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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 two: Slut-shamed on Salt Spring at 11 years old

| February 2, 2016
School photo // Age 6 // Salt Spring Island

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Welcome back. Today is day two of this month-long project in which I document a series of memories that just wouldn't leave me alone after I learned about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal in late 2014. I share 29 of my 42 memories of sexual harassment and violence, all experienced as a young Canadian woman. He goes to trial this month and, in a way, so do I.

If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here.

When I was five, I moved to Salt Spring Island (also known as S.S.I, the largest of several gulf islands located between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland) with my parents and my baby sister. Salt Spring Island is an incredible place, both rainforest-wild and culturally rich. I went to an alternative school where I learned about ecology and conflict resolution, got lost in the forest with friends and slept outside under the stars in the summer. It was pretty great.

My parents separated and my sister and I moved with my mother back to Vancouver when I was seven. We continued to visit our father on S.S.I. and I maintained a close friendship with one of my former classmates. She was kind and smart and silly and loved spending time outdoors as much as I did.

Salt Spring has a small "downtown," a collection of shops called Ganges. It had two thrift stores. Once we had outgrown the playground, my friend and I would troll these stores for treasures. We had little money but we found great things. A velvet opera cloak that was too big for me but I swore that if I ever got to go to the Oscars, I'd wear; a floral leotard; a black patent leather purse I still carry on fancy occasions. 

 

In a thrift store dress // Age 11 // Salt Spring Island

 

I decided I would decorate my dad's now-empty guest room and mentioned this to the proprietor of the ritzier of the two stores (the one that wasn't a hospital charity, natch). She seemed impressed and gave me some acrylic paintings, deeply discounted; we became friendly. She had a 50 cent basket of unmatched earrings and one day while I was sorting through it with my friend, an elderly man who had been standing close to me accused me of stealing one. 

I was shocked. I was a law-abiding citizen. I had not stolen anything, ever, in my entire life. But I could feel the disgust with which he looked at me and began to feel my body fill with shame and embarrassment. I began to cry. The proprietor looked at me severely and asked if I had taken anything. I said no. The man said he had seen me. 

I said I had taken nothing, that they could search my pockets. He said, "You're disgusting. I don't want to touch you!" The proprietor looked at me with pity and said that it was OK. I left with my friend, who put her arm around me (so many of my memories are of her comforting me; thank you, S). We walked far away from the shop and sat down on a grassy hill, where I regained my composure and emptied out my pockets.

I had to prove to myself that I wasn't a thief, that I had done nothing wrong. I felt black tar guilty. As if the man had thrown a bucket of waste on me and I had no way to cleanse myself. It was true that the thought of stealing something had run through my head many times. I had no money and there were so many beautiful things. But I hadn't done it.

Who said anything about touching me? I thought. I was confused by the very idea. The fact of physical contact hadn't crossed my mind. I was more confused by the way that he looked at my body when he said it. I didn't understand that, "I don't want to touch you" often springs from aroused misogynist mouths. That when he said I was disgusting, he gave himself and his outrage-boner away. Being a child, I knew little about sex or sexual harassment; all I knew then was that he hated me.

As an adult, I'm not confused at all. I look back on this memory with pure rage. I was wearing a crop top and shorts. I suspect it was very revealing. I was 11 and I had been slut-shamed.

 

 

The incident I described yesterday, when a man exhibited himself to me and my friend at the beach, required me to remove myself from a public space in order to be safe. The aftereffects of this incident were similar. It severely restricted my navigation of the town. I was so mortified that I never went to that thrift shop again, never spoke to the proprietor. I never spoke about it with my friend, and of course kept it from my parents. 

As I ready this story for publication, the feeling that runs through me is no longer rage, but sadness. I am not at fault for the sexual violations I detail in this project. But if there were any one thing that made me vulnerable to abuse in my adulthood, it would be the abuse in my childhood. 

The incident I describe today fits into a web of dysfunction that lies beyond the reach of this project. The thrust of my sadness is a feeling that things didn't have to be this way. If I had had a bit more economic security, if I had been from a "good" family, would I have been treated differently in this situation? 

Would it have happened at all? Would I have looked different, worn clothes that fit (the dress I'm wearing in these photos was made for a six year-old), had no need to shop in thrift stores and spent most of my time in the care of a responsible adult? Would that have been better, both in this situation, and for me as a whole? If I could, would I give up the creative, destabilizing freedom I had for a bit more conformity, a bit more safety?

And on the other hand: what might have happened in this situation if I had had less privilege? What if I hadn't been white? Would the (white) proprietor have built up a small rapport with me in the first place? Would she have trusted me when I denied the man's accusation? Or would I have been sent to the town's small police station on the word of a hateful old (white) man? 

Would he have felt he could assault me with impunity?

Tomorrow: Incident #7, suddenly and briefly attacked by three men at my 15th birthday party.

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