I was the new girl, soon to be the bad girl.
Some years ago, when my husband was my boyfriend and I didn’t have children, he took me to the birthday party of a long-time friend. It was one of those first dates: meeting the circle of friends. I was confident and nervous at the same time. Upscale neighborhood, lots of smiles and handshakes, champagne and canapes.
As the night came to a close and with new bonds formed, my boyfriend and I stood with the wife of the man being celebrated, sharing a few words before goodbye, when suddenly the strangest (and most common) thing happened: the birthday boy came behind me, slapped my butt twice with a firm, open hand, and whispered eerily in my ear, just kidding! I froze for what seemed like forever. My gaze tracked slowly back from the moist sleazy breath at my ear to the wife and my boyfriend. Neither had noticed what had just happened. And apparently no one else had either. I could still feel the lingering of his hand on my behind. In those hazy moments, I was saying goodbye to all the fine folks I’d just met, including the birthday boy’s parents. When we finally made it outside and were almost at the taxi, I asked “did you see that?” Dumbfounded, I looked at my newly minted boyfriend, his face contorted into a question. He had no clue.
Over the coming months I would find myself in the throws of defense: the defense of myself and why I chose to speak out or alternatively, lie – depending on who you were talking to, and why I just couldn’t let it go. Repeatedly I was asked: Is it really that big of a deal? I was bawled out by his wife at a subsequent party who, instead of choosing to hold her husband accountable for the poor choice he’d made (at the very least), decided to bark in my face like a bulldog for ruining her husband’s reputation. And I was denied an apology by the molester himself after I agreed to a face-to-face in an attempt to find common ground. Close friends of my boyfriend even asked, in total confusion, if I’d been molested or raped at a younger age because that seemed to be the only plausible reason for my strong reaction in defense of my own body. The message I was receiving was loud and clear: Even in the best of times, a woman is just a body for the taking.
I never backed down. That’s not only not in my nature, but I’ve come too far in this world as a woman to spend any time going backwards. My boyfriend, although caught in the middle, eventually understood, but it took him a while; sometimes the most kindhearted people can be very ignorant. Everyday harassment is so common that even some women accept it as something to “get over”. Now that I have two daughters, I weigh each and every moment when it comes to women and our bodies and our rights over our bodies. Exhausting? Yes. Necessary? More than you and I can imagine.
I was struck and relieved by Jessica Valenti when in her book Sex Object she posits that everyday harassment is PTSD.
We know that direct violence causes trauma…We know that children who live in violent neighborhoods are more likely to develop PTSD, the daily fear changing their brains and psychological makeup so drastically that flashbacks and disassociation become common. We know that people who are bullied get depressed and sometimes commit suicide. Yet despite all these thing [sic] we know to be true…we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them….But what diagnosis do you give to the shaking hands you get after a stranger whispers “pussy” in your ear on your way to work? What medicine can you take to stop being afraid that the cabdriver is not actually taking you home? And what about those of us who walk through all this without feeling any of it…I don’t want to believe any of us walk away unscathed….Pretending these offenses roll off our backs is strategic…but it isn’t the truth. You lose something along the way. Mocking men who hurt us…starts to feel like acquiescing to the most condescending of catcalls, You look better when you smile. Because even subversive sarcasm adds a cool-girl nonchalance, an updated, sharper version of the expectation that women be forever pleasant, even as we’re eating shit. (Valenti, 13-14) http://www.harpercollins.ca/9780062435088/sex-object
I am emboldened to see words that give credence to what I’ve been going through and regarding many other incidences of everyday harassment throughout my life. And I’m certain that other women feel the same way when women write or speak about their own experiences, to whatever degree they happen, whether it involves everyday harassment or far worse.
My father is Métis and growing up I was aware of his darker skin and the accusations, here and there, of him being an Indian. We also grew up with very little, on welfare sometimes, paying with cheques that were often no good. I come from a context that has allowed and encouraged me to see beyond the borders of “white” middle class, and through this broader lens, I can see that women of visible minorities face the toughest challenges in this world. Here in Quebec, in Val d’Or specifically, indigenous women have been dealt yet another crushing blow: of eight Sûreté du Québec police officers accused of physical and sexual assault of aboriginal women, two retired officers were charged while all other charges were dropped due to an apparent lack of evidence. The investigation was conducted by the police themselves. Even if we consider a lack of evidence, the overall progression of events is disturbing to say the least: 12 indigenous women alleged police misconduct, complaints were filed in May of 2015, only in October of that year was an investigation called, and only after a damning Radio-Canada report. Before October, these eight officers remained on duty. The Liberal government of Quebec has been steadfast in its refusal to hold an independent inquiry, maintaining it would be performing double duty considering the work of the federal government into murdered and missing Indigenous women is underway. I’m thinking double and triple duty is in order. What are we as a society telling our girls and women? It’s something we’ve been saying since time immemorial: you are just a body for the taking.
And now in the US, with the most recent shock of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency – a known womanizer and sexual predator – I feel like women have lost more footing. Although some liberal critics argue that these allegations sprung up as bad press during Trump’s campaign, further research shows that some of these accusations arose in the early 90s, when he was simply a business man. In the October 20, 2016 article Trump and The Truth: The Sexual-Assault Allegations by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker, we are privy to how the allegations of numerous women serve to back up the chest-thumping of Trump himself:
That makes twenty-four women who have corroborated Trump’s own boasting, twenty of whom have offered up their identities. As always happens when someone accuses a high-profile man of sexual misconduct, these women will be tied to their unpleasant, formerly private stories for life. And still, save for his ex-wife Ivana’s sworn account of Trump ripping her hair out and then raping her, the women have described nothing that Trump has not, in the past, voluntarily confessed himself. He remains his own most prolific accuser: consider the time he told ABC that he had advised his friends to “be rougher” with their wives; or the 1992 video in which he says in front of a very young girl that he’ll be “dating her in ten years”; or the Chicago Tribune story, also from 1992, in which he gives two fourteen-year-olds a “couple” of years before he’ll date them. In 1999, Trump told Stern in mock dismay that his daughter Ivanka, then seventeen, had made him promise never to date anyone younger than her. In 2004, he said that it was fine to call his daughter a “piece of ass.” This isn’t sexual misconduct as much as it is the language of a man who doesn’t believe that such a thing really exists. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-and-the-truth-the-sexual-assault-allegations
It is evident that for this man and many others, acts of harassment against women and girls are okay. Our bodies are for the taking.
It’s difficult to ask women to keep coming forward with their stories, no matter the degree of harassment, because often times they just aren’t believed. Sadder still, and in Trump’s case, women are believed but nothing is done, in fact, the behavior in this case is rewarded with arguably the highest office in the world. Men need to be our champions and protectors. We need to raise our girls and boys to be aware, to question, to support and to stand up for those who are denied a voice. I can’t pretend to know the horror of going through rape, reliving the horrors through public testimony, and then having that truth judged and deemed unworthy of repercussion. But I have a voice, and I’m going to use it.
If you’re wondering what everyday harassment is or need a clearer understanding, see the illustration below, which is the best explanation I’ve ever seen… and consider forwarding it to everyone you know: