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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 seventeen, in which I share my experience of an overly-persistent ex-boyfriend. I am also honoured to present a guest post written by a woman whose ex lost his bananas when she left him. 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 29.
I had thought that maybe we would get married. We had so much in common. We had both written out lists of things we were looking for in a relationship and found that they matched, creepily, perfectly. He wanted somebody in the top 95th or higher percentile in intelligence and looks. I didn't stop to think about how oddly specific that was, or what kind of a person writes out a list of things they're looking for in a relationship. I just wanted to be in that top five per cent.
We had a good sex life, with safe words and cuddles. He looked great on paper and in real life. He was smart and kind. But there was something missing. I would return to Toronto from visiting him in Montreal feeling a little bit like I didn't exist. He shared my sense of humour but not my aesthetic (I'm not sure why this is important to me, but it is). There were times he was reckless with my body, like the time he pushed my head into a bathroom sink during a quickie at a wedding (it was a sex thing, but I could have lost a tooth).
Usually I was up for it, and would tease him, calling him incorrigible, but he was insistent when he wanted sex. He didn't like my job dealing blackjack and flirting with men; I didn't like his penchant for telling my beautiful friends they were beautiful.
And then there was someone else. We tried a sputtering gasp of an open relationship and broke up over the phone while a parade of sirens streamed by. He was angry with me. I was angry with me.
I had come up from Toronto for the weekend to remove my stuff from his apartment and to have a few of the requisite marathon breakup talks. I worked late hours and was emotionally and physically exhausted. He seemed to be looking forward to "clearing some things up" but I was dreading it.
It was winter. My sister lived halfway up Mount Royal and my now-ex boyfriend had a place at the foot of the hill. On a summer's day I could happily walk to her place but, at the end of a long and difficult late-night conversation, I was not looking forward to the suitcase-laden trek in the snow. I was surprised that he was asking me to do it, given that he had not one but two couches and had asked me to have this long conversation. But whatever, I thought, it's his apartment.
I was at the door when he relented. Said I could sleep on the couch, he didn't care. I said I would appreciate that and called my sister to tell her I would meet up with her in the morning. It wasn't a good move to say at Hotel de L'ex. But I might do the same thing now. I don't expect someone to force themselves on me if I'm sleeping on their couch, even if I broke their heart.
I thought it was sweet that he brought some blankets out for me. I curled up on the couch I had been telling him to get rid of for months because it was so damn ugly.
I think I called goodnight to him. I should never have called goodnight to him.
He got up out of his bed in the other room and came over to the couch. I acknowledged his presence. He said he missed me, touched my face. I said I was sorry and turned to the wall. He began to stroke my clavicle, fondling me over my t-shirt. I was pinned between his body and the back of the couch. He kneeled on it, pulling down the blankets. His penis was erect under his white briefs and he seemed aggressively, furiously aroused.
I panicked, laughed, sang that old classic, "No, We Shouldn't Do This! That's Not What I Came Here For!" He climbed on top of me and began to kiss my neck, grabbing my breasts and torso. I considered letting him just do it. It would be easier and might assuage some of his anger, or my guilt. If I hadn't already been seeing someone else, I have no doubt that I would have given in. But instead I pulled out my best defence. I cried from utter exhaustion, from confusion, and with the knowledge that it would change the tenor of our interaction.
He left the room not long after. Before I left the next morning he insisted that we slow-dance together to a song I can't remember, which seemed to take an exceedingly long time to select from his iPod playlist (remember iPods?). The walk to my sister's was not better at 9 a.m. than it would have been at 3 a.m.
We saw each other, trying to be friends, trying to be lovers, trying to take each other seriously again, on and off for the next three years. For the most part, he respected my boundaries better than he did in this scenario. I don't know if I would have remembered this time as a specific incident if I hadn't spoken to another woman who had been with him (one of my beautiful friends!) who told me about her experience. We agreed he could be too forceful, too pushy. Incorrigible is not a compliment.
Something happens to many men when they get broken up with. Their usual ideas of a woman's right to space, privacy, bodily sovereignty -- all go out the window, which they sneak up to and knock on late at night because they really need to talk. Men who refused to take you out on Valentine's Day show up at your workplace with an expensive gift you never asked for and are furious when you don't accept it. Men who care nothing for clothing steal your underwear. They are feminists, but if you slept with someone else, they spit at you. They drive up to your house with all of your stuff, somehow forgetting the one box with your taxes and a favorite sarong that you will never see again (ahem, A).
All people suffer during breakups. It's part of being human. And people of all types and genders behave irrationally when they are suffering. But men are bombarded with ideas from romantic comedies that could double as stalking-promotion videos in which women are "won over" by obsessive behaviour.
We have a cultural narrative about unrequited love, about heartbreak, about getting over someone. There are ways to support someone struggling through this kind of heartache (bring her a pint of ice-cream! take him to a strip club!) that, while not necessarily healthy, do provide a framework for grief. We have no equivalent set of actions for supporting someone who has left a relationship, regardless of cause. When it is a woman who has left a relationship with a man, she carries this lack of acknowledgement as well as the pressure of the latest Jennifer Anniston vehicle plot line.
Sometimes the amusing and seemingly endless pursuit of women ends in a happy marriage, if you believe the movies. Sometimes it ends in terror, if you believe the women.
