Welcome to Signal for Help, a special podcast series from the Canadian Women’s Foundation and award-winning women journalists, Media Girlfriends.
We know that gender-based violence is a problem, and we want to support survivors in our lives, but there’s a lot of stigma and silence around gender-based violence in our society: too many people who experience abuse are shamed, silenced, and stigmatized, and too many people don’t feel confident and competent in supporting them.
Featuring interviews with survivors and experts, we’ll explore how everyday people can better support survivors of gender-based violence.
This podcast includes stories of gender-based violence. Please listen with care.
Statistically, girls and gender-diverse young people face high rates of intimate partner violence — rates more than double what women aged 25 to 44 experience, and more than six times higher than what women aged 65 or older experience, according to one national survey.
Eternity Martis knows these statistics well, as an award-winning journalist, author, and assistant professor of journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University. Her 2020 memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun spotlights her experiences being a student of colour on a predominantly white campus, while also being with an abusive boyfriend.
This episode focuses on Eternity’s first-person account of navigating university life while navigating her abusive relationship. She speaks about being let down by the university, struggling with her studies, and finally finding a way out. Eternity’s story also touches on the way race factors into intimate partner violence.
Now, as an educator who interacts with young people, she has many thoughts on helping students and young people who are faced with the same dilemma.
Hi. This podcast includes stories of gender-based violence and brief mention of suicide. Please listen with care.
00:00:17 Nana aba
Have you ever thought, ‘I don’t think my friend is OK.’ But, you didn’t know what to do or how to help?
You and I both know that gender-based violence is a problem. The stats are clear and the majority of us, 64% of us, know a woman who’s experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
So, you might be here because you want to support a survivor in your life.
Welcome. I’m so glad you made that decision because there is so much stigma around gender-based violence in our society. Too many people who experience abuse are shamed and silenced, and too many don’t feel confident in supporting them. That’s got to change. And, that’s exactly why we made this podcast with the Canadian Women’s Foundation. I’m Nana aba Duncan, and you’re listening to Signal for Help.
00:01:17 Nana aba
In every episode of Signal for Help, we are featuring the voice of someone brave and brilliant. There are people who are sharing personal stories, which takes so much courage, and we also speak with people who can share professional experiences, who are working the front lines to help survivors of abuse.
So, what is gender-based violence?
Well, it includes the types of abuse that women, girls and Two Spirit, trans and non-binary people are at the highest risk of experiencing. And, that means physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, spiritual or financial abuse.
And, some examples include name calling and hitting. It can look like pushing, stalking, rape, sexual assault control and manipulation. A lot of what I just listed is against the law.
Gender-based violence can happen between people in romantic relationships, but it can also happen in families, at work, between friends and acquaintances, and strangers. And, it usually happens in private places between people who know each other.
And, why do we want to hear these stories? To learn. Because honestly, there are simple ways to help. So, you’re going to hear stories, and then you’re going to hear real takeaways, tools, for you to use so you can go from being a bystander to a responder when someone signals to you that they need help.
I found this research has said that young women who are between the ages of 15 and 24, they’re actually the most at risk of intimate partner violence in the country and in the US, across North America.
00:03:03 Nana aba
That’s Eternity Martis. Today, she’s a professor and a journalist, but just over a decade ago, she was a young student on her own for the first time at Western University in London, ON. And when she was there, she was still in the middle of experiencing abuse from her first boyfriend.
Eternity’s written a memoir called, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus, and Growing Up.
And as a reminder for you, this story involves specific instances of violence.
00:03:36 Nana aba
Eternity, thank you so much for giving us your time. I really appreciate it.
Before I ask you about your personal story, can you tell me why you’ve been so open and sharing this with the world through your book and on this podcast?
