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The Ghomeshi scandal made me remember all the times I was sexually violated

Svea Vikander's picture
As former CBC talkshow host Jian Ghomeshi goes to trial for four counts of sexual assault this month, Canada is forced to confront its attitudes about sex, consent, and the validity of victims' stories. Each day of February, Svea Vikander, a Canadian radio host and therapist, shares another of her personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

Day 10: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of the American Psychological Association convention. Also: A note on intentions

| February 10, 2016
Svea Vikander, University of Toronto

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Jian Ghomeshi goes to trial this month. And so, in a way, do Canadian women. This trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell. 

It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I am sharing my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day 10, in which I share my experiences of being macked on incessantly at the American Psychological Association annual convention in 2003. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow. 


This is incident number 20.

I was only 19 when I attended the 111th convention of the American Psychological Association, but I had been looking forward to it for years. It was held in the Toronto Convention Centre, at the beginning of the August between my second and third years of university.

I had a boyfriend, who had left me to road trip Europe and called frequently to relate the terrible time he was having driving around Corsica. I was "working" as an unpaid research assistant at a lab at the university, where I spent hours meticulously transcribing participant narratives of performing unpaid labour in psychology labs (no, not really).

I was sure I wanted to become a clinical psychologist and I was so over-the-moon happy to be at University of Toronto, where standards were high and classes were hard. But I wanted more. It was all Robertson Davies' fault. His books, in which aging psychoanalysts insulted each other with multi-layered barbs, told their life stories, solved mysteries, and discussed poetry had me thinking that this, instead of linear regressions, is what psychologists really should be doing. I wanted in on some of that. Especially the complicated insults.

I attended the conference alone, occasionally running into people I knew from school. None of my peers were excited about going to an event full of actual adults. But I was I was going to meet real psychologists! People with interesting research and good questions! I was going to see educated debate and some big names, too. I paid for my own entrance (reduced student fee) and carefully marked off all the lectures, documentaries, and seminars I wanted to attend. I didn't plan to attend the opening gala or closing ceremony. I wasn't there to party.

I hadn't counted on most of the attendees being mid-level late-career professionals just looking for some time away from their wives. The air of the conference was charged with sexual frisson, almost like a summertime Queen Street patio. People weren't there explicitly to screw younger women, but they weren't about to not screw younger women, either. I had thus far been treated like a person (albeit of low standing) with ideas in academia. I had expected that the conference would be an improvement on those interactions.

I was wrong.

Here's a smattering of what I remember:

Female presenters were attacked viciously by male audience members who didn't know what they were talking about (a seminar on mindfulness therapy for eating disorders received a comment that, "All this is just power of suggestion"). A sharp, well-groomed woman would occasionally knock them back down but generally it was men who debated each other. This is true of Robertson Davies' books, too, but I thought it would be different in real life. (Give me a break, I was 19, OK?)

During a lecture given by a psychologist concerned about the low level of cultural competency training in graduate programs, an aging psychologist from somewhere in Creeptown, America, refused to leave me alone. He started the conversation by saying something like, "How long is this talk?" 

I said something like, "I don't know, sorry."

He said something like, "it's been going on forever!"

I said something like, "I think it's an important topic."

He said, "He's on his soapbox now".

I know he said this because it stood out to me; I didn't especially think the guy was soapboxing about anything. Cultural competency training was and remains dismal.

I didn't respond.

He wrote, "Let's continue this conversation over lunch. It's on me."

I declined, saying I had things to do.

He whispered (I can still hear the whiney tone in my head) "Whyyyyy? No...But we could talk for hours! No, for hours!"

I felt uncomfortable with his refusal to accept my refusal. So I refused to acknowledge him for the rest of the lecture, throughout which he continued to try to catch my eye. I made a beeline for the exit when it was done.

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist known for her research into implanted memories, gave a lecture. She talked about the sexual assault cases in which she had been called as an expert witness. She described one in which the prosecution had proposed that the icing in an accuser's dream of a heavily frosted cinnamon bun connoted semen.

She said, "I know, you'll never look at a cinnamon bun the same way again!" and everyone laughed. I thought about the woman who must have gone up against a very wealthy man. A man wealthy enough to hire the world's expert on false memories for his defense. And now she was the butt of the joke. 

I remember meeting a lot of younger women, graduate students, in the poster sessions. I asked one of them if she'd been hit on a lot at the conference and she said yes, but she expected it. 

I ran into a doctoral student from my university in the main concourse and we had a brief, friendly conversation. He told me later that I seemed nervous when he asked what lectures I was going to, and seemed to feel he was coming on to me. He told me this, of course, on our first date two years later. Ladies are crazy, amiright?



