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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 19: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of the time random men grabbed my ass and then beat up my boyfriend

| February 19, 2016
Svea Vikander, catching the lizard uptown

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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 19, in which I share my experience of being grabbed by a man who then, with other men, attacked my boyfriend and our friend. 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 21.

I was 19, living with three other young women in a tiny apartment on Spadina. Our living room shared a wall with a halfway house and emanated asthma-inducing cigarette smoke. A squirrel had made his home in the wall at the head of my bed and I would knock my fist against the plaster when he awoke me at dawn. The subway ran directly underneath. Every 15 minutes it rumbled like a serpent alive beneath the city, all of us living off its breathing back. 

On the night it happened, I was wearing an army-green hoodie I had purchased with money I didn't have and in which I felt entirely myself. It was a sweater I wore until the scrunchy material at the bottom of the sleeves hung like a bracelet. I wore it until those loose sleeves developed circular holes like old pennies. It was the best! It could look like this…

 

Or like this (photo credits: Mark Turuk, the Don River).

 

 

I should have used that sweater as a morning jacket, as a camping layer, as an heirloom textile in which to swaddle my babies. But instead I put it in a clothing collection bin in a moment of crisis during one of my many moves. Anybody who tells you that you should give away any of your favorite clothes should be forced to climb a rusty bridge.

We were five kids in our early 20s standing on a street corner. 19, 20, 23-years old, the intersection of adolescence and adulthood, Bathurst and Bloor. We had come out of a Five Alarm Funk show in a venue that has likely since closed. I was there with the boyfriend who had returned from his unhappy trip to Europe the summer before, when I was harassed at the American Psychological Association convention and given an excessively gropey massage.

We stood beside another couple. Our drunk British friend stood to my right.

I had just strong-armed him, the Brit, from careening into the street. A car honked as it narrowly missed us. I wondered how he was still alive, after all these years and bottles, but he was only 23 and 23 year-olds never die. It was a brisk night and we were standing close together, circled, trying to decide where to go as we waited for the rest of our night to start. Someone was having a house party in Little Italy.

It was a happy night! The lights of the Honest Ed's sign shone like they would never go out. 

A group of young guys -- about five of them, and about our age -- walked by. One of them reached out and grabbed my ass. I thought it was the friend standing close to me, who truly showed no signs of gratitude for my life-saving labours. I turned to him to tell him to knock it off.

He looked surprised. I told him, perhaps not for the first time, that he had grabbed my ass.

He said, "I didn't -- did he?" My boyfriend heard this and turned to the group of men, who were 10 feet away. He said, "What the fuck?" And they swarmed him, throwing punches. After a brief pause, our drunk friend threw himself into the fray. 

The attack was vicious and efficient. I saw our friend on the ground, being kicked hard, his hands covering his head. I saw my boyfriend doubled over and then there were too many bodies on him and I didn't see him at all.

I thought maybe they would die. Even though they were 21 and 23, and 23 year-olds should never die.

I began to scream that someone needed to call the police. Someone needed to. No one pulled out a phone. I didn't have one. I ran into the nearest restaurant. They looked at me like a worm. I remembered feeling such disdain from a stranger only once before, when I was 14 and lost in Vancouver's Downtown East Side while wearing platform heels.

But someone did call. Maybe the restaurant owner, who wanted desperately for me to leave. The cops arrived. The attackers had left by then, running into the Bathurst Subway station, catching the lizard uptown.

 

 

My memory of the post-attack hours is choppy...

The police took some statements and did nothing and asked me if I was OK, sweetheart. I said yes, it's just so terrible...But they weren't interested. They asked if anything had been stolen. They had notepads.

A man in his 30s pulled up, saying that he worked in security and had seen it all happen. Perhaps the police took a statement from him.  We wondered why this man, who had a siren on the top of his car, hadn't activated it just to scare the fuckers off. He was really into hanging out and talking about the event. We didn't really want to talk to him.

I felt deeply shaken by the incident and wanted nothing more than to hold my boyfriend for the rest of the night. He wasn't having it. He had bruises and cuts and his glasses, which we retrieved from the gutter, had been smashed. Perhaps he was still high on adrenaline; perhaps my sudden need for closeness felt like another intrusion. I remember his straight-line skinny 20-year-old arms, the bruises, and blood. I wondered if we should go to the hospital.

He went to the party. I stayed home. 

***

I wrote about this experience as one of the worst of my life for an assignment in Jordan Peterson's 'Maps of Meaning' class. The thing that made it the worst was the feeling that my friends might die, and I could do nothing about it. The second-worst thing was knowing that if I had just stood by and ignored being handled, the worst part wouldn't have happened. The assignment was to do Cognitive-Behavioral Therapeutic techniques on ourselves and it probably helped. I never, until making this inventory of sexual assault and harassment, thought about the ways that my body had been violated in this incident.

Not to the extent of my boyfriend or our friend. Not at all. But it wasn't nothing.

Sidebar: There has been some, um, debate about the wide definitions of violation, harassment, and assault in my posts. As if it would be impossible not to accidentally offend or assault one of these career-wrecking feminists. But it does happen. I do experience the world, often, as one in which no assault or harassment takes place. Promise!

For example, these are some things that are not violation, harassment, or assault:

  • When a man walks by you and doesn't leer at your breasts.
  • When a man walks by you and doesn't call you a bitch.
  • When a man walks by you and doesn't touch you.

See? Not nothing.

A friend told me a few days after the event that he would have calmed the situation; that he would have said something witty or compassionate and disarmed "everybody's" aggression. I hated the implication that my boyfriend had done something wrong simply by questioning someone's touching me without my consent. He hadn't treated me like property, saying, "Dude, that's my girl, hands off or you'll have to speak with me." He just said, "What the fuck?"

What the fuck, indeed.

But our friend was right that the confrontation wasn't about me. The men who attacked us had used my body as a pawn in their own game. Grabbing my ass was simply a symbolic gesture akin to flipping someone the finger. We all believed that. Everybody (including me) understood the ass-grabbing through the same hyper-masculine, hyper-violent lens through which it had been intended.

Because sex was not the attackers' end goal, my experience of it was expected to be the same as if someone had not touched me at all. Their end goal was to demonstrate their ability to exert their will over that of other men. Anything else, even if it was wearing its favourite sweater, was collateral damage.

Tomorrow: A guest post from my brilliant step-sister-in-law, Kate Dunn, and a story about being called 'jailbait' before I even knew what the word meant.

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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