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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.

I wrote about my experiences of sexual violence every day of February and this is what happened.

| March 7, 2016
Svea Vikander, conclusion gif

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One warm day in November 2014, days after the Ghomeshi scandal broke, I felt compelled to listen to one forgotten song on my morning commute. I had never loved it but I knew the lyrics. It had a place in my mental rolodex, ready for my mind to do that thing where it generates a playlist related to the ramblings of my subconscious (think this doesn't happen to you? you're just not paying enough attention). It was Alanis Morissette's "Thank U" and the words I kept hearing in my head were, How about grieving it all one at a time.

It was the time for that.

All of them.

One at a time.

I found the song on Youtube and walked to Potrero, choking back tears behind my sunglasses. You should listen to it now as you read the conclusion to my month-long telling of those stories, all of them, one at a time. Or watch the music video, which I like to pretend was filmed in Toronto. It says everything I want to say here, but better.

If you're in a rush, you could just read this quote by bell hooks or this poem by Sharon Olds

***

A week ago, I finished a month of telling. For 29 days I told the world (or the project's 70,000 viewers, who might all be the same person) about my experiences of sexual assault and harassment. I wrote about violations that occurred in public and private, in crowds and on couches; I wrote about 14 incidents perpetrated by complete strangers (often in groups), five from men in positions of authority (three of whom who were supposed to be providing medical or psychological care), four acquaintances, four friends, two boyfriends. Ten per cent of the experiences took place on public transit, 17 per cent took place in the street or the bushes outside my bedroom window. More than half occurred at age 19 or younger. Twenty-four took place in Canada. All of them pulled a thread -- sometimes many -- from the fabric of my ability to trust, which is also the ability to love.

Writing about these experiences was my own not-at-all-scientific experiment about how we treat "women who tell" in Canada. I learned so much from it. 

 

1. People will surprise you. 

Strangers sought me out to thank me and to share their own experiences. Friends from lifetimes ago did the same. And more strangers. And more friends. And friends of friends. And family members. As a therapist, I'm comfortable talking about traumatic experiences. Which is another way of saying I welcome having my heart broken. There was a lot of that going on this month. Almost as if I were walking around naked in a city, interrupted only by brief moments of mutual support, strangers placing their hands on my shoulders before we went our separate ways.

I found I could not predict the reaction a story would receive. Stories from which I expected an intense response, such as the one about being bullied in high school (which includes a list of incidents that disturb me to this day), received relatively little attention. Incidents that I expected to be easily classified as harassment, such as the time a man with an erection in his shorts loitered around my pre-teen friend and I in a rarely frequented public space, drew outrage at my presumption. 

Others found my perspective alien but welcome. A friend asked if he could use my posts as reading material for his men's group. Men I knew only as college-aged bros with a hankering for drunk girls told me that my stories had helped them to reflect on their behavior. A man my father's age contacted me on Twitter to say the same.

My step-father proudly told the world about my work, and of the beautiful guest post from my step-sister-in-law. My own father maintained a furious silence. But my mother-in-law, who could easily be forgiven for not wanting to read about her daughter-in-law's sexual experiences in parked cars (no matter how clearly delineated, or how transgressed), read my posts even when they gave her nightmares. My mother also supported me in "GO Svea!!1" text messages  but couldn't bring herself to read any of the stories. My sister read them, and cried, every night, for the first week. But she's a journalist (read her super cute tweets about her beat, Port Moody!) and crying every night isn't good when you need to do things like call the mayor at his home at 9 p.m., so she had to stop. 

My radio co-host combed through dozens of comments on one of my posts on rabble.ca for terms that I could use for the visual component of this conclusion. Anonymous, generous people asserted my right to talk about my experiences and to frame them as sexual violation in comments sections various and sundry. These unknown heroes had the same conversations, made the same arguments, over and over again. Halfway through the month, I became weary of the aggression that blows through your hair like wind on a road trip when you've committed the crime of being female on Twitter. I asked for help from my social network. Three women, Kristie, Angela, and Amanda, volunteered to monitor my account so that I could hear the good without bracing myself for gusts of bad. It provided a surprisingly deep sense of security -- as if they wrapped me in soft blankets and allowed the breeze only to rock my cradle. Love.

Silk stored folded over years will crack along its creases. Some of the stories in this project had been packed so neatly, so tightly, that to open them was to expose their fault lines as they became tatters in my hands. These were the stories that only I remembered and, because I had never told them, had never seen the light of day.

Or the incidents to which I had alluded only in vague terms like, "When I was young" and "got a lot of attention from creepy guys on public transit".  My husband, a handsome viking who is still owed a Valentine's Day gift, card, and flowers, read every post I wrote, and told me it was good, and that he was proud, even when the story would have been more palatable left in the bottom of a dark wood chest. This month deepened our marriage and our commitment to telling and listening. Big love.

