“[My flatmates] threw away my dead sister’s necklace.” For Ava* that was normal; her normal. The same was true of her flatmate Beth*. They shared a world in which their house was not a home, not a sanctuary from the outside world, not even a place to eat, shower, or sleep. Both Ava and Beth lived under the tyranny of their flatmates; flatmates who would verbally abuse them, scream at them, purposefully keep them awake with music, steal or damage their possessions, hide their mail, threateningly swing clubs at them, or sexually harass them. Worse still, Ava and Beth were bound to their tormentors legally until their tenancy ended.
Ava and Beth met their new flatmates when they answered an advertisement to fill two rooms for 2016. In December, Ava and Beth inspected the property and spoke to their potential new flatmates for a while. Concluding that they were good guys and the flat was a nice little find, they signed up. Come January, Ava and Beth were the first to move in. They cleaned, dusted, mopped, and vacuumed; they set up the power account and wrestled with their Internet Service Provider. As each of the other flatmates arrived, Ava and Beth continued to maintain the flat and often cooked flat meals. They weren’t slaves, they volunteered. They both hoped that going over and above would curry favour, set a positive tone, and help with flat bonding. After all, in the early stages of a new flat we are all on our best behaviour for at least a little while; everyone expects that their kindnesses will be reciprocated and that the flat will settle into its groove - perhaps slightly messier than in the beginning, but now a family of sorts, muddling through together.
By the time O-Week rolled around the tone had radically shifted. In the beginning, for a brief moment, the harms were innocent. Yes, arguments happened, and yes, they screamed and shouted rather than talked - belligerent and rude and scary - but that behaviour can be talked about and handled among adults; everybody willing, these are manageable problems. Students are young and from wildly varying backgrounds; few of us come fully equipped for the pressures of independent living and study. It takes time to learn to be an adult and to learn how to live with other adults who are also learning the ropes. It takes time to mature. But that one-sided screaming during arguments was not a sign of something which could be written off as immaturity, rather it was an omen of things to come.
The pettiness and childishness of the flatmate’s behaviour had a dark side. Ava and Beth became footrests whenever one of the guys was on the couch with them. They’d rest their feet on one of the women, or lean on them, and take up space to make themselves comfortable. Finally, when Beth asked for the umpteenth time for her flatmate to get his feet off of her, he wouldn’t let her move them. Even when she tried to stand up, he pushed his legs down to pin her there. When she finally got up, he spanked her hard. Hard enough to bruise her. The line had been crossed and they never came back from it. As abuse escalates, what was abuse last week is normal this week, even hoped for by comparison. It’s typically only as the plateau is broken through, by some new and stark escalation, that someone has a chance to see how bad things have become.
Despite the women’s repeated attempts to barter for the bare minimum of respect and decency, nothing changed. “We were ‘bitches’, or other demeaning names, if we did not provide for the boys: cleaning up their mess everyday, cooking, vacuuming, replacing toilet paper, rubbish bags and dishwashing liquid. We were expected to do everything for them — even after communicating this should be a flat responsibility.”
A dear friend of Ava, witness to the incredible toll of her experiences, said, “At the beginning of the year, Ava maintained the condition of the house in essentially an individual effort. When other tenants wanted things done, the common example being having dinner prepared for them, Ava obliged. She did everything she could to build a positive relationship with the other tenants. However, to my knowledge, the efforts were never reciprocated – they were scorned, accepted ungraciously, and used as leverage against her. When Ava’s own schedule made it impossible to continue what was essentially a maternal role within the house, the other tenants dropped any remaining pretense of agreeableness. It would appear that, having become unable to maintain this unreasonably maternal role, Ava was forced to become a sort of null entity: neither a tenant or a guest, made permanently uncomfortable and anxious in a house she has every legal right to enjoy.”
Before long the flatmates’ friends joined in abusing Ava and Beth. The flatmates teased and ridiculed the women, far beyond the point of being asked to stop. Seeing this behaviour as acceptable and written off as “just banter” the guys’ friends felt licensed to do the same. Perhaps they took the women's weary silence as approval, perhaps they simply didn’t care, or perhaps the guys’ friends wouldn’t have ridiculed Ava and Beth if the precedent hadn’t already been set. Despite Ava and Beth’s flatmates being allowed to have their friends over, any other guests were unwelcome and were banished from the house in continued attempts to isolate the women. Recounting how Ava and Beth’s flatmates would torment them, another friend described the time one of the flatmates threatened to beat him up, “In one instance, [he] had become aggressive towards Beth by yelling in her face and threatening to harm my person. [They] agreed to beat me up because they were under the impression I was using too much power, although I would never shower, nor do washing or cook at her flat at all.”
