Emotionally, physically and financially abusive relationships are happening on campus, but how do we document an often-invisible experience?

By Victoria Gibson

At approximately 3:30 pm on Feb. 5, police officers congregated on Stauffer Library.

At approximately 3:30 pm on Feb. 5, Kingston Police arrested a 19-year-old in a library, who, according to witnesses, had grabbed his girlfriend by the forehead and slammed the back of her head against an elevator. The victim declined to give a statement when officers arrived.

The two incidents weren’t formally connected. Kingston Police declined to confirm whether the couple were Queen’s students to protect the victim’s identity.

There’s a common narrative of abusive relationships at university — often quiet, sparsely-tracked and easily missed. Emotional abuse doesn’t leave a bruise and data on the subject is hard to come by.

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In the sterile hallways of Kingston General Hospital (KGH), Kimberly Kent — the sexual assault and family violence clinical coordinator — deals with abusive relationships daily. KGH is at the foot of Queen’s campus, yet Kent rarely sees student patients.

“We know it’s happening, we’re just not seeing them,” Kent told The Journal. “Intimate partner violence affects those ages, 19 to 24, as well — more so — but there just seems to be a barrier.”

Kent’s belief is matched with what little statistics there are on abusive relationships in Canada.

Studies and reports by institutes like Statistics Canada report that young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are the most likely demographic to experience “dating violence”.

However, on Queen’s extremely condensed campus, Kent attributes the hesitance to seek hospital supports to fear. Particularly, she added, there’s a significant fear around confidentiality.

“Just a lack of feeling like there’s a safe place to be,” she said. “Especially if you’re a student, you’re going to be continuing to be a student, and your perpetrator is also a student. There would be a lot to fear there about continuing your education.”

The hospital offers 25 on-call nurses 24/7, who are able to offer body mapping for injuries, on-record reporting of how they were sustained, safety planning, up to 12 free-of-charge counselling sessions — currently, with no wait list — and follow-up nursing.

But a large portion of students are still electing to turn away from professional care in favour of friends.

“With the younger demographics, there’s a lot more comfort in seeking peer supports,” Kent said. Even if nurses notice markers of abusive relationships, the student is still able to reject KGH’s help.

“I don’t know if we do a really good job as a community, or a society,” she said. “No one wants to talk about it.”

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When listing the on-campus services, counsellors and resources she reached out to for help ending an abusive relationship, Queen’s student Eva* had to pause to think of any she missed.

*Due to the sensitive nature of their testimonies, victims sharing their stories have been identified with pseudonyms.

For Eva, the first red flag came to her as a first-year student when her partner developed an intense dependency on her.

“A lot of first-year students head into residence in a fairly vulnerable state,” she said. Isolated from her established support networks at home, she stumbled into a new relationship, which, at the beginning, she described as wonderful.

After a year of dating, Eva’s relationship began to devolve.

By a certain point, she was receiving threats of suicide if she didn’t abandon her studying — at times, the night before a midterm — and rush to the side of her partner. As they became increasingly jealous and dependent, Eva said she began to feel incredibly isolated.

In every mental health training session she’d taken at Queen’s, Eva said she was told to be compassionate and offer support. “What we’re not told, really, is that there’s a limit.” In residence, for a vulnerable 18-year-old, there were sessions dedicated to how not to contract chlamydia or defining consent, but there was sparse conversation about healthy relationships.

After months of justifying the bad with memories of “that one really good date,” or romantic gestures that left her with butterflies, there came a point when she decided it was time to end it.

She sought out counselling at Student Wellness Services, which she called “helpful, though obviously limiting” due to their hefty wait lists. She underwent an academic appeals process for the grades that suffered during crisis nights.

Eva expressed enormous gratitude for visits to the chaplain’s office, the office of the Rector and use of the TALK phone aid line.

But, fitting into Kent’s earlier statement, Eva found particular solace in the Peer Support Centre.

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The Peer Support Centre (PSC) is, by any standards, a very small room. It’s tucked away in a side hallway of the AMS bunker and staffed by undergraduate student volunteers.

Manager Mariana Paz-Soldán, ArtSci ’17, spends every day on the front lines of student care. She told The Journal that there seems to be a trend with first years struggling with their relationships, but, the reasons behind the influx are murky.

Paz-Soldán warned that any answer she gave would be subjective. Any damaging relationship is nuanced, even within the specific cohort of first-year students, so it’s hard to pinpoint a catch-all driver.

Loneliness, in her experience, has been a substantial driving force behind unhealthy undergraduate relationships. A fear of being alone on a campus of thousands — particularly for first-year students — can easily become overwhelming.

“And I think that, often, if you find one person who becomes your person — and then the relationship isn’t that good, but they’re your only person — it becomes a cycle.”

In the 355 sessions the PSC held through the fall, 48 per cent of those sessions dealt with relationship concerns. 10.7 per cent involved the student specifically citing “loneliness,” with another 8.7 per cent being concerned friends.

Following academic stress and mental health, relationship concerns are the heaviest load on the PSC. This year, the number of relationship-driven visits has spiked from the last.

“I think, ultimately, it comes down to shame and guilt that people feel in not performing their relationship,” Paz-Soldán said. “When you enter relationships, there’s this idea that they’re going to be good, they’re going to be happy. So to destroy that image, even for yourself? It’s so hard.”

If volunteers suspect a student may be involved in an abusive relationship, they’re advised not to identify it themselves unless the student uses the term on their own.

In extreme circumstances, the practice can be broken under duty of care, but the PSC isn’t intended as an advisement resource, rather, as a sounding board and support network.

