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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 twenty-eight, in which I share a sexual experience that felt consensual at the time but looks like statutory rape in hindsight. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. I'll be sharing one final experience of sexual violence tomorrow, and looking back on this month of work, connection, controversy, and sharing.
And remember, as always, to practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow.
* * *
I turned 15 a month before I left. I went to St. Lucia with a crew of (white) Canadians, running a free day camp for the children of Gros Islet. It was pretty harmless as humanitarian projects go. We ran it out of the local public school and kids attended when their parents were at work, doing arts and crafts in small groups. There were games and sports and stuff, and a balanced lunch of white bread and fake cheese.
There were 11 of us on the trip, minus one girl who went home after the first week for mental health reasons. Without her, we were two teenaged girls and four teenaged boys; all (but me) came from from upper-crust prep schools in Central Canada. I came from… not that, in Western Canada. I had been invited to come on the trip when my mom rented a room to the organizer (one of four chaperone adults on the trip, all in their 20s), whom I had impressed by giving love advice at the dinner table. The other kids had always expected to go on humanitarian, college app-boosting trips like this. I had gotten lucky, and with only a modicum of malice, they made sure I knew it.
We partied a lot and drank a lot. The boys were fond of talking about how wild any particular woman must be in bed and trying to bribe anything that walked into fellating beer bottles. They were 16, 17 years old; athletic, white, male, rich. Hormones & Privilege Gone Wild. I remember one boy in particular was incapable of handling the idea of a girl showering only a few feet away from him. He would jiggle the door knob and yell obscenities at me as I ran the water, claiming that I took too long. Why he never took me up on my offer to let him shower first, I have not the slightest idea.
There was only one nightclub in town and we went there on Fridays. The smoke in the air above the dance floor was as heavy as Toronto smog in August. Ganja, tobacco. It looked like the surface of a frozen lake when the green and blue lights lit it up. Smoke gives my lungs asthma, depriving my brain of oxygen and invading my thoughts, making them small and stupid. Being in that club was like getting drunk and high and wearing a straightjacket, all at the same time, just for fun.
I met a guy. Perfect-looking. He was older, in his 20s, with dark hair and piercings and a strong German accent. He asked me to go upstairs with him to the mezzanine. We talked for a bit at a table, which was difficult because his English wasn't great and I wasn't breathing enough. We kissed.
My chaperone came to find me and bring me home. I don't know how the table ended up lying on the floor after making a loud sound, but it had something to do with my shoe, or my arm. I was drunk and literally breathlessly happy, so my embarassment waited until the next day. He waved.
We had made a plan to meet at the 'Jump Up' (street party) the next night. I wore a maroon-coloured skirt I had bought for a few dollars from (yes, ma'am!) the thrift store near my house in Vancouver and a white strappy halter top from a sports discount store. For once, instead of telling me I was fat with wobbly thighs, the boys on the trip complimented me. I had been wearing camp clothes (including the athletics shorts I bought that year from my high school store!) for the past month and it was good to dress up. I felt like myself.
I went out with my group. Met up with my man. With permission from my chaperone, he and I went for a walk on the beach. We sat down. We talked about a few things. He asked again how old I was, and I don't know why he asked (to make sure it was illegal?), but I answered honestly. We began to make out. I was lying in the sand and he was on top of me. He pulled a wrapped condom out of his pocket and pressed it into my hand, the tops of my fingers touching the sand. He said, "What do you think?" I said sure. But that I hadn't done it before.
We had sex. I stayed very still and he commented on this. He said, "You are just lying there!" and sounded exasperated. When he said that, I got the same feeling I get now when I serve my kid chocolate milk and he complains that I've given him the green cup.
Like Yeah, well. Would you rather have no milk at all?
We returned to the group, which had splintered. I hung out with the guy, his roommate, and my chaperone for a bit. They invited us back to their place to "make a party". My chaperone pulled me aside and asked if I felt comfortable with that, letting me know that if we did go back to their place, this guy would be 'all over' me. I said I understood, but that I was tired and wanted to go home. We did. On the walk home, I confessed that I had slept with the man already.
I glimpsed him once more after that, as he walked down to the beach past the crumbling colonial-style house we had rented. I felt too shy to run after him and say hello, though I assumed I would see him later. I never saw him again.
I hesitated to include this incident because at the time and for many years afterward, I felt pretty good about it. I felt that I had made an informed and positive choice.
After all, I had good reasons.
