This morning CNN proclaimed that Hollywood is being ‘rocked’ by allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against film studio executive Harvey Weinstein. This is only the most recent mogulomaniac to be accused of such heinous violations. In the past three years we’ve had Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reily, Roger Ailes, and the current president-who shall not be named-of the United States. I’m sure there are some I’m forgetting. And lots I don’t even know about.
I’ve closely followed the coverage of these-stories? scandals? allegations? accusations? All these terms seem wrong in one way or another. The words story and allegation and accusation all imply an unresolved relationship to the truth, a potential fiction. They seem to foreground the issue of the accuser’s credibility. The word scandal on the other hand, dances more closely to the concept of entertainment, of schadenfreude, than I’m comfortable with.
I’ll be honest though, I thought these men were pathetic creepazoids, impotent and pathetic if not for the complicity of so many people who knew and knew better. But apart from eyeing them with repugnance from afar, my predominate thinking centred around trying to figure out how I had managed to escape this particular brand of suffering. I actively wondered how I had been spared sexual harassment or sexual assault, when it seems that most of my female brethren were shown no such mercy.
In first-year psychology courses, professors will teach you about learning. They’ll likely show you a slide of a monkey standing on a tower of crates grabbing at a hand of bananas as it swings from the ceiling. How did this monkey figure out how to get these bananas? the professor will ask. It’s called insight learning, they’ll say, and it refers to learning/problem-solving that occurs abruptly Like the animated lightbulb that often occurs above a cartoon character’s head when they suddenly know the answer.
With regards to my own relationship with sexual harassment and sexual assault, I was a little like that monkey. For the longest time I thought I was part of a very exclusive and special club of women who had been lucky enough to somehow sidestep such traumatic experiences. But then suddenly it occurred to me, out of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, that the exact opposite was true. The very fabric of my life was so thoroughly infused with men just like Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump as to make them seem unremarkable, unrecognizable, maybe even acceptable.
The more I started thinking about it, the more examples tumbled forth. It was like an icy ball of snow, grey from car exhaust and the bottom of old shoes, yellow from dog piss and shit picked up along the way, moving downhill and gathering pebbles and refuse and rogue chunks of roadkill as it rolled.
Let me be explicit. I have not been raped nor have I been the victim of violent sexual assault. I was not sexually abused as a child. I do not want to diminish the horrific nature of these type of traumas. I believe the trauma of sexual assault and sexual abuse are distinct from the violence and indignity of sexual harassment, but I also know that these different kinds of traumas can co-exist and that they are all related under the umbrella of patriarchy and gender-based violence.
In any case, I began to compile my own list of moments, and guess what? It turns out, I had a litany of my own.
I remembered the time a man reached his hand up and under my skirt in a nightclub, palming my bare ass cheek. I turned. I slapped him. He smirked. You know you liked it, he said.
I remember the tailor I had who fitted me for a pair of pants, then after having run his hands up and down and between my legs, asked for my number.
I remember a family member who hugged me and grabbed my ass at a funeral.
I remember the masseuse at the Chateau Whistler who asked my for my number after spending an hour rubbing oil on my buttocks and the inside of my thighs.
I remember being thirteen years old and going to a neighbour’s house to take pictures of his young children for a photography assignment–this was something our families had arranged earlier in the week. When I arrived, the man was alone in the house. He asked me to sit down with him in the kitchen. I remember him leaning in to kiss me and I remember not wanting to embarrass him. I said no thank you. He tried to kiss me again. Again I said no thank you. I really tried to be nice about it. I remember running home. My legs were shaking.
I remember a landlord I had when I was in my mid-twenties. He gave me long hugs and commented on the way I smelled. He said it was so fresh. He came to install new lightbulbs, to unplug my drains, to fix the locks on my windows, and he stayed for hours sometimes, until the sun was starting to go down. He would just hang around the kitchen as I cooked. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I was afraid of this man not liking me, not helping me with repairs, kicking me out of the building for having a dog who barked too much. It also occurred to me that he had a key to my apartment.
I had another landlord in another building who would get drunk and slip notes under my door asking me to join him in his room. I remember how fast my heart was racing the first time it happened. I remember locking my door and trying to find a friend I could call who was still awake.
I remember seeing a teacher from high school and the way he leered at me and wanted to know where I was going next.
I remember being 18 and away on vacation. I remember meeting the man who managed the resort where I was staying and I remember him telling me that he liked what he saw and asking me to spin around in front of him in a pair of very small shorts. I remember laughing as I told the story in an off-hand way to another employee at the hotel. I remember them firing this man because of what I had said, and how after that he would call my room late at night, sometimes crying, sometimes threatening.
I remember my mom’s boyfriend asking me about my sex life.
I remember a family friend I was staying with asking me if my breasts were real.
I remember a man at the swimming pool when I was 11 years old, with pimples on my forehead and tiny pinched lumps under my bathing suit.
I remember the man in Paris who grabbed my breasts as I walked by.
The man in Mexico who followed me to an unoccupied part of the beach and showed me his limp penis.
The man in Spain who approached me and my friend down by the river and exposed his, also limp, penis.
The eighty-year-old man I befriended in Tucson who told me about his guns and then asked me for a mercy fuck.
This is just a preliminary list. And this does not include the things I’ve witnessed happening to others. Nor does it include the times when men have attempted to elicit my consent in a less aggressive, but nonetheless pushy, fashion. And I’m sure there is so much I am forgetting.
I don’t write these things down so as to elicit sympathy. Nor do I want to be misunderstood as conflating one thing with another. There is sexual harassment, and sexual abuse, and sexual assault-and each of these terms contains its’ own horrible little world that varies widely in its respective horribleness. I can only imagine that my list is totally and completely unremarkable. I imagine that most women reading this list will be entirely unsurprised. Many men have also experienced sexual abuse and sexual assault and sexual harassment, however I would imagine that a larger number of men would be nonplussed to know that this list in the rule and not the exception. A pedestrian list it is, unexceptional, average, even benign in comparison to the things many women have experienced. And yet, so many of the aforementioned incidents involve the vague threat of violence. In so many of the instances, fear was there, humming right beneath the surface.
Another thing that frightens me is my ability to absorb these experiences without properly assimilating them, my acceptance of them as ‘normal’, my unquestioned belief that they had nothing to do with the sexual harassment and assault described in the media. I pride myself on being self-aware and well-informed on these issues, and this blind spot is glaring.
In some parts of India, where elephants are used as labourers or for cheap touristic thrills, they are tied up as calves. A metal cuff is fastened tightly around their ankle and they are bound with a short chain to a post. At a certain point, their handler can remove the cuff, and the calf-now a bull, now a cow-will stay put. Their brain has internalized the outer limits of their world. The geographic boundaries and the possibilities for travel have been neurologically and synaptically imprinted, such that chains are no longer necessary. This is the only way I can think to explain my own blindness, how I could have come to believe my experiences have been normal or okay or exempt from the current dialogue on sexual harassment and assault.