Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Me too, her too, all of us too

I had talks this week with my pre-teen daughter and teenage son about #metoo, and I basically had to tell my daughter she is pretty much guaranteed to be faced with at least an incident or two in the next few years. (Already a letter from her school has been sent to parents because some pervert exposed himself to a group of Secondary One girls in the field behind school last month. He was caught, at least.)

The #metoo hashtag campaign was launched to show the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault. And it has been successful, I believe, in showing the incredible vastness of it as well as in getting people talking – and writing – about this ongoing problem that shows little sign of going away. 

Of course, harassment, assault and rape happen to women (and men) of all ages, but the teenage years are definitely the worst. Creeps and predators like easy targets and the younger we are the less we are equipped to deal with these kinds of situations and the less likely we are to stand up for ourselves, make a fuss or draw attention. They know this, get off on it and take advantage of it.

Yet I still know and want to say that most men are not creeps. For the one guy who exposes himself to a young girl in the metro or makes overly intimate comments to a colleague, there are a hundred guys who are not doing this sort of thing. Most guys I know and have known are decent, respectable people. But there is a lot of inappropriate behaviour out there, and the incidents are too often brushed or shrugged off. And don’t get me started on the victim-blaming. (Well, what were you doing there alone? What were you doing there at night? Did you smile at him? Were you flirting with him? Look at the way you were dressed…)

Lastly, I fully realize that this is not a uniquely female problem. Men and boys are sexually harassed, assaulted and abused as well. It is just as horrible and just as traumatic, and perhaps it can sometimes be even harder for the victims to speak up. The difference is that for boys and men it is not the normalized, accepted, part-of-day-to-day-life occurence that it is for most if not all girls and women. And the victims are not systematically held responsible in the same way. That, I believe is what the Me Too movement is about: showing the vastness, magnitude, expanse and sickening normality of it all. Many are now asking: Is there a woman out there who could truly say "not me"?

Certainly I could not. So now, let me count the ways:

Ages 10-25: Flashed an unbelievable number of times. The seven times I remember specifically are: Old guy in a trench coat in an alley flashes my friends and me near our school; man removes trunks in swimming pool in my friend’s apartment building; man with no pants on jogs up to me and two friends in a parking lot at night under the guise of asking us for the time; men in metro car expose themselves to me (twice); men pull it out and play with it as they pass me on opposite metro escalator (also twice). I know there were other times, but they’re a distant blur. These incidents stopped once I got a car and greatly reduced my late-night public transit use, plus I think these types tend to go for younger girls/women since this behaviour is mostly about the shock value.

Age 14: Coming home from a party at night with a girlfriend. A man grabs me, throws me on the ground and gets his hand down my shirt before my friend and I start screaming bloody murder and he runs away. (Reported this to the police, but they didn’t catch the guy.)

Age 14: Guy (about my age, from another high school) asks me on a date. I refuse and thus begins a year of such threats as “I know where you live and I’m gonna come and cut up your face so you’ll never be pretty again.” (A decade later I read in the paper that he’s been arrested for trafficking women. Shivers.)

Age 15: Man in a car starts following me as I’m walking to a friend’s house at dusk. I end up running a zigzag through the streets, lose him and head back home. Call my friend who comes to meet me at home and walk with me.

Age 17: My boss in a restaurant I waitress in makes regular graphic comments about the intimate things he would like to do to me. I finally quit not long after he offers to buy me a car and nice clothes if I sleep with him. Even tries to tempt me by pulling a big stack of bills out of his pocket. This man had a 20-year-old daughter, a 17-year-old son (who also made passes at me) and a 2-year-old daughter. And a wife, of course. 

Age 17: Raped by a “friend.” Ironically, same friend whose house I was headed to when I was followed two years earlier. Thirty years later, I didn’t accept his FB friend request. (Told a girlfriend at the time, but otherwise never reported it.)

Early 20s: Guy in another department at work randomly walks up to me and asks if I’m wearing underwear. I don’t know what to say, and we are surrounded by dozens of his (male) colleagues, who I’m pretty sure know exactly what he just asked me. (Reported to my union rep. and the guy was reprimanded and had to apologize to me, as did his boss. I couldn’t help but feel guilty for making a big deal out of nothing.)

Mid 20s: On a (salsa) dance floor. A guy full on grinds his erection against me, looks at me and asks, “Do you like that?” He was already a bit creepy, but I didn’t like saying no to dances and hurting people’s feelings. After that, though, I didn’t dance with him again.

Mid 20s: On a (salsa) dance floor. Guy tells me “Mmm. You smell good. Do you smell that good all over?” (Tone of voice makes clear exactly what he means.) Inappropriate comments are not uncommon in dance clubs, but I include this little story because it has a good ending. I sort of froze uncomfortably and didn’t answer, but the look on my face must have woke him up, because he came up to me later the same night to apologize for making such an inappropriate comment and for making me uncomfortable.

Late 20s: Guy grabs my ass as I am walking through a dark underpass on the way to the metro after work. I scream and swear at him and tell him he’s disgusting and he laughs loudly as he walks away. I feel angry for days, at the creep and at myself for not doing something more, though of course it would have been stupid to go after him, as it was dark, noisy and I was alone. This one sticks with me because I think it was, thankfully, the last time I was assaulted.

Sprinkled among these instances are plenty more inappropriate comments made by strangers, acquaintances, colleagues; endless cat-calls; questionable first-date behaviours; sloppy gropings in bars and other public places. Digging up the memories and writing some of them down, it’s shocking even to me how much of this I dealt with as a teenager and young woman, and how much of it I treated as no big deal at the time, because, really, it’s just a “normal” part of being female, right?