When I was eight years old, the father of my father’s business partner, a man in his 70s, unzipped his pants and put my hand on his penis. I recoiled in horror, ran out of the room, and made sure to never be alone with him again.
I never told anyone, but not because I felt guilty or ashamed. Somehow, even at that age, I knew that what had happened wasn’t my fault. It didn’t define me. I felt sorry for that old man with the flaccid penis who thought it was okay to touch a child, risking scorn, outrage, and legal trouble, just to see what would happen. Maybe he already knew that nothing would happen. Perhaps past attempts with others had already taught him that a child would rarely speak and likely wouldn’t be believed if they did.
A few weeks later, one of my close friends told me how a man had opened his trench coat when she bumped into him in the hallway of her building, flashing his pasty naked body at her. She shrieked and ran, but her reaction had been enough to get him hard.
“Ew!” I said as she shared her story with me. We giggled awkwardly while we took turns pouring Pop Rocks on our tongues, waiting for the mini explosions in our mouths. We giggled, not quite knowing which part was funny and which part was forever altering who we were as children. At what point do we stop seeing the world as innocent? At what point do little girls start fearing the men around them? At what point do they make a mental note not to be alone in a room with a man?
At the age of 13, I started noticing men noticing me. My body suddenly felt like public property, given the once-over, with leering, too long glances coming from odd directions. Shy, introverted, and unable to quite understand the attention, I didn’t even know what to do with myself. I learned to put my head down low and pretend I was hard of hearing when the catcalls came.
By 15, I’d had enough. When I was groped in a public space — not discreetly, and not a graze or a pinch, but a full-on, aggressive, proprietary, Neanderthal grope on a teenager’s ass — I saw red. Before I even had a chance to articulate an angry thought or ask for help, I turned around and slapped him. Hard. On the face. A few people clapped in appreciation, and I heard some snickers. He scampered off in a hurry. I never told anyone, least of all my parents, who were already concerned by the amount of time I spent among teenage boys working on my basketball skills.
My mom worked overtime that summer to turn me into a perfect young lady. She insisted I pick up needlepoint and spend more time at home and less at the basketball courts.
“What will people say?” she kept repeating. With my bedroom walls covered in NBA posters, I didn’t understand who these “people” were and how the time I spent on my lay-up could be an opportunity for potential perpetrators. Why did my conduct have to change and not theirs?
While my younger brother was given permission to roam and do as he pleased, I was limited, surveilled, and inspected, while being given an increasingly longer list of household chores for which he was never responsible.
I came into my feminism naturally. The double standards, the violations of space, the micro-aggressions, the sexual violence — to be a girl, and later a woman, is to experience life differently than a man, to subtly be deemed less worthy, with your world made smaller.
Perhaps I’m luckier than many women I know. I’ve never been harassed at work to the point that it affected my job and sense of security. I’ve never been raped. I haven’t been murdered by a man I trusted and loved. But I have been harassed (online and in real life), assaulted, underestimated, threatened with rape, and treated like an object too many times.
When a woman comes forward with allegations, my instinct is to believe her. Not because I’m a brainwashed member of a feminist cult that hates all men and is out to exact revenge. Not because I’m a victim of groupthink as some have suggested. Not because I don’t know the difference between assault and an awkward attempt at seduction. I believe her because I know so many women around me have kept their stories silent, stories about events that marked their lives that they then buried because they didn’t want to be shamed and blamed. They’re my stories too.
When I hear men utter words like, “What if she’s lying?,” “due process,” and “devil’s advocate,” I tune out. All I hear are men who are oblivious to, and protected from, our truth. Men who doubt our reality because no woman trusted them enough to talk about hers. Men who conveniently want to focus on the 3 to 4 per cent of allegations that are false, instead of the 96 to 97 per cent of heartbreakingly real ones.
Every time a woman comes forward, my heart hurts for the countless women who don’t and never will. For every woman that outs herself publicly, there are so many more who choose to stay silent. I respect their choice; they don’t owe anyone their story. Their pain is the iceberg buried under the water. You think women play the “victim card” by yelling sexual harassment too easily? That’s the tiny little tip that makes it to the surface. Most women never say a word.
Earlier this year, I was privileged to co-host the Women’s March rally in Montreal. When the #BeenRapedNeverReported co-founder, Sue Montgomery, asked the crowd of 6,000 to raise their hands if they had been the victim of an unwanted sexual act, hands shot up immediately. So many hands…. From my unique vantage point on the steps of Place des Arts, I saw women young and old, teens and grandmothers, with kids on their shoulders and their partners by their side, raise their hands. Some timidly, some defiantly. That visual gave me goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes.
As feminists and activists, we’re often told to tone it down, to speak more softly, to make our concerns more palatable to the public, and to become more conciliatory and open to discussion, as if our very existence, our safety, and our rights to our own bodies are issues up for debate, better received if we wrapped them in a pretty bow.
“Feminism needs rebranding,” some say helpfully. But feminism is a social movement, not a can of Diet Pepsi. It doesn’t need rebranding. It needs to be understood. If these uncomfortable conversations keep coming up, it’s because our reality instigates them and makes them necessary.
The #MeToo (#MoiAussi) hashtag currently trending after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, just like the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag that emerged after the Jian Ghomeshi news and the #WhatWasSheWearing hashtag before that, is here to remind people of the magnitude of the problem. By flooding social media with personal accounts of harassment, abuse, and rape, women (and other victims) are forcing men to see what they would rather not.
Although I participated, I resent that the labour is still ours to perform, that the proof is still ours to present, and that we still need to show how many of us this has happened to. Like Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, I want to yell from the rooftops: “I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you?” and take you to task for your apathy. I need to see more than your weeping emojis on my wall. I need to start seeing everyday action that shows me you’ve got my back. We may be flooding social media with hashtags, but we’re not the problem. It’s time for real allies to stand up.