When seeking advice to remedy their situation, or simply to escape, Ava and Beth were given three options. First, resolve the disputes in house. Second, speak to the landlord, who happened to be the parent of one of their abusers. Finally, to ask the Tenancy Tribunal to dissolve their tenancy. When no amount of talking with her flatmates worked, Ava sought to go to the Tribunal. “[W]hen communicating to our flatmate that this behaviour made us feel threatened, after months of abuse and damage to property, he explained that it was not his problem that we felt this way, and that if we called the police on any of these occasions, due to a threat to our personal safety, he would kill us. That threat was simply terrifying.”
As the first semester continued, Ava fell deep into the pits of despair and depression, “[My flatmates] criticised me for not spending time at the flat, whilst also being the reason for me not wanting to spend any time at my own flat … I began ensuring that I would not go home before the boys were asleep and would wake up and leave before they awoke. After the university closed I would go over to friends’ flats, or go for a drive until I was sufficiently sure that the boys had gone to bed. This left me completely exhausted and disrupted my sleeping patterns to the point where I would go two or three days without sleep. I at times would be forced to go back to the flat … In these instances I prepared myself for what would undoubtedly be an unpleasant experience. I would enter the flat quietly, get into my room as quickly as possible and would instantly lock my door and put my headphones in at the loudest volume. Once locked in my room, I would purposefully reduce my fluid intake so I would not need to use the bathroom.”
Come March, after two full months of violence, abuse, and bullying, Ava broke. “In March I attended my first appointment with my psychiatrist; they understood the psychological pressures and began prescribing a series of medications to alleviate the symptoms of my psychological distress. Despite a number of changes to my medications, I was unable to forego my intrusive suicidal thoughts, extreme anxiety and severe panic attacks. The medications were not working. As the external factors causing my psychological distress permeated throughout my life, no amount of alterations to my biochemistry rid me of the severe psychological trauma. I remained mentally unstable and the feelings of helplessness in my situation continued to grow. I also during this period began seeking the help of psychologists and counsellors. This also garnered no solution and I fell further into the pits of my depression. In May I ingested [many] trays of [prescription medication] in an attempt to end my own life. I could no longer take the constant abuse. I wanted it to end.”
When they found out about Ava’s nightmare flat, Ava’s family stepped in to support her. “About a week later they flew me back to the family home for fear of my safety. After spending almost a month at home, reeling from the trauma and abuse, I returned to Dunedin. I spent about two weeks crashing on my friends’ couches and avoiding the flat.” Soon Ava was ”forced to withdraw from a paper and take an aegrotat grade for another”. Despite spending every possible hour at the library studying or at friends’ houses, Ava’s academic record still suffered as a result of her sustained abuse.
Eventually, Ava and Beth were able to escape the flat. After coming home one night in August to find that the flatmates weren’t in the property, Ava packed her belongings and ran. “[A]t around 2am I returned to the flat to find [my flatmates] weren’t home. I left and returned around 4am and within the following seven hours managed to remove most of my belongings.” A few days later she moved into her new flat. Ava continued paying rent at the old property, while also paying rent at her new property, until she was finally released when a Tenancy Tribunal hearing declared the tenancy agreement to be of no effect.
However, even after fleeing the flat, Ava experienced long-term effects of her trauma - a haunting testament to the deeply scarring experience of abuse. “My illnesses have served as significant impairments on my ability to work; coupled with the resulting medical absences from class, this means that I’ve gotten behind on my studies. Even whilst attending lectures I would not be able to focus or take notes as I would be preoccupied by intrusive suicidal and self-harming thoughts, debilitating anxieties ... and distracting memories of the latest abuse I had received. Furthermore, due to hospital stays and periods of significant illness, I have been forced to get extensions for my assignments. Some of which are yet to expire.”