There was a brand new boyfriend at home who was emotionally and socially stunted, but with whom I was head over heels in love. We weren't yet exclusive. He was the kind of (white, privileged) boy who would drive through Canada's poorest postal code, Vancouver's Downtown East Side, throwing rotten eggs at sex workers from his father's BMW. I knew he was bad news. I felt like (was certain) he was going to break my heart (he did) and I didn't want him to be my first (don't worry, I returned the favor, kicking him out of a Swedish hostel a decade later).
The social milieu in which I middled at home was so toxic that it was better to avoid any moment of vulnerability, especially when it came to sexuality. The incident I describe today happened only two months after three men pulled up my skirt and grabbed me while I was alone in a room at a party. I attended a school where sexual violence was so normalized that rape and slut-shaming were basically considered impossible. I was happy to have had a no-strings-attached first sexual experience where I didn't have to worry about rumors of me doing something embarrassing, like bleeding uncontrollably, spreading to my friends. Having sex with a much older stranger on a beach in a foreign country felt safer than doing it at home.
So I did it and everything was fine. I was happy about the way I lost my virginity, and wrote to my friends about the lapping of waves on the shore, the handsome stranger, the shooting star. I returned from my trip to St. Lucia a cosmopolitan woman with a blue sarong, a carton of hand-wrapped tobacco cigarettes, a dark tan that soon peeled like the skin off the top of warmed milk, and, that unfailing hallmark of adulthood, sexual experience.
Because when you're 15 you're practically an adult, even. I thought that I could make responsible and informed life choices because I was mature, smart, and independent. But the truth is, I took a risk and it's only through luck that I ended up having risked right. There is a reason that consent laws have come into effect: young people are vulnerable, and the most vulnerable need our protection, sometimes even from themselves.
If I had become pregnant from this sexual interaction, would I have known how to handle it responsibly? If I had been triggered and re-experienced past abuses while it happened, would I have had the emotional maturity to seek help? If I had suddenly felt that no, I didn't want to do this after all, would I have had the wherewithal to tell a man ten years my senior to stop?
As a single adult woman, I never once consented to sleeping with a man whose last name I didn't know, in public, the second time I met him. Why? Because I was an adult with a good sense of my own social mores and emotional and sexual needs. But as a fifteen year-old girl, I didn't have that knowledge yet.
I look back on the person I was then (I've lived longer than her entire lifetime since that incident) and I see a young girl with a lot of insight and lot of pain. She thinks she knows what she is doing, and she is learning it, but she doesn't. She is still a child.
And folks, if you're having sex with a woman who is "just lying there," chances are you're doing it wrong.
You might remember that on Day 11 I talked about how women sometimes use fellatio to neutralize an unwanted sexual encounter. I was responding to commentators who were confused when one woman explained that she gave oral sex to Jian Ghomeshi "to get out of there."
A reader had written and sent to me her story of a complicated and unhappy sexual encounter in which she gave just such an escape blow job, but I couldn't get confirmation of her permission to publish an excerpt from that story in time for publication. But I have it now. Here:
I could’ve held him off. I could’ve told him to fuck off. I thought to myself -- how do I make this as emotionless and detached as possible? How do I end this quickly? I do not want to make out with him. I don’t want feeling or romance or kissing. I don’t want there to be a moment.
I felt betrayed that he’d pushed past the boundaries of our friendship. And now I feel humiliated that I didn't have the strength to stand up to him. He got his penis out. In his boxers. He gestured down and I looked and there it was. My heart sank. I thought, if I make this just about sex then it won’t matter. Him and his girlfriend have an open relationship so if it’s "just" about sex then it’ll be over with quickly and won’t matter to anyone -- cold, emotionless.
I went down on him. I tried to give him head without him touching me or kissing me or getting closer to me. Fortunately, he couldn’t stay hard. Whether that was nerves or guilt or (more likely) the excessive amount of booze we had, I’ll never know. But for me it was a relief. Phew, I don’t have to be a part of this any more. I just have to wait it out until he leaves… two hours, one hour… Then we can go back to being friends again. To trusting each other.
Yes, this interaction was officially consensual. But no, it wasn't wanted. There is something wrong when a person feels that the consequences of rejecting another's sexual advances will be more severe than the consequences of rejecting her own emotional and physical needs. It doesn't mean that the man in this story should be prosecuted for a crime. It means that we need to take a look at the ways we talk and think about sex and relationships and who bears the responsibility of keeping the peace within them. Whose needs are prioritized in a sexual encounter? And why?
* * *
Tomorrow is the last day of this project. Can you believe it? I can't. I still have so much to say, so many stories to tell, LOL/weep. I'll be talking about the things I've learned and experienced over this last month, when I have been uncovering a few facets of what happens to women who tell in Canada. And I will be sharing a story with pictures of bruises. See you there!
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