Photo by Chung Chow
It started with a recent discussion in the office. Our editor mentioned the online MeToo awareness campaign.
But it really started long before that, riding the bus home on a hot summer day, modestly dressed, sitting near the front, beside the window, within sight of the driver, just as I’d been taught.
Then, the passengers behind me laughed hesitantly. After a pause, they laughed a little harder. Third time, the whole bus guffawed.
I wasn’t really paying attention because there seemed to be a twig or something tweaking my side. Finally, I looked down, the tiny, elderly man sitting behind me was reaching through the gap beside my seat, moving his fingers on the side of my breast. Everyone had been watching. He wiggled his eyebrows to his audience. I was humiliated. I was 12.
It’s people who think they can get away with it, not just the rich, the powerful, the famous.
When I was a young high school student working at the curling rink lunch counter, the large teenaged boy who worked there brushed his genitals against us while we worked the grill. We couldn’t move away without getting burned. He pretended it was crowded and he was just pushing past. It wasn’t. He wasn’t.
We compared notes. He did it to all of us.
We knew not to say anything to the manager. She was his mom.
The one good thing that started with the release of Donald Trump’s “Grab her by the p---y” tapes was that, often for the first time, women started telling the men in their lives about similar icky experiences.
They were stunned. Decent men who would never do this were surprised at how often it happens, where it happens, and how young it starts.
And the icky stuff often does start young.
My experience at 12 echoes many others. I asked a university student who dresses modestly and deports herself with quiet grace if it had ever happened to her?
“Yes.” How old was she the first time it happened? “12,” she said. My heart ached. It’s pervasive.
According to Jamie Smulders, program manager of the Trauma and Sexual Abuse (TASA) counselling program of Vancouver Family Services in Richmond, most victims don’t report sexual assaults.
“The stats we actually know of are really low: one in three girls and one in four boys report they have been the victim of a sexual assault,” she says.
The Kevin Spacey revelations show it’s not just woman who are predated upon.
“That most expressions of (sexual) violence are toward women and girls doesn’t negate that it happens to men,” says Clay Tang, the coordinator of community engagement for Chimo Crisis Services in Richmond.
An example; a 15-year-old guy bussing tables endured the remarks from middle-aged women in their cups, complimenting his looks, asking how he feels about dating older women, and offering to stay late so they can take him home.
Equally unwelcome. Equally crossing the line.
“It’s really hard to use the excuse, ‘I just didn’t know,’ now,” says Tang.
We all need to be aware, we all need to do better whether it’s to stop being “cute” with invasive remarks, or speaking up when we see unwelcome words, behaviour, or worse. Women have been taught for generations how to avoid sexual assaults, major and minor. All the things boys don’t have to learn.
We learn to keep our knees demurely together, to be ladylike but so as not to invite “unwanted attention.” We learn where to walk and how—assertively so as not to appear a victim.
“I’ve never had to worry about what I wear going out at night but my sisters have, all my girlfriends have, all the time, all those things,” says Tang.
There is hope.
Men’s response to MeToo social media hashtag has been to step up, step forward, speak out, under the hashtag IWILLSPEAKUP as their affirmation to do better, be better, and demand better respect from others and for others.
“It has to be beyond a (hashtag), a (social and mainstream) media blip. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, that consciousness- and awareness-raising, that’s essential. We need to figure out how to take action,” Tang says and suggests, “Get involved in your community in some sort of substantive way.”
There are many organizations who could use your help.
If this is to be more than a passing fad, whether you volunteer or not, we are all part of a community.
Just speaking to the person being made uncomfortable can diffuse the situation without confrontation. It can offer them an out. It can offer them support.
While there is support and counselling available at no charge through many places such as the Chimo Crisis Line or TASA counselling program, Smulders says there are few programs for perpetrators’ counselling.
Touchstone Family Association offers one of the few, a nine-week course called Men, Anger and the Family.
Until we change our attitudes to sexual assaults, big and little, to the innuendoes, the glances, the stares, the cat-calling, nothing will change and this will just be a blip to be remembered at the 2017 year-end recap or a sentence in the nostalgia piece done at the end of this decade.
There are empowering precedents.
As a science reporter in 1987, I thought HIV/AIDS was just the disease of the year. It wasn’t.
Through concerted effort to change public attitudes, what was a death sentence at diagnosis has now become a treatable disease and those living with HIV are no longer pariahs. We can change, if we look out for each other.
This can be more than the start of a passing fad, according to Smulders and Tang. Every time a victim is believed and supported, change starts. Every time someone speaks up to stop an assault, big or small, change starts. Silence is tolerance.
Eventually, our office discussion turned to the courage of Spacey’s victim to come forward and the power in his statement.
We also remarked that no one asked what he was wearing, or what did a 14-year-old expect to happen alone at an adult drinking party, or about his sexual history. It was irrelevant. It always is.