I think the speaking out part, it is kind of conflicting and bittersweet because I don’t think anyone really wants to relive it over and over. And, I made a decision to use my experience to talk about something that’s bigger than me. We don’t think about young people in violent situations, and we don’t think of young men as perpetrators of intimate partner violence. We just kind of dismiss this age group and so the more that we do that, if we’re unable to change our beliefs about this age group as a society, this has an impact on all of us, for everybody and the functioning of society. So, it is bittersweet.
It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but I do think that there is a space finally to start talking about it.
00:04:33 Nana aba
So, let’s start at the beginning. Can you introduce me to young Eternity? Like, what was she like? Can you paint a picture?
So, young Eternity was an only child and the first grandchild in 23 years. So, I come from a bit of an unconventional family. My mom’s side of the family, which I grew up with, are from Karachi, Pakistan, but they’re Catholic, and they came to Canada in the 70s and settled in Toronto. And, my mom, though, was a little bit different. She was kind of a party girl, was having fun, and had me at a pretty young age.
And so, I kind of entered the family in this weird position of being the only child born under wedlock, the only child of a mom who didn’t go to church, the only child who was biracial and Black. I spent a lot of time trying to find out who I was, and that didn’t work out so well because one thing I got into was emo music and screamo and rock and goth and punk. And, so then I was this black kid with like, you know, band shirts and black lipstick and plaid pants and safety pins going to a high school that was predominantly Black and Asian. It took until I was about in Grade 10 or 11 to start having friends.
00:05:48 Nana aba
When did you start thinking about romantic relationships?
I was in Grade 11, and I had gone through this kind of a growth spurt, I would say. I turned into a typical teenage girl. I was like, ‘OK, I need to make a change.’ And, I was in the chemistry class and just saw this guy sitting there and didn’t really think much of it, just thought, ‘Well, you know, like now that I look cute. You know, now I’m wearing MAC lip gloss and all that, and have a cute extra short kilt, you know, I’ll try. I’ll try this out.’
00:06:19 Nana aba
So you were dating? What did you know about dating? Like, what was your model for relationships?
Oh my gosh, I knew nothing. Nothing about dating. My family are, you know, like many cultures of families, we don’t talk about relationships. We don’t talk about sex. We don’t talk about anything. So, everything that I had learned was from watching it on TV.
So, we think about the time that this was happening, being a teen girl at this time, it was the OC. It was One Tree Hill. It was Gossip Girl. It was all these shows that, you know, women were in these relationships with men who hurt them. They were liars or they were emotionally abusive. And, what I equated that with was that love equals pain because that’s all that was on TV.
00:07:08 Nana aba
So, when you’re watching these relationships on television, did you think that that was OK? Like, did you process them as ‘This was the way it’s supposed to be’?
I was like, ‘OK. This is how it is. When you’re a girlfriend, you deal with a lot of [expletive]. If he’s mad at you, if he wants to have sex, if he wants to go out, you just say yes.’ And, the strange thing at the time was that I was teaching young girls the very same stuff that I was going through because I didn’t really have any friends, like I said. So, I joined this leadership group and at this leadership group, we would talk to students, especially Grade Nine students, about dating violence, about drinking, about substance use. And, and so I was usually the one like, you know, I knew it by heart. ‘These are the red flags. This is what you do. This is what you don’t do.’
00:07:53 Nana aba
And then, things started happening in your relationship. The red flags started showing up for you. How did the abuse actually start?
I would say it actually started really early, like I would say maybe a month-and-a-half in. This was 2009, so very, very different world. And so, it started first by constantly having to be together, and I would notice that if I wanted to go spend time with my mom because my mom and I are very close, or if I wanted to go see my friends, he would get really quiet, and he would sulk, and he would stonewall. And, that’s a very common sign of being alienated from your friends. And then it quickly turned into, ‘Well, you know, your friends aren’t a good influence on you. I don’t want you hanging out with them.’ Which is another sign. You know, all of a sudden, your friends, your family, are bad people. You shouldn’t be around them. But, that can be really dangerous because what it really does and what abusers do is they isolate you, so it’s just them, and you have to depend on them.
