One day, when I was in the sixth grade, a male classmate started grabbing my ass. I told him not to, and he kept doing it anyway. A teacher happened to walk in as I was telling him off; when she asked why I was mad, I pointed and said "He touched my butt!" I expected her to tell him to quit it, then continue with her recess monitoring duties.
Instead, she brought us both to the principal's office to explain why it was not okay for one person to grab the body of another person without their permission, and why it was particularly not okay to continue doing it once the word "Stop!" was uttered. He never touched me again.
Many years later, I was working in a call centre after finishing college. It was a pretty miserable time in my life -- the job was horrible and I was horrible at it -- so I tried to make friends as a way to make the days go more quickly. I exchanged several friendly emails with one male coworker who was also in his early 20s, until I got one back from him that discussed how he figured I spent my free time alone with a giant dildo.
I didn't point and holler that time. I just deleted the email, stopped talking to the coworker, and kept my mouth shut.
How did I go from being a girl who protested to a woman who pretended nothing happened? Some time in the intervening years I learned that speaking up doesn't often work in a woman's favour. I thought about how badly I needed the job and its paycheque, and how my poor performance would make it easy to let me go, and decided that I'd have to let that one slide.
An unnamed woman told reporters at the Toronto Star that CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi told her, in their workplace, that he wanted to "hate fuck" her. "Why wouldn't she report that to the union?" people said. Maybe because she's working in an industry where it's hard to find jobs, in a city where everyone in media knows everybody else? Maybe because Ghomeshi was, until a few days ago, on a giant poster that hung in the lobby of the CBC headquarters in Toronto?
Or maybe because, as the response to the Star's reporting and Ghomeshi's firing makes clear, she had no reason to feel certain that people would believe her. And if they wouldn't believe her charge of sexual harassment, why would three other women who told the Star that Ghomeshi physically assaulted them on dates think that they'd get a better response, or another who told CBC Radio's As It Happens that the same thing happened to her? They know that there are women in North America who are threatened with rape and murder because they had the nerve to talk about the content of video games. They've heard every possible variation of "she asked for it." And they know that even if they do go to the police and report an assault, odds are good that the charges will never make their way to a courtroom. Why would they take the risk of standing up and speaking out?
Those women grew up in the same culture -- the same rape culture -- that I did. It's one where young women like me watched their drinks like hawks at bars, because we all knew someone who had been slipped roofies. I've privately warned friends away from creepy guys without publicly calling them out. I've been told that I'd be accused of asking to be raped if I didn't put a bra on. (I was 13.) I've watched as a female friend physically got between a young woman at a bar who was too drunk to stand upright and an older man who seemed determined to take her home anyway. I've been in a workplace where a senior male coworker repeatedly asked his young female colleagues to pose for his photo shoots, with no interference from management.
And I've kept my mouth shut. I shouldn't have. I don't want to anymore.
When I got home that day in grade six, my mother told me she thought I did the right thing by telling the teacher. I don't think I told her that I hadn't really intended to do the right thing, but instead had just blurted it out, and that I was mostly just embarrassed about the whole incident -- particularly after I'd taken some teasing from my classmates about getting the boy in trouble. Today, though, I'm glad that two influential women in my life told me that it wasn't okay, and that I was right to be mad when somebody touched me without my permission. How many other young girls didn't have that experience? How many women still haven't?
We don't know if the accusations against Ghomeshi are true, some say. And yes, I was not there myself. But I do know that I have personally been faced with many situations where I could have done something more, even only to stand up for myself, and I didn't because I was sure that it would bring me nothing but grief. That makes it easy for me to believe that these five unnamed women did the mental calculations on the cost of going public and came to the only conclusion that made sense.
It's only going to feel safe for those of us who experience the worst abuse to start speaking up when the rest of us who are lucky -- "lucky" -- to only be dealing with an endless stream of micro-aggressions start doing it too, each and every time.
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