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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 11: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of (apparently) having a friend's hand down my shirt

| February 11, 2016
Svea Vikander, feign illness or a boyfriend

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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 eleven, in which I share a 'nothing burger' of a memory that popped into my head like dirty words jump out from the dictionary. 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 23.


I've experienced Radiohead live twice in my life. The second time was across the choppy waters of Lake Ontario, when I lay down by myself on a picnic table on the beach and heard the distorted sounds of Weird Fishes coming from the Molson Amphitheatre while looking up at the stars. That was a good one. 

The first time was less, um, perfect. It was in Toronto; maybe you were there. It was about 2003 and it was the show where Thom Yorke broke off mid-song to say, "Wait, no, this isn't cool. Security, get this guy out of here. He's not OK." Somebody had passed out in the mosh pit(!) and was removed by some grim-looking personnel. As if we needed another chapter in the Thom Yorke hagiography. But still, sweet.

I was at the show with my then-boyfriend and our mutual friend. Apparently, somewhere in our time that night, this mutual friend put his hand down my shirt. This is according to my memory of the heated discussion I had with my boyfriend after the show, not my own memory of the incident. I don't remember the incident or anything else about the show at all. I do remember our friend offering each of us gum and insisting on unwrapping it and putting it in our mouths himself.

Our friend was gay, flirtatious, a little insecure, and a good person. I remember feeling frustrated about my boyfriend's commentary. Why was he so pissed off? Sure, I didn't want my friend to put his hand down my shirt. Sure, I felt that if I asked for that kind of behaviour to stop, I would lose his friendship. But as violations go, it was low-grade. I had pulled out my risk-assess-o-matic meter and decided that I preferred not to rock the boat.

I was surprised when this hazy memory returned to me in my post-Ghomeshi-reveal days. I was thinking about a man tackling me from behind as I pushed my babies in a stroller. I was thinking about a first sexual encounter that turned violent with no warning. And then...this? As Andrea Tantaros might say, it's kind of a nothing burger. But I include it here because, like an old childhood friend adding me on Instagram, it walked into my mind to say, "Hey, remember me? I'm important to you." Surely, if this incident were meaningless, I would not have been carrying a non-memory of the event around with me a decade later. 

Perhaps the memory is important to me as a metonym for the larger group of unremarkable moments in which it was easier to be touched than to say no. 

 

 

I promised that I would discuss so-called (by me) "soft coercion"* in this project. I define soft coercion as any incident in which a person unhappily performs sexual acts (or has sexual acts performed on them) because they feel they must, not due to a direct threat of physical or economic abuse.

I don't believe these situations are prosecutable under Canadian law. They're not usually considered sexual assault. I am unclear about how to frame them within the terms of this project. But I do know that it feels bad to have sex when you don't want to. And it feels worse to have sex when you don't want to and your partner knows it. The times that I have done this have stayed with me. They have left deep feelings of disgust and rage for days, months, years.

*Please note that my autocorrect would like me to change that to 'soy coercion', which sounds like a great name for a rice bowl in a vegetarian restaurant. #branding.

Please note also: although I have been using the male/female language of hetero relationships because this piece is primarily about violence within those settings, there is violence in relationships of all kinds and with people of all genders and sexual orientations. For the most part, this project speaks of my own experience. And for the most part, my experiences have been preeeeetty hetero. 

Why would a woman consent to having sex when she doesn't want to? Maybe she is concerned that the man will be angry, and she will face negative social consequences. Maybe she was with her partner for a long time and feels that sleeping with him will alleviate the guilt she feels in leaving him. Maybe she has no 'real' reason to believe that her refusal would be met with violence, but because of her past traumas, she fears it, anyway. Maybe she's doing it because she thinks it's the best way to get out of an awkward or  painful situation. 

One of the women who spoke to the media about an abusive interaction with Jian Ghomeshi stated that he began to forcefully fondle her in a hotel room, and that she gave him oral sex "to get out of there". This action seems to be hard for many people to believe. After all, isn't dropping to one's knees and fellating a penis pretty much the exact opposite of picking up one's feet and running out the door? 

I don't know what the woman was thinking or feeling. But I can guess. I imagine that she did it because oral sex is, often, the quickest way to bring a man to orgasm and thereby end the sexual encounter.

Or perhaps because oral sex, in providing a nearly incapacitating amount of stimulation and by playing into misogynist ideas of female subservience, does often pacify aggressive men. Or perhaps because oral sex is perceived as unemotional; it doesn't require the face-to-face intimacy that is likely to occur at some point during PIV (Penis in Vagina) intercourse.

I imagine that she performed a quick mental calculation of risk and decided that to perform this act would be preferable to all other options available to her. Unfortunately, all the other options were terrible.

Just today I received an email from a friend who had done this very thing when a long-time friend staying in her apartment, after a long night of drinking, began to touch her. I wanted to include her words here but haven't cleared it with her in time for publication. Maybe tomorrow.

The blind rage I feel when I read her story must be something like what my sister feels when she reads these daily missives from my past. I can feel the pain, regret, and confusion in my friend's words. Technically, she consented to sexual contact. But she didn't want to. And sometimes, that hurts worse than anything. 

Let's look at what the options most commonly are in this situation. 

 

 

My friend "stands up" to her friend. At this level of inebriation, to do so would entail some form of physical force. In doing so, she rejects the advances which he feels, in his drunken state, to be entirely heartfelt; his fragile male ego is hurt, but we won't know the degree of damage (from bruised to shattered) until the coming weeks.

The other option she has is to lie: she feigns illness, or a boyfriend. It's hard to lie when you've been drinking. Or she could run.

Like the woman who reported her interaction with Ghomeshi, these options might have seemed much riskier to my friend than "simply" performing a physical act that is positioned in our society as mechanical, a veritable upgrade to masturbation.

I believe she performed an all-too-common exchange, one that I have made more times than I can count: So that you will not give me your bad feelings, I will give you my good body. "Bad" feelings are all those that we expect from men whose advances have been rejected: sadness, fear, anger, hatred, rage, the sticking of pins into the soft parts of dolls.

The "good" body is the compliant body, the flexible mound of flesh that gives a woman's consent even while her heart watches from the corner of the room.

Tomorrow I'll talk about concerts again: the first (and last!) time I ever went crowd-surfing.

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