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Day 14: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of seeing a man masturbate on my walk home

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Svea Vikander, New to Toronto

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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 fourteen, in which I share my experience of being masturbated at while walking home from a restaurant with my friends. Happy Valentine's Day! 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 19.

On day seven of this project I described an incident in which a man rubbed his penis up against the left side of my body on a not-so-crowded bus in Montreal. Today's story is similar: a man seeks sexual gratification in a public place, choosing me/my friends apparently at random as its unhappy provider.

When I first moved to Toronto in 2002, which is 14 years ago, which is impossible, I lived in a house on the edge of Chinatown. I had six roommates. A previous tenant had covered the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars, meticulously placing each star a perfectly random distance away from the others.

The thing I liked most about the stars was the surprise. I would forget about them in the busyness of my day and remember them only on switching my light off at night. I always get a little sad before falling asleep and I felt so sweet in this moment of surprise, as if it were a message from the person who had slept in my room before: it's better to sleep under the stars, although you will forget about it tomorrow.

I was 18 when this incident happened. It was a brisk day with a bit of snow on the ground. I was out with two of my roommates and one of their friends. All female. We had gone to the Red Room, whose soup-and-sandwich specials sustained us. They had a guy working there, a young male artist whose collective, the "Toronto Beautification Project," made loud pronouncements while painting buckets of coloured house paint onto the sidewalk. He liked my roommate, but only until she started liking him back.

We were walking the two blocks back to our house when we saw a young man standing in the middle of a parking lot on the edge of an alley with his boxers around his ankles, his penis in hand. He was masturbating furiously, looking at us with wide eyes, and not stopping. My roommate (Mr. Red Room's sometime beloved) said, "Nice!" in a disdainful tone. 

I don't remember what happened next. Did he "raise trou" and jet? Did we keep walking?

One of the women who was with us that day said she saw him again, when she was having a smoke on our front porch. She said that he came up to her and asked if she wanted to see him dance. She says that she said sure, and he sat down, pulled out his penis, and got to work. She said, "That's not dancing!" and he apologized and ran away. 

We talked about calling the police but I don't think we did. 


I have known of many women who seek sexual gratification. I have known of no women who seek it from unsuspecting strangers in public.

There are myriad reasons for this (and yes, female exhibitionists and frotteurs do exist, maybe even outside of psychological case studies) but the one I want to talk about today is space. Most women navigate public spaces differently than most men. I would venture that most women don't feel that other people inhabiting a public space owe them any kind of interaction, or that public space is theirs to explore, modify, or dominate. Even the Toronto Beautification Project was conducted exclusively by men. 

These stories demonstrate the same dynamic that Hugo Schwyzer (who is a terrible person but who did say this one interesting thing this one time) put forth about mass shootings and white male identity: that more mass shootings are carried out by white, privileged men because they feel entitled to the world and its public spaces. Hugo Schwyzer is really not my friend but the one good line was: Every killer makes his pain another's problem. But only those who've marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world's problem with which to deal.* 

This idea perhaps applies to the situations I have described, too. It could be that the man is sexually frustrated or has a particular non-consensual stranger fetish. His penis needs rubbing. His masturbation needs witnessing. He feels that his sexual dissatisfaction is not his "private pain" but the "entire world's problem." That somebody out there should give him his sex. And so he goes out there and he takes it.**

In part due to the violence and harassment that women often face, they (and all people who are not privileged white men) have found other ways of engaging with public space. Although women have long been considered the doyennes of the domestic sphere and the concept of "woman" has historically been associated with interiors, cloisters, and courtyards, women do engage proactively in the forum, the street, the marketplace. It's just that the things that women have to consider are different.

In Invisible Cities Italo Calvino describes a mythical city's streets created through the myriad paths of a pursued and naked woman, its walls erected by men who wish to trap her, though she has already escaped. This story feels like a pretty apt metaphor for my morning commute. A gauntlet, an obstacle course, a maze. Leers, catcalls, violence, jostling, unwelcome interruptions, unwanted touching. But I come prepared. Women, to varying degrees most often based in racism and classism, navigate public spaces with necessary caution and ingenuity. 

Women dress up as men to avoid harassment, link arms with each other to promote safety, locate male chaperones to ward off aggressors, board buses going in the wrong direction, scream 'FIRE!' instead of 'RAPE!', carry mace when jogging, put in headphones while walking (praise headphones!), walk with elbows out, put their purse on the bench beside them, speak loudly on their cell phones, carry flat shoes for walking fast. Wear more clothing than they need to, hold their keys threaded through their fingers, pretend to know some other guy, avoid dark alleys, walk in the middle of the street, preempt harassment by looking at men and saying 'hello' first, which also proves they could be identified, walk a wide berth around white vans, take an Uber after dark, run, run, run.

And women have often attempted to experience public space in ways that bring that space to them, rather than to risk venturing into the outside world. Sometimes it' bits of the outside world brought inside for safekeeping. At other times it's a recreation of those external spaces. Like the glow-in-the-dark stars above my bed recreated sleeping under the stars outdoors, an experience of the night sky unsafe to witness alone as a woman in downtown Toronto.


*I can only assume he is talking from experience.

**Let me be clear that I am not comparing an exhibitionist with a mass shooter. I'm saying instead that perhaps the two share an underlying worldview.

**NB: A recent comment on my crowd surfing post stated that people just push/grab whatever they can to hold you up when crowd surfing, so people probably were only accidentally assaulting me. I would like to remind this commenter that most vaginas are not located on the back of the body. Kthx.**


Tomorrow is the day of the non-consensual hickeys. Don't miss it!


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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