So, I would say that it started there and from the clothes I was wearing. So, I would wear skirts and dresses. And he would say, ‘Well, why are you wearing that? Who are you wearing it for?’ So, he would pinch my legs. We’d be on the subway or on the streetcar or on the bus, and he’d pinch my legs. Or if he thought someone was looking at me, he would, like, yell at them. So it was that kind of stuff that I thought to myself like, ‘Well, I can just tell him you know, like [expletive] off. Like, I can wear what I want.’ But, I don’t think I realized that it actually went a lot deeper than that.
00:09:18 Nana aba
And, did you ever tell him to [expletive] off?
Oh, many times, many times. And I think that was the mistake or the thing that I didn’t realize is that you can say that, but you don’t realize that you’re already in it.
00:09:30 Nana aba
Before it got physical, did you recognize any of it as abusive?
I don’t think I called it that. One thing that he would do, which actually now we know is illegal, it’s referred to as stealthing, and he would remove condoms when I didn’t know, or being pressured, like constantly pressured, for sex until you’re worn down. And, that’s what comes with the territory of having the privilege of having a boyfriend. If you remember Nana aba, the only case that was really public that my generation had dealt with of partner violence was Chris Brown and Rihanna. And, I remember being at school, and those conversations happening, and the only thing I ever heard was, ‘Well, she must have done something to deserve it. She must have made him angry. She must have been cheating.’ It was a complete kind of victim blaming of Rihanna, and everyone at my school adored Chris Brown.
00:10:22 Nana aba
Well, the information you did get with the two musicians, Chris Brown and Rihanna, was an extreme one where you had Chris Brown physically beating Rihanna. And, I’m wondering if at that point, you were thinking that what he was doing at the time wasn’t so bad in comparison?
Yeah, I think it was that. I think it was like, ‘Well, you know, see it could be worse. See, this is actually what abuse looks like.’ And, in the years that I’ve been reporting on this, it tends to be that young women, that’s when they can identify it. ‘Well, it’s only abuse if he’s hit me.’
00:11:05 Nana aba
So, at what point did you realize, ‘I need to get out’?
I was in Grade 12, and the emotional abuse was really hard to deal with. Like, I felt like I was drowning and again, I didn’t know that it was abuse, but I didn’t feel good about it and something in my gut was just like, ‘This is wrong. It’s not supposed to be like this.’ So, I started trying to break up with him and he would beg me not to break up with him, and I felt really bad.
And, then I had this great thought, ‘Well, what If I go to university, and I get to learn a little bit more, and I get to get away from him. That would be great.’ Because his behavior was getting pretty volatile at that point. He would have these kind of violent outbursts of, ‘How dare you try to leave me?’ And, he started saying things that really concerned me about his strengths. And, one of them was that he would kind of like look at his fists because by then he had started punching walls, he had a really bad anger problem, and one day he turned around, he said to me, ‘Look at my fists. I could kill you.’ And I thought, ‘Well, geez. I need to, like, really go. Because if I’m far enough away he can’t hurt me. I’m going to break up with him from there, and that will be that.’
00:12:15 Nana aba
Eternity, I just want to pause here for a moment and say I’m sorry this happened to you.
00:12:23 Nana aba
You know, I was thinking that you were so close to your mom, and have been so close to your mom. What was her role in all of this?
Um, I don’t. I don’t know if she knew. I don’t know if she knew.
00:12:39 Nana aba
And, what about your friends? How were they viewing your relationship?
This didn’t happen until my first year, but I was starting to see kind of like the dynamics of this interracial relationship start to play out in how people saw us because he was Southeast Asian. And so, my friends would say things like, ‘Oh like, are you really scared? Girl, you’re Black, like you can deal with it.’ And, I learned that there was this kind of assumption that I’m supposed to be an aggressor.
