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Sociology grad delves into how language shapes perception of sexual assault

Through personal loss and major life events, Kiara Mikita was grounded in her PhD studies

Kiara Mikita, a graduate of the University of Calgary’s Department of Sociology, completed her PhD studies around language and how it shapes our perception of sexual assault. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Andrea Kingwell

Kiara Mikita began her PhD studies in 2007 with optimism, determination, and a deep-rooted passion for her research. She has faced overwhelming personal loss and tremendous challenges since then, but she will cross the convocation stage Wednesday with those same qualities very much intact.

“When I first learned that it takes an average of six years to complete a PhD, I admit I thought I would beat those odds and make it in five,” says Mikita.

She's slightly amused by her own naiveté as she reflects back now on the trials of the last several years which included the loss of her mother to brain cancer, the birth of her baby boy and the death of three beloved dogs.

Mikita graduated from Mount Royal University’s justice studies program and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Alberta studying the CSI effect — the notion that jurors have unrealistic expectations about forensic evidence stemming from its depiction on television.

Language around sexual assault reveals collective perceptions

“My PhD work was initially going to be about crime and media as well, specifically about how sexual assault is represented in entertainment media,” Mikita says. “But over time, I chose to focus instead on the words we use to talk about sexual assault and how they can shape and frame our collective perceptions about it.”

After years of hard-earned study, Mikita is very animated on the subject. She cites examples of our everyday speech that betray a cultural bias — often in subtle and nuanced ways — that excuse men and blame women for sexual assault.

“For example, when we tell women how to dress to keep themselves safe from sexual violence, we imply that men lack sexual self-control and that women must manage it for them, or that inviting sexual attention from men is the same thing as inviting sexual violence," she says. "These are serious implications that really need unpacking.”

Mikita’s research also delves deeply into the implications of language that removes mention of a perpetrator. When we say, for instance, “she got raped” instead of “he raped her,” Mikita says the implication is that these events just happen, as in “she got sick.”

In reality, of course, sexual assault does not just happen; it is something one person does to another person.

Pausing studies to be with her mother and to raise son

By March of 2012, Mikita had already completed two years of interviews and was well on her way to that five-year goal. But her mother was not well and was soon diagnosed with brain cancer.

Knowing her mother always longed to be a grandma — and with news from the doctor about how serious and unpredictable the prognosis was — Mikita and her partner expedited their plans to start a family.

“When I was six months pregnant, the doctors told us she was unlikely to live to see the baby,” Mikita says. “But my mom is ridiculous amazing, and she actually lived long enough to see our son walk!”

During that time, Mikita took a two-year leave from her studies to be with her mother and raise her son. Her mother passed away in May 2014.

“Kiara was very dedicated to her mother,” says Amie McLean, a friend of Mikita’s. McLean started the PhD program with Mikita in 2007 and has since moved to Simon Fraser University to research gender issues in the trucking industry. She is also closing in on graduation.

“There is always that struggle of balance when you are a graduate student," says McLean. "It’s so intense, you just feel unable to be 100-per-cent anywhere. I admire Kiara because she has that focus, and she was able to be truly present with her mother right to the end.”

Work was constant in her drive to change the world

Her mother’s diagnosis wasn’t the end of the challenges Mikita faced — she also lost three dogs during her studies. One to a rare form of cancer, another as a puppy after he swallowed a rock, and a third in old age. The third dog had beat incredible odds, enduring chemo treatments for the very same cancer that had taken their first dog.

“It was heartbreaking — losing our dogs and then my mom, but we’re comforted imagining that they’re all together now,” Mikita says.

Despite the losses, Mikita was happily distracted by the joy of raising her little boy, and wonders how children survive losing a parent without the bliss of a new child to help them through.

Mikita’s love of her work, however, was the one welcome constant throughout the highs and the lows. She says, “I’m so grateful to be able to focus on research that I’m so committed to.” That focus helped Mikita complete her degree. “I eat, sleep, and dream it to be honest.”

McLean adds, “For Kiara, it was never about just the diploma, the piece of paper, the personal reward. It’s about having an impact; making a difference. She did it to change the world.”