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Day 16: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of a strange massage on a strange night

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Svea Vikander, summer nights are strange

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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 16, in which I share my experience of receiving an unwanted lower-breast massage. 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 22.

It was the summer after my nineteenth birthday. The same summer I attended the 111th American Psychological Association Convention, my boyfriend was unhappily traveling through Europe, and I was transcribing tapes. I also made a lot of art that summer, none of which withstood the test of time.

Once a week, some friends would hold a party at an upscale vegan restaurant on Queen Street West. They would play house music and drink vegan drinks and it was a great vibe. I even saw a rat run through the dance floor one time.

I know I was with a female friend that night, but I don't remember who. I'm such a good friend that I do remember what I wore. Do you remember those extra-drape-necked shirts that were in style for a good while, the ones that looked like a cowl neck drank too much tequila and just stopped caring? Anyway, I made one for myself, out of a cream silk scarf, and I had a great tan and very short hair. It's common to go braless in a very low cowl-necked shirt that is also a scarf. Recommended, even.

Anyway, I went to the event, got annoyed with a guy who said, "Well everyone's an artist" when I said that's what I did, and was ready to go. My friend suggested that I get a ride with his friend, A, who was heading out at the same time. I said thanks, yes please, and we left together. A's car was full of junk and (I might be imagining this) there was a hole in the floor. I remember it being old and having bench seats. This seems impossible now. 

A was an interesting person: perhaps five years older than me, curly hair, dated older women, and had gone shoeless for an entire year, but not in Toronto. We had a really great conversation. I was sad that I hadn't had a chance to speak to him at the event, and we talked in the car for a long time, mostly about his problems. I had lots of those but we didn't talk about them. It wasn't a Svea-talks kind of conversation. But I did tell him that I had a boyfriend. 

Summer nights are strange in downtown Toronto. They're so hot you can't imagine anything bad ever happening yet everyone looks slightly murderous. The window fans and air conditioners make a full range of buzzing sounds, all machines moving at different speeds, different pitches. The light is bright from the streetlights and muddied by the humidity. Drunk people ride by on creaky bicycles and a Reg Hartt poster suddenly has a message that's just for you. Sometimes those nights, especially when you've left a party with an interesting stranger and have nowhere in particular to be get weird, right? 


Svea Vikander, summer nights are strange


The longer we talked, the more surreal the night became. The same things kept happening over and over again -- an elderly woman walking slowly down the sidewalk followed by a cat jumping out of the bushes at the exact same place a cat had jumped out of the bushes after an elderly woman walked by only 30 minutes before. I don't know how he began massaging me. I had a lot of exposed skin and he had a lot of hands. He asked where I hurt (he fancied himself a great massager person) and I said that I didn't. He was amazed. 

The way the shirt worked was that someone could put their hand in the side and touch your stomach and breasts. He grazed only the bottom of my breasts with his hand. I said that I wasn't comfortable with this. He said that's all right, that's OK! And, within a few more minutes, had touched me in the same place again, apologizing as I reminded him of my boundaries. I said that I had to go but that I hoped we would keep in touch. I haven't seen him since.


The classic response to a story like this is first to tell the woman that she should have gotten out of the car as soon as he touched her the first time, or she should not have allowed him to massage her, or that she should not have stayed to talk to a stranger on a strange night in Toronto, or that she should not have accepted a ride from a friend's friend, or that she should not have been wearing such a loose loose woman's shirt. We stop short of telling women not to leave the house, nowadays.

It is true that all of those actions could have prevented this minor assault. The man not minorly assaulting me could also have prevented it. Semantics. (also grammar, because "minorly" is not a word).

What else is prevented when women play it safe in order to prevent assault? Where would I be now if I hadn't done stupid things like accepting rides from strangers, spending hours talking to interesting people, staying out late enough to see the humidity making halos around the streetlights, or making shirts out of scarves? I wouldn't have half my friendships, half my peak memories, half my wardrobe. Then again, I wouldn't have half the material I've used in this project. 

I've been thinking lately about J.K. Rowling writing Harry Potter while living "on the dole" with her kid. There was a little outcry when the news came out that she had been writing Hogwarts into existence instead of working at McDonald's. But no one was willing to give up Harry Potter, to send him back to the dark time before he was created by pen on paper by a single mom in Edinburgh. I've been thinking about all the Harry Potters that aren't getting written right now, where I live, in the Bay Area where the cost of living is so high and the safety net so damaged. There are millions of works as good as (nay, better than) Harry Potter that will never be written and it's shameful. 

What great works of stupidity, serendipity, spirituality, and love have I lost in the times that I watched my back when I didn't need to? When I snapped at the Moroccan man who touched my shoulder when he was only giving me detailed directions (he was sad, I was sad), stayed home instead of attending the Humanist after-party at the APA convention, declined drugs at a lake cottage, walked with eyes averted? I will never know. But I'm not looking for more writing material.

Tomorrow: Breakups are terrible, so is sexual violation, let's not confuse them. 

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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