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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 7: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of being rubbed with a penis while I was taking the bus

| February 7, 2016
Svea Vikander, metro

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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 seven, in which I share my experience of having a man rub his genitals on me while I was riding the bus with my mom. 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 this month. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow. 

* * *

I was 25 and living with my sister in Montreal. Although she lives in Vancouver, our mom was also spending a few months in the city, renting an apartment near us. Ostensibly because she wanted to spend time with her daughters, but mostly because she wanted to play competitive scrabble with her landlady. I spent my time inciting others to explore abandoned warehouses.

I think we were coming back from the gym on Sherbrooke. It was summertime. We were on a city bus heading to my mom's house, near Vendôme metro station. 

The bus was not crowded. We had two forward-facing seats about a third of the way down; my mom sat at the window, and I sat beside her, my shoulder facing the aisle. We talked.

At some point, I realized that I had become aware of a heavyset man standing near me. Closer than usual. As with most men standing on the bus, his crotch was about the height of my shoulder. It wasn't touching me but it was close. Close. There was no need for him to be standing so close to me.

I shifted my weight away. Continued the conversation with my mom. He shifted his weight toward me. 

I looked up at him and said "excuse me," like it was a question. He was smiling and I saw that his eyes were wild. Perhaps drugged. He acted like he hadn't heard me which, given the noise of the bus, was plausible. He acted like he was not purposefully moving his nether regions close to my neck and head, which, given everything I know about taking the bus, was not.

I caught my mom's eye but I couldn't tell if she noticed what was happening. 

I felt the gross may-it-end-soon feeling. The feeling I imagine Real Housewife Melissa Gorga describes when she says, "You can do anything for ten minutes." I felt, very much, that this was not something I should make a big deal of. That to make his actions explicit would be to expose myself more than it would expose him. I didn't want my mom to get upset. I didn't want to have to look in her eyes and see her seeing that her tanktop-wearing daughter was the target of this shit. Again.

The man leaned deep into my shoulder, rubbing up against it again. Once more, I looked up and said "excuse me." He smiled again, nodding, leaned back for a brief moment and then leaned in more. As if he were incapable of keeping himself upright and needed to rest his penis on me for support. It continued for forever or about five to ten minutes.

I felt great relief when our stop came. The man let us off as if everything were completely normal. I acted like everything were completely normal. I spent some time at my mom's house and then left to get on the metro as if everything were completely normal.

The man from the bus was standing in a broken phone booth outside the station. He saw me and smiled. I hightailed it into the station.

*     *     *

Why didn't you say anything?

My mother taught me never to say "fuck off" to a man, especially a stranger. It makes them very angry.

In at least half the situations I write about this month, I remained silent, laughed it off, politely removed myself from the situation, or tried to charm the man/men who were violating me. It's a thing that women do. It helps to keep us safe socially and physically. We are socialized to be nice, kind, polite; to keep the peace, and, as I said on Friday, do the emotional labor of keeping harmony in a tense situation.

A woman who fails to do this is often perceived as a trouble-maker, as a prude, as no fun, as unfeminine, as dangerous, as trashy, as lacking in self-respect. She risks incurring more harassment or violence. She risks a serious loss of social status. 

Keeping the peace by not naming abuse is also very effective at keeping women physically safe. A man who is already violating a woman's sexual boundary has demonstrated that he just doesn't care much for boundaries at all. Outright rejection is a trigger to violence for many men. A woman has no way of knowing how far he is willing to go. Rape? Murder? Swing dancing? The safest thing in the moment is, usually, just to keep him happy.

Pretend it's a game and swat his hands off. 

Smile but refuse to meet his eyes. 

Don't tell him you're not interested, say that you have to go.  

Put in your headphones. 

Talk apologetically about your boyfriend. 

Count down the minutes until the bus ride is over. 

The conversations I've had online this week, after Ghomeshi's accusers' post-abuse attitudes toward him were called into question, have demonstrated that many people are confused by this idea. How a woman could or would act like things were fine, or even tell herself that things were fine, after something terrible happened. Many, many people are confused as to why Lucy Decoutere contacted Ghomeshi "across three timezones" to arrange another visit with him after he hit and choked her. 

I'm not. I've done the same.

Perhaps the confusion comes down to intellectual laziness. We have, in our society, a specific idea of what a "victim" is. A victim is a naive girl who tries to fight off her accuser, saying unambiguous things like "No!", "Stop!", "You're hurting me!" She is not a savvy and sexually empowered woman who tries to become friends with or engage in a relationship with the perpetrator. According to Ghomeshi's lawyer Marie Henein, the Venn diagram of women who were assaulted and women who say, "I want to fuck your brains out" the next day most closely resembles a pair of binoculars.

The victim we can most easily conjure is the one who is attacked by a stranger in a dark alleyway. After, she is visibly bruised and bleeding and needs a blanket. She cries when she tells the story. Many assaults do happen like this and many victims do respond in this way. But if there's one good thing (aside from a conviction) that comes out of this trial, I hope it is a wider understanding that many victims don't.

I hear it's complicated. It seems to be very hard for even prominent Canadian reporters to understand. To make things easier, I've researched a list of all things that 'real' assault victims do after the fact. Please click here* to check out this list and disseminate widely.

*Link not broken. Promise.


Tomorrow: a doctor unbuttons my pants and tells me he knows the guitarist from April Wine. 

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