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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 13: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of posing for a tourist's photo when I was 11

| February 13, 2016
Svea Vikander, complimented and scared

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Jian Ghomeshi went to trial this month. And so, in a way, did Canadian women. The Ghomeshi 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 thirteen, in which I share my experience of being asked to pose for a photo with a tourist when I was eleven. 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 four.

I was 11-years old and had developed a penchant for velvet: velvet blazers, velvet shirts, velvet hats, velvet overalls. It was the thing back then.

I had lived on Salt Spring Island, one of the many gulf islands that lie between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, between the ages of five and seven. When I was seven, my parents separated and my mother, my sister and I moved back to Vancouver. My dad remained on Salt Spring and often took the ferry over to the mainland, picking us up at Tsawwassen terminal near Vancouver and taking us back to Salt Spring Island for the weekend.

It took over five hours to make that trip, most of which I spent fondling overpriced keychains in the gift shop, running on the decks with my sister, and trying to keep my father's spirits up. When I was 11, my parents managed to agree on one thing: I was old enough to take the ferry by myself, and I could bring my six year-old sister with me. I had been caring for her for years (these were the days when you could still leave kids alone in the car for five minutes, or to play on the sidewalk, or to fight over the remote with their siblings) and I was proud to be considered adult in this way as well.

It was arranged that my dad would drop us off at one ferry terminal and our mom would be waiting for us at the next. Not only would I get to spend a few hours fondling keychains, I wouldn't have to listen to my parents discuss back child support and asthma medication during the hand-off. Bonus!

At that time, 12 was the legal babysitting age. And it was how old you needed to be to take the ferry by yourself. I put on my best black velvet blazer and my best black shirt (a leotard whose crotch I had  snipped off and which would progressively roll its way up my torso throughout the day) and a pair of jeans. Maybe I also put on some lipstick. The woman behind the counter didn't look twice, and she handed me our tickets. My sister and I walked the open-air gangplank together.

We were on the deck, walking that weird, lumbering way people walk when they're facing heavy winds, when a man approached me. His English wasn't great and at first I wasn't sure what he was saying. Something like, "Hi, can I have a coffee with you?" I was confused. I stopped walking. He said, "Can I have a picture with you?" I still didn't get it. He repeated the question, remarking, "You are very beautiful!" And I got it.

My heart was pounding. I felt complimented and scared. The thing about being on an hours-long ferry ride is that you're trapped. There's nowhere to run if the adult you're with turns out to be unsafe. And if you have no adult with you, well...

I said sure. 

He motioned for me to stand beside him in front of the railing. He put his arm around me. A friend took the picture. He said thank you and looked to be about to say something more. I said goodbye, smiling, and walked off quickly, grabbing my little sister's hand. She started to ask me what had happened. I cut her off, told her it was nothing. She agreed she wouldn't tell our mom.

 

***

I was tall and wearing some adultish clothes, so there's a chance I looked 13. Then again, I was often tired on the return trip to Vancouver and kids look younger when they are tired. So there's a chance I looked my actual age. Appropriate experiences for 11 year-olds include magazine collage, campouts, smores, becoming passionate about environmentalism, reading books by L.M. Montgomery, and developing fantastic, unreciprocated crushes. 

I don't think I told anyone. I thought maybe my sister would but she kept her promise, or forgot to tell on me. I felt that I had done something wrong, but at the same time found it exhilirating to know that I could be perceived as a "beautiful" "woman."

As you might imagine, it wasn't good for me. Incidents like this encouraged me to experience myself from the outside in, prioritizing how I looked and the attention I received over how I felt or the things I wanted to do. 

I have a two year-old daughter; she will be quick to tell you that she is two-and-a-half and will be six next month, which is an adult. What if she's right? What if I only have a handful of years before her body becomes a trophy in a strange man's vacation photos? I wish for this not to be true. I wish her confidence and safety. I wish her adventures in the world, and a world that is a safe place for her to get her hands dirty, to make things and to make change. I wish her childhood.

I'll be sharing shorter stories this weekend as I gear up for a week of dating scenarios that I have, in all honesty, been avoiding writing about thus far. I'll share about the acquaintance who touched my stomach and breasts, apologizing as he did so. I'll share about the guy who knowingly bestowed nonconsensual hickeys on my neck, leading me to wear high collars and jaunty neck scarves on dates with other men. I'll share about the ex who wouldn't leave me alone until I pretended to cry. And (bonus!) the date who "accidentally" inserted his penis inside me.

Tomorrow: Happy Valentine's Day, let's talk about that guy masturbating with his pants around his ankles in Toronto's Chinatown.

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio host and therapist currently residing in Berkeley, California. Find her on twitter (@SveaVikander) and Instagram (@SveaVikander). 

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