By the end of the day I was tired and decided to attend one last event before leaving. The Society For Humanistic Psychology was holding a meeting to discuss Frank Barron, a deceased personality psychologist who identified a number of traits commonly found in creative people while watching them go about their work in a house in Berkeley (if you would like to recreate his research, I am available for observation and can provide guest room, eccentricities, etc.).

This was good. I liked learning about him, and the meeting was held in a small hotel suite where there was in fact a diverse group of people, many of whom had worked with Barron himself and seemed truly sad at his passing.

The next presentation was about cross-species work with chimps. A psychologist showed a video in which he claimed to be "clearly" connecting on a mind/soul-level with a chimpanzee, but it didn't seem at all clear to me. It looked like he was playing with a chimpanzee. Not that there is anything wrong with playing with a chimpanzee. There is nothing wrong with playing with a chimpanzee. It's just not, at this point, breaking any ground.

After the presentation, exhausted and bleary, I got up to leave. The man who believed himself a particularly skilled creator of mind/soul connections with other primates walked with me to the elevator. He said that they were having a party in that suite later that night and that I should definitely come back for it.

There was nothing inappropriate about this action but, given that the only other invitations I had received at the conference were from a man who wanted to talk to me "for hours" and another who would be waiting to ask me out "for years," I read it as potentially an invitation for a bit of, um, cross-species exploration.

I briefly considered it. Maybe the elegant older women in the seminars would be there, talking about Jung. Maybe this would be the conversation I had been hoping for. But I didn't feel like taking the chance.



I don't think I need to say much about the incidents above. One of them (except for Mr. Persistent) would have been fine. Two of them would have been fine. They were most unfair and upsetting in their totality -- their Gestalt, if you will. These experiences taught me to change my behavior to account for sleazy behavior from male psychologists.

I wish it had done the same for psychiatrists and therapists, because I've got some stories about them doncha know. Perhaps the most obvious impact was that I didn't attend the party. I wanted to be safe. I didn't want my intentions to be misunderstood.

And that's what I want to talk about today. Intentions. I've thought a lot about this topic over the past two weeks. What good are intentions? Whose intentions are considered relevant and whose are not? Does it make a difference if the man who lingers around a 10 year-old girl with a hard-on in his tight shorts intends to make her uncomfortable? Does it matter if the man who told me I was disgusting and accused me of shoplifting was aware of his own sexual impulses?

I would venture that, no, it does not. And I can see how this could be a scary proposition.

The most common complaint I've received during the 10 days of this series has been an assertion that I, not knowing the intentions of the men who harassed me, am unfairly painting them in a negative light. I haven't read all the commentary on my posts, but I believe this strain of argument has come nearly exclusively from accounts presenting themselves as white, able-bodied men.

For example:


The person who made this comment is not a rando anonymous troll. His profile does not look dissimilar to those of other people who have supported this project; Twitter tells me that it is followed by a well-respected lefty Canadian news site. His comment, while not very nice, is worth considering.

He was clearly upset by my assertion that a man who falsely accused me of shoplifting, ogled me, told me I was disgusting, and defensively said that he "didn't want to touch me" when I offered to let the adults who were present (including the female store owner) search me for supposedly stolen goods, was sexually harassing me. My understanding that this was a case of sexual harassment was lunacy; to name it as such was a load of garbage; to publish it online seems, my dear, to have touched a nerve.

Much of the fear (and the outrage through which it is expressed) in our newly national conversations about consent comes from men who want credit for good intentions. They want a woman to listen to their side of the story, their feelings, before deciding whether she was sexually violated.

They don't want to believe that it's possible to rape a person without knowing it. That it's possible for a woman's worst fear to be not a dark alley monster, but a normal man, a good man, afraid to ask for consent simply because it gives her a chance to say no. 

I think I understand the push-back I receive on this topic and the need to advocate for the unnamed men in stories written by me, about my life, and having occurred two decades prior. To the men who want me to assume their good intentions and those of other men, please understand: your intentions are opaque. Before reading any further, please click this link and read this important post by Phaedra Starling, called "Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching strange women without being maced." 

Did you read it? Good. That will mean you are familiar with these lines, which are exactly what I want to say, but said better. 

"When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger's Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won't know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can't see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy -- you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety."  

-- Phaedra Starling


More on this later. It's a big topic and I'm still working through it.

Tomorrow is Day 11! I'll be talking about the gay friend who put his hand down my shirt but not even to feel my boobs or get turned on because that wasn't his intention.


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