Photo: flickr/Jeroen Bennink

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On August 15 demonstrators gathered at Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto to protest the arrival of self-professed “pick-up artist” Daryush Valizadeh known as Roosh V. The American writer, widely known for suggesting that rape should be legal if it is done on private property, went on a six-city tour, ending in Montreal and Toronto, to speak to what he refers to as “oppressed men.”

An online petition failed to have Canada Border Service Agency bar Valizadeh from entering in Canada on the grounds that his speeches promote and disseminate hate.

On August 8, Valizadeh performed to a crowd of 34 people at his first Canadian stop in Montreal at an undisclosed location. Dozens of protesters demonstrated against Valizadeh near Concordia university and local and federal politicians weighed in on this situation.

“We cannot cite freedom of expression when an individual advocates for legalizing rape on private property,” said Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée, along with Quebec’s opposition critic for the status of women Carole Poirier, echoed similar statements.

Toronto Mayor John Tory voiced his opposition to Valizadeh’s stop saying those hosting the tour should “do the right thing” and cancel the event. “While free speech is the law in this country, promoting violence against women is wrong,” tweeted Tory.

Roosh V. deemed planned demonstrations organized in Montreal to be a “counter attack” and suggested his followers collect personal information, starting with social media RSVP lists, about the Montreal protesters in an effort to silence them. The same allegedly occurred in Toronto.

His followers asserted that the opposition to him signals that free speech is dwindling in Canada. Meanwhile, anti-rape culture demonstrators faced serious threats.

Protest organizers Haley Firkser and Nyssa Komorowski experienced this first hand.

“It angers me that not only did he go so low to dox people like he did. [But it] actually compromised the safety of people in Toronto who wanted to attend and show their support in a public way. It’s just another tactic that shitty men like him use to silence us,” explained Firkser.

On his website, there were allegedly “joke” bomb threats and suggestions of serious bodily harm to protesters.

Komorowski, a survivor of sexual assault and stalking, admits that in the past, she suffered a lot of public humiliation and eventually felt that she didn’t have the ability to participate in community and public spaces.

“I have felt afraid in public, and I still have a hard time leaving my house. I have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Komorowski said. “My name was published three times on a list the [Roosh V supporters] say was from a Facebook event,” she added.

Supporters then began publishing the names of people who said they’d attend protests against the speeches, gathering the names from facebook event pages for the protests. Eventually, organizers alerted potential attendees that guest lists were being passed around by Roosh V supporters with the “intention of harassing individuals who support this demonstration.” The note went on to say that those concerned for their safety should refrain from confirming their attendance on the event page.

At the protest Komorowski took a microphone and loudly exclaimed, “Today I stand with you strong, together, against violence. We carry a message about consent and opposing rape culture. No Silence Against Violence!”

Cheri DiNovo, MPP for Parkdale-High Park and Ontario’s first LGBTQ Critic, told the crowd she was disturbed by Roosh V and his supporters.

“[They] are a symptom of the problem — only a symptom. If this were only about one wing-nut, perhaps demos like these wouldn’t be necessary…but sadly it’s about thousands,” stated Dinovo, thanking other politicians who stood against Roosh V’s appearances.

“Thank you Mayor John Tory for speaking out, and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie; she phoned every hotel and all the places Roosh V was supposed to speak, and numerous Councillors, and Peel police.”

“Hate speech is a crime,” she said.

Hate speech, or Hate Propaganda as it is called in the Criminal Code, is illegal.

“Communicating statements, in any public place, [that] incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” is illegal.

After the protest, Komorowski explained that many attendees described feeling positive and took comfort in the fact that they didn’t feel alone.

“Over the past two weeks I found a whole network of people who are completely rad. Because of the [Roosh V supporters’] trolling we were forced to speak to each other privately and get to know each other more personally. This was our greatest strength, I think,” said Komorowski.

“Trying to plan something and make it as inclusive and accessible as possible is difficult, especially when you’re nervous to reach out to the public because anyone who responds could be a Roosh troll. We filtered them, though, and it turned out really well!” explained Firkser.

The normalization of sexual assault by citing examples from her own life. From the age of about eight she’s been subject to catcalls from men, been inappropriately touched on the street numerous times, and been forced to kiss someone against her will at a club, Firkster added.

“They just couldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. These experiences, repeated over and over have affected me. They’ve become an unfortunate reality in my life, and I just won’t allow that,” she stated.

“Almost everything and everyone absolutely do tell us it is our fault, that we are to blame for our own sexual assault. The blame is a part of normalization. The implication of the blame is that it is normal to rape people under certain conditions,” added Komorowski.

The normalization of sexual assault spans across facets of life creating barriers to reporting sexual assault or harassment.

While discussions about a topic as pervasive and disturbing as rape culture can be triggering and anxiety inducing, the organizers acknowledge that it’s necessary to heal personal wounds and to create change.

Ashley Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. You can visit her personal blog and follow her on twitter @asplawinski.  

Photo: flickr/Jeroen Bennink