Abuse in student flats is a tragic reality. Flats can be violent, abusive, or full of bullying and manipulation. Sage Burke, manager of OUSA Student Support, reports that seven cases of student violence, abuse, or bullying came across his desk in May alone. Seven might seem small, but seven people, each in four-person flats, quickly embroils 28 students in the torment of living in an abusive household. Whether abused, abuser, or simply caught in the crossfire, everyone suffers. ‘AreYouOk?’ cites the New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey, 2014, which states that 76 percent of “family violence incidents” go unreported. There are no statistics specifically about student violence. If we were to apply those figures to student violence, we’d find that around 28 cases, not 7 cases, should have been reported to OUSA Student Support in May. That’s only at Otago, only in May, only at Student Support. How many more speak to the proctor, campus cop, chaplaincy, police, tenancy services, or the community law centre? How many more are silent?
OUSA has been brave enough to admit that we have a problem. On 23 May 2017, OUSA made a submission to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee about the ‘Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill’. In the introduction of that submission, OUSA says that they see a number of students who are living in violent situations and that “this usually takes the form of a person perpetrating violence against their flatmate(s).” Those situations have included every possible mix of sexes. They say that “these situations have included physical, psychological, and sexual violence”. OUSA goes on to say, “OUSA recognises that family violence is a widespread problem in New Zealand and it effects [sic] not just the victim but children, family, and wider community as well … OUSA supports any efforts to tackle the family violence problem and any measures taken to reduce the rate and effects of family violence. It is vital that adequate support and protection is available to victims of family violence as well as appropriate programs and rehabilitation for perpetrators.”
OUSA went on to recommend improvements to the Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill, citing that “‘flatmate’ was previously considered to be included in the meaning of ‘close personal relationship’ under section 4(1)(d), however this has been challenged and thus flatmates and flatting situations are no longer covered by the Domestic Violence act and therefore the Family and Whanau Violence Legislation Bill”. Protections provided to victims of family violence are not extended to flatting situations, so people are forced to stay in violent situations, “especially where they have signed a joint and/or severally liable tenancy agreement”. OUSA believes it is “necessary to explicitly include people living in a flatting situation or a house sharing arrangement”.
OUSA also says that the bill should protect those who are subject to violence from their landlord on the grounds that “tenants are often in a vulnerable position and susceptible to particularly psychological, but also physical, violence by their landlord.” They believe it should also “include provision to end a fixed-term tenancy in a violent situation”.
It should go without saying that violence is not acceptable, that abuse is not acceptable, and that bullying and manipulation are not acceptable. Nobody you live with should ever harm you, threaten you, harass you, or make you feel scared, unsafe, or ridiculed. Students are especially vulnerable and face additional forms of domestic abuse. Often one student shoulders the legal responsibility for the bills, or is jointly and/or severally liable for damage to the flat or late rent payments. This allows other immature, or even outright morally bankrupt, students to inflict harm or manipulate their flatmates by withholding rent or not paying bills. Additionally, students’ rights to privacy or peace can be challenged, they may be forced to host a party, or to drink, or have their possessions “borrowed” without permission, or their food spoiled.
We can help to end flatting violence, abuse, and bullying by talking about it. We need to shine a light on it. We need to empower those who would dare to speak about their experiences and give them a safe platform for their own stories; we need to hear their voices. We learn how to help people when we take the time to genuinely listen to them and allow them to be heard. There is no shame in admitting we have a problem, there is only shame in letting it continue.
I gave Ava a copy of this article in advance so that she could confirm that her story was being told as she wanted and that she still consented to sharing it. In response, Ava had a final comment to make, “At the time I felt as though each incident, in isolation, could be easily dismissed as something minor. However, hindsight, coupled with the opportunity to read a holistic summary of my experiences, has allowed me to see that none of it was minor. If you do recognise behaviours which are detrimental to you (or someone else) in the flat environment, don't be reticent. Don’t shy away from the problem, because it won’t go away on its own. Talk to someone about it, ask for help, speak up.”
If you are in any situation where you feel abused or bullied in your flat, please seek advice from OUSA Student Support, the proctor, the community law centre, the police, Rape Crisis, or LifeLine.
If you have a story that you would like to share, to show other students how to overcome their situation or simply to add to the conversation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or head to facebook.com/alightinthedarknz.
*names have been changed