He can’t do anything to me because he is an Asian man, and there are so many stereotypes at play here about Black women being aggressors, Asian men being effeminate, like there’s so much to play with here that I wasn’t really aware of because I am 18 years old. So, everything got dismissed very quickly.
00:13:25 Nana aba
So now you’re at a stage where you’ve got the acceptance at university. It’s two hours away, and you’re physically far apart. How did your relationship progress?
It got a lot worse, a lot worse. I didn’t think it could.
So what happened was once I left and me being away, it was like it did something to him. He was so angry and so full of rage. So, I would get these messages all hours of the night on Facebook, like blocks of texts like his thought process.
Like, ‘how dare you leave? Or I’m nothing without you. Or I’m so mad I could kill you.’
Like, the most frightening stuff you can think of. You just wake up in the morning and it’s like, 50 messages of this going on.
He would try to hack into my accounts, and I think he wanted to see what I was doing. He was so worried that I was doing, you know, I was cheating, or I think he was worried that I would make friends and move on without him, which I was trying to do. Most nights, he would call me at nighttime and I thought we had a good day and he’d be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m doing my homework. I’m going to go to bed.’
‘Show me your room. Put me on video call. Let me make sure no one’s in your room.’
And, he would pick these fights until four or five in the morning to the point where I was so exhausted from fighting that I hadn’t slept, and I would miss my classes. So, I stopped going to classes. Like, I think I showed up weeks later, and my prof didn’t even know who I was. So, he would do that, and it was really exhausting.
00:14:58 Nana aba
It’s preventing you from going to school in some instances. How else did this affect your experience?Because this is your first year. This is a time when you’re supposed to be meeting new friends and having new experiences.
I didn’t do really well in school, and I wanted to. So, my grades were not great. I didn’t really form the relationships with my professors that I wanted to because I wouldn’t go to their classes and then be ashamed and didn’t want to talk to them.
So by then, I just felt so trapped to the point where I’m like, ‘The only solution is for me to go, for me to die because how can I get out of it.’ It feels like you’re being terrorized. You are. It’s like domestic terrorism. You are terrorized. I was far away from him, but it didn’t seem to matter, right?
So, I was done by Halloween, and I was like, ‘Look, I just want to spend it with my friends.’ And he’s like, ‘If you don’t invite me up, I will show up anyways.’ And, I just had to invite him.
00:15:58 Nana aba
And, then what happened?
He was really awful. He, I guess, he overfilled my cup. He was pouring drinks all night, and we went back to my dorm room, and he sexually assaulted me. And, I was blacked out. Completely blacked out. He went home, and I was cleaning my room, and this girl had come in who, up until then, I wasn’t really good friends with her. And, I just wanted to talk to someone because my best friend, who was also my roommate, she wasn’t listening to me.
No one was listening, so I said to her, ‘Well, you know, he acts like this. And, last night, this thing happened, and something just doesn’t feel right. But, you know, it’s probably OK.’
And she’s, like, looks at me. And, it was the first time that anyone had looked at me with actual concern. And she’s like, ‘This is abuse.’ And, that was probably the first time I ever heard someone call it abuse. And, that was the first time that I realized that it was abuse.
And, I broke up with him.
I think it took me about a month to get the nerve to break up with him. And, that was awful. I’d been trying to break up with him for a long time. He keeps threatening to kill himself. So, I changed my number, and I call TELUS, and I’m a student, and they’re trying to charge me like $40 to change this number. And I’m like, ‘Look, I am in crisis. Like, I am being harassed.’
00:17:30 Nana aba
So, you were not feeling safe, and I know that something happened on one of the last nights that he came to the university uninvited. What happened?
I told my roommate, ‘Look, please just lock the door tonight.’ She was very forgetful, and we had been friends for a while. Like, she knew him from high school. We all went to high school together. And, I told her to lock the door because I’m worried. And, this is a friend who I considered a best friend who never took any of it seriously, and she left the door unlocked.
