. I remember the profound surprise I felt at being the target of their aggression. The boys turned the knob several times, as though aggressively turning it would overcome the lock. Fortunately, it did not.

The next morning, when I meekly exited my room, I found the boys had drawn a large black "X" on my door. Like many people, I knew leaving an "X" on doors is a symbol criminals have historically used, painting it on houses to signal that someone is a good target. They had marked me as a troublesome woman — someone who did not belong, someone who deserved harassment.

Frightened of a recurrence, I immediately reported the incident to my residence's sub-wardens (the British term for RAs). Most were sympathetic. One told me he thought it was deeply disturbing how I'd been targeted for my feminist beliefs. He added that he hoped the attackers would be kicked out of our hall of residence. 

Of course, you know that's not what happened.

As universities do, the administrators at the LSE downplayed the incident. The boys were required to email me written apologies, but those apologies were disingenuous. One quoted a British boy band from the early 2000s called Blue, which I'd never even heard of before. Their apologies felt like trolling. I felt less safe after they told me they were sorry than I had before they sent their feeble letters of regret. 

In the end, they got off with a warning, as if what they'd done was some sort of harmless practical joke. I felt as though my own school had cast me as the humourless shrew in a remake of Animal House.

I wanted the boys who attacked me to experience consequences not just for my sake, but for theirs, and for the sake of all feminists they might meet. I wanted them to learn they couldn't torment people who opposed their white male privilege. I wanted them to learn they couldn't just abuse people they didn't agree with. I wanted them to learn feminism was not a flaw to be intimidated out of women, but a crucial movement all men should support. 

But I was 22, an ocean away from home, and tired. I wanted to push back, but I felt powerless. I was one lone person up against one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I was pitting myself against a literal old boys' club.

I could never have afforded to move out and into an apartment, so I lived in the same residence as the attackers for the rest of the school year. They were always down the hall from me, going on with their own lives as though nothing had happened. We ate dinner in the same cafeteria, showered in the same communal bathrooms, and ran into each other in the stairwells. I often heard them talking about TV shows they liked or their plans to go out and get drunk on the weekend. I often feared for other girls they might terrorize on the dance floor of a grimy club. After all, no one required them to learn their lesson with me.

I was mad at myself for not having been able to rewrite the sexist narrative that has played out on too many university campuses. The boys received less than a slap on the wrist for their anti-feminist bullying, while I suffered through sleepless nights, agonizing about what they might do next — both to me and to other women. I wanted to stop them from hurting anyone else. I wanted to solve sexism. I wanted to end patriarchy. I wanted a different ending to the story, but I couldn't manage to write one myself back then.

I now know the truth is, no one can rewrite the grand narrative of sexism on their own. What happened to me was terrifying, but on the scale of things that could have happened to a university student, it was sadly far from the worst-case scenario. And truth be told, it makes me furious that I still feel grateful I was only poked at with a broom and pelted with porn. We shouldn't live in a world where that counts as good fortune.

Like countless women before me, I was abused for my beliefs, and the young men who did so faced no real repercussions. Living through that event, however, has toughened and propelled me. It is eight years later, and when I'm called a "dumb bitch" by MRAs on Twitter, I am no longer shocked, nor am I temporarily scared into silence. I am a weathered survivor of anti-feminist intimidation tactics. Each day, I feel more and more capable of working with my friends to fight feminist fights. 

Me today, calmly plotting how to destroy the patriarchy...

Me today, calmly plotting how to destroy the patriarchy...

There is a silver lining to what happened to me that night at the LSE: today, there is no one I don't feel prepared to take on to defend feminism, be it a sexist university student, or an entire university. I haven't given up the hope that one day, we'll change the patriarchal story. When I see activists like Anita Sarkeesian receive violent threats for their feminist commentaries, I know I'm ready to stand behind them. When politicians threaten my reproductive rights, I know I'm ready to take to the streets to defend abortion rights. I'm ready to stand up for myself, to stand up for my convictions.

I'm proud to say that almost a decade after I was first humiliated and attacked for my feminist identity, I'm angrier than ever. Anti-feminist abuse isn't fair, but I'm used to it, and no man will ever shut me up.