“We would just thank them for coming in, and ask them what they’d like to talk about going forward,” Paz-Soldán said. “We try to make sure the person in that chair is as comfortable as possible ... with a relationship, it’s often something so intimate that it can be really vulnerable to talk about.”

She’s observed a dangerous reluctance of young people to discuss their relationship problems with anyone other than their partner — which, if left unchecked, can create the circumstances of isolation Eva experienced.

On campus, Paz-Soldán acknowledged that there aren’t any existing support groups or networks specifically for healthy relationships, though she also pointed to the chaplain as a resource.

A larger dialogue around healthy relationships is paramount to her, but with the year nearly over, the project will have to land in the hands of her replacement. Whatever they do, she hopes red flags crop up in the conversation.

“Red flags are intrinsic to people: if you think a red flag is happening then it probably is,” she said. “Your gut is your best friend in a lot of these situations, which is not an easy answer.”

Alan’s* first abusive relationship was with his girlfriend before Queen’s. “I’m from a small town. You don’t consider men being abused by females, it’s not a thing that can happen.”

When he came to Queen’s and started dating other men, the issue became all the more complex. “In a heterosexual relationship, you have ‘traditionally the male does this, or pays for this’. When you’ve got two males, there’s a very different set of expectations,” he said.

Often, he said, a male partner will compensate for a perceived shortcoming in masculinity with dominance.

In Alan’s case, this dominance was often a slippery slope into abuse, as he experienced in his second year. Within a month of a new relationship starting, Alan described feelings of isolation beginning as well.

His partner didn’t like his friends, so he spent less time with them. Eventually, the friends began to disappear. Within two months, he was living at his then-boyfriends’ house full-time.

Physically painful experiences, first labelled as experimentation in the bedroom, began to seep into their everyday interactions. “It was all in the spirit of it being ‘fun and flirty,’ even though I wasn’t comfortable with it. I said it several times, but he would say ‘I do these things for you, you have to do these things for me’,” Alan said.

His partner was depending on him for financial support as their relationship continued and Alan described a feeling of his then-shaky mental state being exploited.

“He latched onto that and used it to kind of possess me,” Alan said, pausing to consider his choice of words. “Then I was his.”

Near the end of the summer, he made the decision to end the relationship.

However, like Eva, he began receiving suicide threats. One night, after receiving messages and fearing for his ex-partner’s safety, Alan went to his house. There, he reports being sexually assaulted.

For nearly a year, his ex-partner would show up at his classes waiting to apologize.

“It didn’t matter how many times I told him ‘no, I’m not interested, stay away from me,’” Alan said. “I had to move houses halfway through the year because he’d show up at my house.”

Dealing with fear after ending an abusive relationship, Alan recently reached out to campus security. He was told they’d assess the issue with their threat assessment team, but is still unsure what’s going to happen.

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Behind her doors in the upper ceilidh of the JDUC, Kate Johnson — the university’s interfaith chaplain — has become an unexpected support for students grappling with abusive relationships.

She’s seen firsthand where abusive relationships can go, in her work for Canadian correctional services. There, she worked to prepare abusers for offender-victim mediations — often, she recalls, in situations that had escalated to the point of murder.

“Those are the conversations I’m trained to have with people,” she said. “Most of the violence that happens anywhere, let alone that makes their way through the criminal justice channels, is some kind of relationship.”

In her first few years at Queen’s, she saw slightly more cases by number that pertained to abuse. “This year, not as many. But the ones that have made their way here have actually been more frightening,” she said.

Johnson looks out for a set of red flags and certain combinations allow her to assess the risk posed to the student on her couch. With the victim’s permission, there’s been more than one occasion recently where she’s had to signal the situation to Queen’s administration.

When asked by The Journal, the University provided a list of resources, policies and initiatives they run during the year — including events on healthy masculinity and consent workshops. All dons and residence professional staff are trained in consent and healthy relationships as well as response and referral.

Still, the frequency of students who wind up sitting on Johnson’s office couch suggest that an unquantifiable number of abusive relationships are slipping through the cracks.

“It’s a demonstration of how insidious manipulative and abusive behavior is, that it can get to the point it does among a supposedly educated population before people start to realize,” she said. “That doesn’t speak to the naivety of the victim so much as it does the skill of the abuser.”

Johnson stressed that, while she’s had students come to her in crisis seeking to leave an abusive scenario, her doors are also open to students who realize they may be the abuser.

“If it’s an abuser, of any gender, who realizes that their behavior is not okay and they’re looking for a place where they’ll be compassionately held to account and helped to move forward, historically that’s been a big chunk of the work that I’ve done,” she said.

In terms of why students aren’t seeking help from more “official” channels like the hospital or the police, Johnson said that the court process wasn’t designed for victims. It’s about sorting out who’s wronged the Crown, leaving many victims feeling alienated from that system.

With that, she’s prepared to take on her role as an unofficial resource on intimate partner abuse. In looking at the pervasive trend of abusive relationships that’s been fostering quietly at Queen’s, Johnson cautioned students to look carefully at their partners if red flags pop up.

“Many abusers are skilled manipulators. They pay attention to people, they study people to know what angle they can work to hook somebody and then the victim feels like they should be grateful.”

Though she’s historically facilitated restorative justice in abusive scenarios, Johnson said that any situation with that label should be victim-driven. “The offender doesn’t get to decide if they want to apologize one more fucking time,” she said, noting that she was happy to be quoted on the curse in that context.

“Sometimes, the best amends is to take responsibility for yourself so it never happens again.”