I received an email from an incredible woman a few days after starting this project, and she has been willing to share this story of her experience of harassment at the hands of a powerful ex. It's chilling and, because a story like this is a risky thing to share, she has chosen to remain anonymous.
I was feeling intensely angry and helpless while reading about Jian Ghomeshi when I came across Svea's posts. I shared her stories with many friends who, like me, could string together dozens of similarly disturbing narratives. We felt less alone. Being assaulted, violated, or destabilized is pervasive, and so many of us have been triggered by the way those that experienced sexual assault have been treated in the Ghomeshi trial. This got me thinking about sharing my own experience of violation.
Three years ago, I met a writer I admired. He was intelligent, charming, and about 10 years my senior. We struck up a relationship that, at least initially, he wanted to keep quiet; I didn't find anything strange about this, I value my privacy and, well, the literary scene is small. The few people I mentioned him to hinted that he was a bit of a player -- he dated a lot of women. Was this a warning sign for a good-looking, moderately successful creative type? No.
After a few months we'd decided to get serious, and unattractive aspects of his personality began to reveal themselves. One night I fell asleep early, didn't call like I'd promised, and he flipped, claiming he was worried about me. He described a screaming fight he'd had on the phone with an ex-girlfriend. He told me he was "pleasantly surprised: that he felt I was his intellectual equal. He was more selfish than I could relate to. These were sufficient warning signs for me to bail. Also, I was still dealing with the fallout from a previous relationship. When I ended it, at first, he was fine, though much more upset than I anticipated. I said we could be friends but that first we needed space. He asked for reassurance while I was trying to distance myself, so, somehow feeling guilty for my own needs, I tried to comply.
A couple of months later, I would still receive texts berating me into talking and getting back together. They were increasingly rude. I was polite. I'd said, "Please stop, I need time." After I blocked his number, emails poured in, accusing me of being sociopathic and cruel one day, then apologizing and begging the next day. What I assume was happening was that a man who was used to determining everything about his life was thrown off his game. I had the agency and he was angry. Progressively, his communication became more strained and stressful. I began to feel threatened. Here would be the part where someone would ask me, Why did you respond? I rarely responded, but when I did, it was because I was pressured to do so by him, by others, by my own need to normalize the fact that I’d chosen to participate in an intimate relationship with this person. Why didn’' you tell someone? Similar reasons, but mostly it was a desire to escape association with that person. As soon as we broke up, he began telling people we'd been together. I was embarrassed. No one wants to be defined by her violations. Mostly, though, I was driven by a strange phenomenon in our culture that demands that we "be cool" with people that wrong us.
Soon his emails became what Jane Eaton Hamilton refers to as "preludes," cultivating an unease. There were phrases, mostly to do with my steadfast unwillingness to respond, such as: "do we need to hate each other" or "you're disgusting" or "despite how you've treated me I still love you" or "if you don't respond I'll come talk to you in person." I began to question myself -- maybe I am awful, maybe I should meet with him like he wants, maybe how I feel does not matter. Somehow, his view was that it was my responsibility to make sure things were "cool" to smooth out any issues. And why? To relieve his guilt? To keep his reputation untarnished? If I were the one sending these messages, what would that look like? I would probably have instantly and openly been known as a crazy woman.
I'm aware that other women have dated him and have not had this experience; people would have questioned me, one of little import and influence. I have no doubt that it is his gender and his achievements that kept (keep) him safe from any repercussions. He had permission. He was over there, meeting women and enjoying his successes. I was elsewhere, mired in a situation I wanted nothing to do with and felt that I couldn't speak to anyone about it. My sister told me his behavior was "stalker-ish" -- why the "ish"? Because he was sensitive and creative, perhaps he wasn't capable of being straight up threatening? One acquaintance told me he'd asked her out and, fully knowing what I'd been going through, said she was considering it "because he's a good person to know in the community." Another friend said, "I told you so."
I'm reticent to call what happened psychological or emotional abuse, probably because I'm afraid to. This bullshit went on for months and took up too much of my emotional space in the year following. I carried it around while a male professor interrupted and condescended to me, while listening to a friend explain she was pressured into sex by her date, while being followed home by a stranger until I made up a boyfriend.
One day, I was waiting to cross the street in my neighborhood and a man stood extremely close to me, so I stepped back and glanced at him, as if to say, too close. He immediately said, "Bitch, I was just taking a look," and then huffed across the street. Of the half dozen people standing within earshot, no one said anything. Not even me. I waited until I got inside my apartment, locked the door, and bawled; like, messy, heaving sobs. I didn't recognize it at the time, chalking it up to the old standby "I was tired," but in hindsight, commonplace micro-infractions had pushed me over the edge. One more person encroaching on my being, walking around in the world like they are entitled to me, privileging his desire over mine. I feel it was a moment of despair that this man and so many others are able to exist in a way that I’m not.
People have told me I'm lucky that things never escalated and now that the harassment seems to have ceased, and it’s true, I can frame it that way. I can try to learn something from everything. Now, I'm more eager to speak up about misogyny, though still not willing to confront this person publicly. I can recognize the ways I've resigned myself to violations in the past, and have bonded with other women because of it. Fuck the fact that so many of us have gone through versions of this, but here we are, and it matters.
The woman who wrote this piece has chosen to remain anonymous. Let's all send her some virtual hugs. If you would like to send her a digital message of support, feel free to contact @SveaVikander on Twitter and I'll make sure it gets to her.
Tomorrow: The date who 'accidentally' penetrated me.
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