And, it was like three in the morning or something, and I’m, like, woken up because there’s this light coming out of our room. And, I look up and he’s standing over me, and he has a hammer in his hand, and has a hammer an inch from my face. And, he says, ‘Guess who?’
00:18:15 Nana aba
Wow, Eternity. That’s really scary. I’m sorry you had to go through that. You mentioned this person who you didn’t know telling you that this was abuse, and a friend who was close to you who wasn’t supporting you. What was the impact of not feeling supported?
I don’t think I felt the impact right away, but I think when I did it was like, it hit me so hard. It was like this realization, ‘Like, wow, these people that you call your friends don’t care about you, and they’re not even trying.’
00:18:50 Nana aba
If your friends were supportive at that time, what kinds of things would they have been doing?
I think if my friends were supportive, I think first of all they would have at least listened and heard me and taken the time to understand and helped me get through it.
So maybe they didn’t know what to do, but they could have said, ‘You know what? I’m going to sit with you, and I’m going to be there with you.’
It could have been as easy as that for my roommate. After this happened and after it had gotten physical, I was really afraid of, like, staying in our dorm room, and I would just kind of beg her, and I never asked for help. I would beg her to stay in the room with me and sleep there because I was scared he’d come back, and she never did because she wanted to go party, and she would leave me there.
00:19:44 Nana aba
So, right now you’re working on a book on intimate partner violence, and I’m wondering what are people missing in their thinking about people in their late teens and 20s and intimate partner violence? What’s missing?
There’s a lot missing. I would say all of it is missing really, because when I graduated from Western and I went to do my Masters at now, TMU, formerly Ryerson University, I was really struggling. I was having a hard time. I had PTSD. I just was like, ‘When will I feel like me? When will I be OK?’
And in feeling like that I thought, ‘Well, you know, for my thesis, I’m going to talk to other people who feel this way.’ And when I did that, I realized, I found this research that said that young women who are between the ages of 15 and 24, they’re actually the most at risk of intimate partner violence in the country and in the US, across North America, and that really shocked me.
And, so there are a couple of things that we’re missing. The first is that we don’t think about this age being victims of violence because this is an age that they go off to university, they’re coming into their sexuality, they’re having all this fun. But in doing the research, there are many, many, like dozens, dozens of cases of young women who are students being killed by their boyfriends who are also students.
And, when we look at what is categorized as police-reported cases of intimate partner violence, the category of partner is very rigid. It doesn’t take into account that this generation is more gender fluid. It doesn’t take into account that we have different kinds of relationships. So, you can be in an abusive relationship with someone who is, you know, your friends with benefits. And, what we have in place doesn’t acknowledge that. It doesn’t acknowledge the fact that a lot of violence, intimate partner violence, happens in queer and trans and non-binary relationships.
00:21:48 Nana aba
So then, what are some red flags? Like, what are some red flags that students, friends, their family, administrators should be looking out for when it comes to intimate partner violence?
So, one thing that I found in my research when it comes to professors and administrators and instructors is some professors were actually having students come to their office hours and be like, ‘Hey, can I ask you a question, you know?’ Oh, my boyfriend did this to me. Do you think that’s violence? Or, do you think there’s something wrong with that?’
I mean, to me, that sounds pretty explicit. But, they’re coming with these questions that are framed in a way that’s almost like casual. Like, ‘Hey, what do you think about that?’
That’s a first sign. Be acquainted with what is going on on-campus so that your students can seek help.
And if you’re a friend or a family member, eventually these things come to the surface in one way or another. You absolutely should leave them with agency and just say, ‘Look, I think, you know, if something is going on, I just want you to know that you can talk to me.’ And, you can leave it there because sometimes in that position when you try, when you really try to make someone leave and they’re not ready, sometimes the relationship can be fractured. So, letting them know that they can come to you when they’re ready and talk to you is really important.
