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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 fifteen, in which I share my experience of receiving an expressly unwelcomed hickey during a sexual encounter. 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 28.
I promised I would write about hickeys. The bruise-like marks a sucking mouth leaves on your skin. There is nothing wrong with hickeys. I just don't like them. I want to wear bright clothes, small children and too much makeup on my body -- not the mark of another person's mouth.
I was 24. I had hooked up with this one guy before: a year earlier we had gone to a show and out for drinks. I knew him from school as a quiet person with a good sense of humour.
I wish I knew how to harness the vibes I was sending off that night we first got together and three separate strangers (a taxi driver, a bar tender, a fellow patron) told him that I was a keeper and he should hold onto me.
Which was awkward for a first date.
And kind of a weird (but sweet!) way to give a compliment to a woman. I wouldn't mind being able to recreate that charisma for other important events, like Christmas with my in-laws. I'm a keeper and he should hold onto me.
Anyway, the other thing I remember about that date is that we went back to his house and fooled around; he respected my desire not to have intercourse and everything would have been fine except that the next day, I was in pain.
I hurt. I had bruises. I had hickeys. I was swollen. I had spots of blood in my underpants.
I wish I could remember what about our sexual contact that night had been so rough. The dynamic had not been particularly aggressive. I chalked my vaginal damage up to his relative youth, my refusal to have intercourse (his roughness an attempt to compensate for its usual pleasures) and a certain lack of self-consciousness that seemed attractive. But the night didn't kindle a relationship. I kept my distance; we kept in touch, dated other people. When I returned to Toronto after a trip abroad a year later, we went out again.
I came back from my trip 10 pounds and a few thousand dollars lighter. I had traveled alone, made friends, left friends, washed with stolen soap in Morocco, cried on benches in Spain, and grown up a little. I was certain that if I went to bed with him again, I would make sure it was different.
We met up on College St. in Little Italy, and I was happy to see him. We had chemistry, and went home together. Before anything physical started, I looked him straight in the eyes and told him about how I had felt the last time. About how I didn't like or want hickeys, and that I needed him to be more gentle. He looked at me like I was a toddler offering him a flower made of toilet paper. I felt foolish. We got it on.
The next day, I hurt. I had a few bruises. And I had a significant hickey on my lower neck. Again, I don't remember anything unusual about that particular sexing (OK, I don't remember a lot of sexing, so shoot me). I may or may not have asked him to modify his behavior in the moment which would, according to most cultural narratives about consent, be the best way to stop it. I don't know.
I was in a better physical state than I had been in the last time but my emotional state was worse. I was bewildered. He seemed like a considerate person. But he hadn't listened to my request. He hadn't engaged with me when I tried to start a conversation about his behavior. And he left me with a goddamn hickey when I told him not to. But who cares about a hickey? Don't we all lose control during sex? I didn't confront him.
I care about a hickey. And I cared extra that week, as I had a date with someone else -- an ex who knew I was seeing other people but would not be happy to see the evidence. I wore a double-layered chiffon high-collared shirt with pearl buttons along the side which, conveniently, fit the Toronto hipster uniform perfectly. So did the jaunty neck-scarves I wore throughout that week. Nobody noticed. It all worked out fine. But I didn't like covering a mark I had not wanted in the first place.
I called a friend and told her what had happened. She said that she was proud of me for bringing up how I felt about the last time before going to bed with him again. I was proud of myself for that too. She said that relationships that begin with confrontation turn out well.
I include that snippet of our conversation here as an example of the ways that women often take absurd or inappropriate male behavior and work with it. Because of the cultural narrative that men are, once and forevermore, dogs, there's an unofficial onus on women to use male infractions to better ourselves.
We can't expect men to change. So we use their violations to make ourselves wiser, stronger, less easily abused; to use betrayal as an opportunity for personal growth. Women have told me they appreciate having been "sent" an abusive husband because it taught them something. This is a healthy way to re-frame a difficult event after many years of emotional work. But I am suspicious of how neatly it fits into our ideas about gender and who needs to do the work.
On my second date with my husband, we sat on my floral couch and talked about our lives. The way he spoke of another female friend -- with compassion, and about forgiveness -- blew me away. I remember thinking, I can learn something from him. And not in the he'll-hurt-me-horribly-in-some-new-as-yet-undetermined-way-which-will-make-me-learn-and-grow way. But in the I-want-to-live-my-life-like-he-does kind of way. It was so clear that I should be with him. I was terrified. But that's another story for another day (he reads all these posts; Happy belated Valentine's day, bebe!).
My relationship with Mr. Non-Con Hicks evolved. We dated, broke up, haven't talked in a while. But get this: once we actually started seeing each other regularly, the hickeys stopped happening. What to make of this, I don't know. Was he becoming more attuned to my signals? Was I becoming better at predicting what kind of actions would lead to marks, and heading them off at the pass?
I had a boss who told me he would give every woman he slept with a hickey next to her genitals so that any other guy she was sleeping with would know he was there. But was the very kind, ostensibly feminist, sensitive, generous person I dated marking his territory? The thought seems outrageous but it has crossed my mind. Could it have been subconscious? Was it simple inexperience? He was young.
But he wasn't inexperienced. I was't his first or second or third girlfriend. Surely, at some point, he had been curious about how a woman felt about the marks he left on her body?
This event was some kind of violation. But we have no word for it, no small-claims sex court. Surely, the mark left from a consensual sex act is not sexual violence as we know it. This seems clear. But is it true that we cannot, as women, expect to be able to determine the manner of an act that is performed upon us? Perhaps this is so. Perhaps we cannot talk about these events because so often we don't, yet, have the power to determine the acts performed upon us, never mind the marks they may leave behind.
Hickeys are small potatoes.
But I fantasize about a world in which a sexually active woman has as much control over the marks on her body as she does over the colour of her eyeshadow. When engaging in sexual relations with another person requires her to surrender no bodily autonomy at all. When she can say, "I need you to be more gentle" and her partner will say, "Tell me what that means for you".
As I write this, I think about what will appear in the comments section: the usual assumption that I was simply mistaken. That I hadn't explained my feelings properly. That the marks on my neck were probably just eczema. Anything to push the notion that women are regularly violated during sexual encounters as far away as possible. To button up women who tell.
And I have no evidence to support my story, no proof. No recordings of the conversation in which I asked him to be more gentle, and he agreed with a stupid look of indulgence on his face. No photos of the subsequent bruises and hickeys. No transcript of the conversation I had with my friend. But I do have the shirt.
It's a lovely blouse. But it's a bitch to button up.
Tomorrow: the guy who drove me home and touched my stomach and breasts while apologizing for touching my stomach and breasts.
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