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Day 6: Jian Ghomeshi reminded me of being groped while I put on my shoes

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Svea Vikander, no torso sculpture allowed

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Jian Ghomeshi goes to trial this month. And so, in a way, do Canadian women. This 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 six, in which I share my experience of being groped by a man my father's age as I put on my shoes to leave his house. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. You can read all the other published stories here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow. 

This is incident number 35.

Yesterday, I described an experience I had while working at a bar in Corso Italia, Toronto, in my early 20s. Today, I'm writing about the same place, but a different man. 

He said "please." He tipped well. The other bartenders loved him. He lived in the neighborhood and would come in for a stiff drink while out walking his dog in the evening. He was, like me, "cake," the Toronto-Italian term for a mainstream Anglo-Canadian (the term comes from the word "mangiacake." It's used to signify cultural allegiances and, although a bit derogatory, feels about right. I love cake and I love to eat it!). The man was dignified, older, with a ruddy and generically handsome face.

I liked him because he would ask me reasonable questions about myself, and sometimes talk about things like books or feminism. He was a successful artist, married and with two adult children. I felt we had, as I said in those days, "a genuine heart connection." He once came in after having his dog put down and I know what that's like. Together we made a toast to his companion.

One night he was at the bar late, and we had a great conversation with one or two other patrons. We talked about the scar on my stomach, how scars always contain stories, and about the piece of whale vertebra I had purchased because I felt I needed "more spine" in my life. He told me that he had a beautiful whale-bone carving in his house. When he walked me home after work we realized we lived only a block from each other. He invited me to come back to his place and see his bone (carving). I didn't feel unsafe. He joked that it was a terrible line, that he was not trying to convince me to "come up and see [his] etchings." We both knew he kind of was.

When I got to his house, I realized that I didn't want to be there. His wife was away and he ushered me into their bedroom. It felt bad. Her paintings were on the wall. It felt terrible. He told me that she was sexually unadventurous and had learned to tolerate his dalliances with other women. He said he had recently dated someone from my hometown.

It turned out that this woman was a former classmate of mine; that he had in fact had a tumultuous, two-year relationship with her. That she -- a woman I really looked up to and still deeply admire -- now hated his guts. And that her family had been through tabloid-worthy tragedy.

There were so many reasons not to be there. Even the whale carving kind of sucked.

I sat beside it as he told me about how he felt his wrinkles were his scars. About how one time he had picked up his wife while penetrating her and tried to run around the room with her in his arms. How she had looked at him like he was a complete fool. I felt only a little sympathy: a foolish sex act is foolish, right? I said that I was seeing someone and that, after all, he has daughters my age. I got up to leave and saw that the bottle-opener I had forgotten to return to its nail behind the bar had slid out of my pocket. I picked it up and he looked concerned, suddenly scouring the ground for any other paraphenelia I had left behind.

After walking downstairs, I sat down in front of the door to put my boots on. He came up behind me and started kissing my neck. It was a last-ditch effort, entirely desperate. I continued putting my shoes on, saying that I had to go. He reached up and fondled my breasts. I don't remember what I said but it definitely wasn't "Yes, please, fondle my breasts like a teenaged boy in a movie theatre." I wanted to tell him, you're embarrassing yourself, you need to grow up, your wrinkles aren't real scars. But instead I left, politely, with apologies, and walked home.

He was undeterred. The next time he came to the bar he had stashed a lump of clay in my front lawn so that he could sculpt a model of my torso when he -- presumably, and presumptuously -- came home with me that night. I don't remember exactly how I turned him down but I know I had a girlfriend I preferred to hang out with. To my knowledge, no sculpture of my torso has ever been made. Not from life, anyway.

When I thought about his desperate fondling I cringed all through my body, not for my own violation but out of vicarious chagrin for him. I was not romantically interested. But I felt sympathy and I was a little flattered. I met him for coffee once after the night he didn't sculpt my torso.

In that meeting he told me about a shameful secret ... that once he had picked up his wife and tried to run around the room with her and she looked at him with a terrible, completely understandable look on her face. It dawned on me that he didn't remember telling me this story before because he had told it so many times. A line that must have worked on other young women (get it together, young women! This line is terrible!). I understood then and in retrospect that I didn't exist as a person to him. I was one of many interchangeable, symbolic fountains of youth and affirmation.

I sent him an email after that coffee, saying that I had indeed gotten back together with my ex and that we were really trying to make it work (chances are high that this was true; there was a lot of getting back together in those days). He had said that even though I wasn't interested in a sexual relationship, he still wanted to be my friend. Predictably, I never heard from him again.

*     *     *

I've told this story to only a few people. The first question each of them asked me was what was I doing in his house in the first place. Marie Henein asked the same thing of Lucy Decoutere. The answer I give is the same that she did: I don't really know. The answer is also that it doesn't matter. A person can rescind consent at any point; and anyway, presence in a sexually charged atmosphere doesn't indicate consent.

The question I have asked myself is why I considered him my friend after he groped me without my consent.  The truth is that it didn't seem important to me. It didn't seem at all unusual, and given its place amongst the incidents of sexual violation in my life (number 35), it actually wasn't. This kind of behavior is completely normalized amongst men of all generations. From the retiree and, yes, especially the teenaged boy. It's what we expect from men.

We even have a phrase for that kind of supposedly harmless, insistent touch. We say, "He was all over me." I tolerated this touch like I would tolerate the enthusiastic laps of a puppy. Good-natured tolerance is what we expect of women. In writing this post, I worry that he will read it and identify himself. That he will then write to me with dramatic flourish, saying that I have betrayed his trust. This is also what we expect from men.

But maybe, just maybe, in the ten years that have passed since that night he groped me, he's changed. Grown up a bit. Maybe he'll read this and feel, instead, a little bit of good-natured tolerance.

Tomorrow: Day 7! A frotteur finds me on the bus!

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