00:22:57 Nana aba
We know that abuse is preventable. We know that everyone has a role to play in ending it and supporting people going through it. What do bystanders need to know? What are the tools that they should use to help a student see that they’re in an abusive relationship?
So, I think bystanders play a really important role in helping survivors and students, kind of, see what’s going on. That doesn’t mean throwing it in their face in a way that is not compassionate and empathetic, but I think that being able to provide agency or bring it up in a way that could be like, ‘Hey, you know, I noticed this happened, or I saw you with your partner and you looked scared, or I heard them yelling. Are you OK? Do you need help? Would you like me to go with you?’
Like, it can be said in that kind of way, where you’re still giving that person an out to the option of seeing if they need help or not.
00:23:59 Nana aba
So, it’s not a judgment, it is literally a- This is a thing that I saw happen, and I wonder if that helps a person because it’s not an accusation. It’s just, ‘I saw this thing.’
There was one time we were out at school. We were at a bar or something, and he flipped a table. And, I was terrified. And, everyone around me pretended it didn’t happen. Like they looked, and they looked away. And, somebody came up to me and was like, looked just at me and said, ‘Are you OK? Do you need something? Do you need me to call someone?’
Did I do anything? No. But, I do remember it. And, it was almost like the fact that somebody else saw it and came to me and looked at me in the eye and was like, ‘I saw what happened to you.’ It didn’t change anything. I still sat there, but I didn’t feel so alone.
00:24:49 Nana aba
So, you were mentioning before that, you know, there’s so much missing in how we think about things. So, when it comes to intimate partner violence and this group of young people that are in their first years at university, or university in general, how do we get everybody involved in the postsecondary ecosystem, the students, the schools, the parents, to recognize that intimate partner violence is actually a big part of the post-secondary experience? What needs to be reframed?
Well, I think, first and foremost, what needs to be reframed is that we need to be having these conversations way before we get to post-secondary education. So, these should be happening in elementary school because by the time these young men get to post-secondary education, where ideas about women and sex and, you know, all of this is already happening, and they feel entitled to it, we need to be breaking that up from the beginning.
We need to have training and education, especially for young men and for folks to identify the red flags. Like, that needs to be a part of it.
Like, let’s take the onus off of young women getting abused. Who is doing the abusing, and why are there no programs for them?
00:25:53 Nana aba
I appreciate you Eternity, and I’m so glad that you could talk to us.
Thank you, Nana aba.
00:26:04 Nana aba
As a professor myself, interacting with university students every day, I found this conversation to be especially powerful. Eternity had a roommate and classmates and professors and teaching assistants, but she still felt isolated.
One take away from this episode is to just listen. Eternity said her best friend, who was also her roommate, wasn’t listening when she asked for her to be around at night. And, I’m not pointing this out to blame anyone, but it is worth thinking about how we can just listen better with no judgment, no advice, and that can be harder than it sounds.
Listening means showing that you’re interested, with your body language, with your own quietness, and with comments like, ‘You can talk to me anytime.’
I’m really grateful to Eternity for today’s conversation, and if you’re eager to learn more, there’s so much you can find on the Canadian Women’s Foundation website.
There’s a whole story around the Signal for Help itself, plus ways that you can sign up to be a Signal for Help Responder and join the learning journey, or you can take the mini course online to feel confident and prepared to support someone in your own life. I took the course myself, and I found it so specific and so helpful.
After all, when you know how to respond to the signs of abuse, you can change the story.
Take action at signalforhelpresponder.ca.
Signal for Help is a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, made by Media Girlfriends.
Producers of this show are Garvia Bailey and Hannah Sung.
Post production is from David Moreau.
I’m the Nana aba Duncan.
Again, if you’re feeling like you need support, go to signalforhelpresponder.ca, and click on ‘Get Help’ for links to services and information.
Take care of yourself, and thank you for listening.
This project has been funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada.
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