Women Who Tell, two years on

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Photo: Kristie de Garis

February 1, 2016. Trudeau has been in power in Ottawa for only three months. Trump’s early election campaign still garners the fascination of a dumpster fire. Ghomeshi is going to trial with Marie Henein at his side. And I sit down to light a dumpster fire of my own. I write of my experiences of sexual violation every day of that entire month, publishing late each night on rabble.ca. I call the project Women Who Tell because within a week many, many women are telling me their stories, too.

Two years later, our world has changed. New political leaders, new court cases, new understandings of sexual assault. We have had many hashtags, but #MeToo broke the floodgates. In gymnastics, in politics, in the service industry, in film, in theatre, in tattoo artistry, in media, in agriculture, in tech, in Canlit. Women everywhere are lighting a match.

Women Who Tell began when Jian Ghomeshi’s career ended. In November of 2014, I watched from Berkeley as sexual assault allegations rose against him in Toronto: that he had hit, choked, and humped women without consent. Suddenly, I was remembering.

“They flickered through my morning meditation, my commute, my sessions with clients, my lunch hour. While feeding breakfast to my one-year-old daughter, I remembered being molested at a house party when I was 14. Falling asleep next to my three-year-old, a vision of the therapist who touched my breasts invaded my suddenly cringing mind and panicky body.” (This is from the first blog post of the project.)

These chaotic, semi-forgotten, and demoralizing experiences now not only had a name, but a really bad one. They meant something. They were illegal. I had known since childhood that men regularly infringed on my boundaries. Before Ghomeshi, I did not know I had been sexually assaulted.

I recounted these experiences publicly because I wanted to figure out consent, to wrestle with definitions both legal and personal. I wanted other women (and all survivors of sexual assault) to know that they were not alone. I knew that there were women like me out there, and that some of them believed their stories didn’t fit the accepted level of severity for sexual violence. I wrote 29 of them because I knew the fact of all these things happening to one woman would surprise people, but it shouldn’t. I lit a fire, and I walked into it.

I didn’t expect the project to be so controversial. I didn’t expect it to be so hard for people to believe me. As a person of many privileges I am rarely disbelieved. If I say that the pepper I bought was rotten, I get a refund. People ask my opinion and pay me for my advice. Writing about sexual assault is the only time in my adult life that I have been so consistently accused of lying, exaggerating, or misunderstanding.

It was a deeply stressful process that took more out of me than I imagined. I thought that I would take a short break and be back to writing within a week. That week became a year. When the smoke cleared, I found that the world hadn’t really changed. And now, a few things have.

At the time, female friends who read the project told me that they had expected my accounts to be much worse; they did not see non-consensual fondling and kissing as sexual assault. My male friends, however, were shocked, nearly unable imagine that a woman they knew had been so repeatedly violated. In just two years, both of these perspectives have changed.

Women now call most forms of unwanted sexual contact assault (or at least harassment). And men can no longer easily ignore the pervasiveness of assault (or at least harassment). In response to my project, a podcaster repeated the Oscar Wilde line, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The collective mourning and rage of the #MeToo movement makes it a little harder to deny women’s experiences. If I have been careless, hundreds of thousands of other women have been careless, too.

Not that we believe women. Even Freud believed his female patients at first. It was only when nearly all of them recounted sexual abuse that he decided it must be fantasy, and what should have been corroboration became a strike against the women’s believability. Similarly, the #MeToo movement asks us to make a choice. We must either change our beliefs about men or double-down on disbelieving women. From this conundrum stem or fixation on false allegations, the sense that #MeToo has gone too far, that this is a witch-hunt where the real victims are the men in power.

The progress we have made relies on one major cultural shift: the women making allegations have stopped caring about men’s feelings. Or, at least, started caring about them a little less. For many women now, few things are more important than telling the truth of what happened to them.  Jealousy and guilt from the supportive men in their lives? Rage and hurt from the men who assaulted them? They just don’t mean what they used to. We don’t even care about their apologies

The progress we have made could be undone, and it is not enough. It’s not enough for women of color, it’s not enough for disabled women, it’s not enough for trans women. But a December article from the L.A. Times found that a powerful man had been accused of sexual misconduct every 20 hours since Weinstein. It’s a start, these men falling like load-bearing walls alight.

These real-world impacts of the #MeToo movement have made me less queasy when I think about Women Who Tell. I never lost faith in the project, but in the intervening years I have occasionally wondered if it would be career suicide. I began to describe it on my CV as a “29-day project on consent”, a technical truth about the most publicly vulnerable thing I have ever done.

But I am not alone. Many women are going through the same terrifying process of remembering that I experienced. Moments that come back. Is it, was that…? He apologized after. Why didn’t I leave? Some of these memories are terrible. Some come from the former grey-zone, a shaded forest of self-blame. We see them in the firelight. We aren’t sure whether to let them in.

When we do, we begin to be more tender with ourselves and with other women. We begin to see that seemingly irrational behavior following these events did indeed make sense. Of course, I never went to that bar again. Often, we begin to talk about it.

When Erica Jong’s Very Famous Book, Fear of Flying, came out in 1973, it shocked everybody. Now, books that frankly detail female eroticism and sexuality are commonplace. I want Women Who Tell to be defanged in this way. I want women to continue telling. I want this project to become so mundane, lacking in novelty or shock value. I want to tell my granddaughter about this Very Brave thing I did, and for her to look at me expectantly. “And?” she’ll say. “And,” I’ll say, “we just hadn’t started burning it all down yet.”

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio host and therapist currently residing in Berkeley, California. Find her on twitter (@SveaVikander) and Instagram (@SveaVikander). 

Photo: Kristie de Garis

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