And more, and more! I had a heart-to-heart with a good friend (once the college boyfriend who reluctantly toured Europe for a summer, and who was beat up by a group of guys after they grabbed my ass) who confessed that every time he sat down to read the project, he couldn't do it. He tied his reluctance back to an old fissure in our friendship, and our conversation cleared air that had been slightly fetid for eight years. 

The most intimate conversations I had with other women tended to be with those I didn't know well: the older sister of a good friend, the good friends of my sister, the ex of an ex, women I knew as classmates in high school. One of the writers of a guest post said that the response from her close friends had been lukewarm, but the feedback from strangers was positive. At times I felt this too. I don't know why this is, but I think it has something to do with shame or embarrassment, and not from a lack of love.

Also: Over 200 applications were made for certificates of online harassment, almost all of which were made by trolls; some of their entries were funny, and some were not. Also: My editor, Michael Stewart, was fantastic and writes perfectly worded emails [hey, thanks! --ed.].

 

2. The most effective antidote to self-doubt is work.

Chekhov was right. I wasn't scared about the project or how it had been received until February 29, my first night off. It was only then that real doubts set in -- cringing at the stories I had shared, remembering nasty things people had said, or just feeling sad about being misunderstood. It's good to have these moments; it's helpful to take stock. But an artist can stew for generations. 

I learned that it is only in the moments when you are not creating that the critics actually mean something to you. The lesson is: if you feel bad about how your work is being received, make more of it. 

 

3. "Brave" only means "fortunate." 

Many people called me 'brave' this month. I copied and pasted their compliments it into a file on my computer, a collection of nice things people have said about me or my work that I can read when I feel down. It's true that to do work like this requires a certain amount of the risk-taking, narcissism, and bravado that we usually associate with bravery. But bravery isn't a personal attribute, it's a confluence of circumstances.

I recently started teaching workshops about a therapeutic technique called "motivational interviewing." Its basic tenet is that three elements must be present in order for a person to make a change: she must believe the change is possible to make; the change must be important to her; and she must feel that she is ready to make it. I think it's pretty much the same for Doing The Bravery. In this case, to believe that people can change their ideas about consent; that it is important to share stories of vulnerability and violence; and to be psychologically ready to share those stories.

It is an obvious marker of privilege to expect that my writing will be published and promoted in an effort to partake in the larger conversation about consent. It's only from the support of other people that I feel my stories are important to share. It is only from the privilege of safety that I feel ready to go back and unpack them and shake them out in the light of day. 

We all take the risks we are supported in taking. Nobody is braver than anyone else.

Also, there were stories I didn't tell. I didn't tell about the man who harassed me at the student paper; I didn't tell about the men who called me a whore and pushed me against a construction wall. I was afraid of what would happen if I told about these things and the people involved.

So there's that.

 

4. Names. So many names.

If my experience over the past month can be considered, in some slight way, indicative of the values and behavior of Canadian society, I learned that when a Canadian woman tells about the sexual violence she has experienced, the result is polarized. To some, I am a professional victim and my work condescending clickbait. To others, an amazing woman producing necessary, gutting work. Brave and self-absorbed; a great writer and a shoehorner of anecdotes. There's an awful lot of names. All of them have a sheen of truth to them.

 

Svea Vikander, conclusion gif

 

But they are not, in essence, about me. They're about the feelings that rise to the surface when a woman asserts her right to move through the world unhindered, to live the way that many men do. The hackles that raise when she demands attention to the constant, minute harassment she receives, or the larger attacks she has experienced. Somewhere in this action of telling, the fabric of our belief that Canada is a just place, a safe place, comes unravelled. Something is revealed, and for some people that something is "OMG YES!" and for others, that something is fear. 

Maybe it's fear that your actions will be remembered and you will be held to account for them. Maybe it's the fear that you were too drunk on youthful arrogance to care or notice that the woman you were with was smiling, but she wasn't saying yes. Maybe it's the fear that women and minorities seem to be getting an awful lot of airtime today and suddenly you have to watch what you say lest you be misunderstood (quelle horreur!). Or, from the other side, maybe the fear that you will be forced to look back at your own experiences and name them harassment, violence, violation (you don't have to; you can, but you don't have to).

Whatever the case, I'm here to tell you that it's OK, Canada. That me writing about "minor" incidents that other women have chosen not to voice does not take away from the stories of women who experienced horrific abuse. That although I decry the actions of assault and harassment I have received, I don't hate the men who did them.

It's been 29 days. I'm not even angry anymore.

 

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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