What it’s like for real: sexual violence and being a woman.

*This post recounts incidents of a serious nature, and although not entirely graphic, it may be a trigger for some readers.

I first moved to the city in my early 20s. Initially, I headed west to Calgary from Saskatchewan, but then I changed my mind and backtracked (and then some) all the way to Toronto. I was an anonymous female in the big city. To suggest I was a little out of my element would be an understatement.

The first time I was followed as I got off the subway, I ignored it. The person talked at me, told me he liked my walk, asked me for my phone number, complimented me over and over in a sort of half-whispered aggression. After 10 minutes or so of this, I walked by a public washroom. I ducked inside and hid there, shaking in the ladies restroom. I was 22 and terrified.

I have been cat-called and followed; I have been touched and groped on street cars, and subways and standing on the corner. One man came up to me and asked if he could touch my hair.  I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment on a weekday morning. I told him “no” and turned away from him. I felt a hand brush against my back and then drift down towards the pocket of my jeans. He leaned forward and smelled my hair. Then the walk light came on and he was gone.

Another time I was walking home after class.  It was late. (I was attending university in the north part of the city and lived downtown.) A man about 40 years old or so, wearing a suit and tie and looking like a regular business man, grabbed my elbow and told me he was looking for a good time. I told him that I wasn’t. He pushed me into the wall and held onto my arm. I began to struggle against his grip. Someone came around the corner and the man let me go, then walked quickly away into the darkness.

Seeing that I was visibly upset, this passerby approached me and asked me if I was okay. He asked me if I had had a fight with my boyfriend, indicating the man that he had seen harassing me. I told him that I didn’t know who the person was, and thanked him for his concern. I told him I was okay. He told me “ a young woman like you should be more careful walking around after dark.” At the time, I thought maybe he was right so I started being more cautious. I would avoid dark streets, and try to travel in groups. I began to thread my way through the city based on which transit stops were on the busiest pedestrian routes, not which stops I actually needed. I became leery of every male that passed me after dark. I began to be uncomfortable in my own city. I began to be uncomfortable in my own skin.

In the years since that incident, I have learned that, though I have a responsibility to keep myself safe, so too do those around me. This stranger, in telling me that I needed to be more safe, was perpetuating the myths of a society that is rife with victim shaming. He was placing all responsibility for my safety on my shoulders. He was implying that I was the one that did something wrong by walking down that dark street alone.  (I would point out that he too was walking down that same dark street alone.) Though the interference of this man was kindly meant, he was wrong. Maintaining safety isn’t the sole responsibility of those that become the prey for others who are ill-meaning. Safety is incumbent upon us all.

A young woman I used to work with was about 17 when, after a night of partying, she stumbled through the doors of my workplace and sat in front of me. Her clothes were not hers. She had stolen the sweatpants and oversized t-shirt she was wearing she said, so that she could walk to a place she knew she would be safe. She wasn’t wearing any shoes.  She didn’t know where exactly her clothes were, but she thought that she saw her shirt in an alley near the house she was partying at the night before. She couldn’t be sure though, and she was too tired and hungover to care if it was hers so she didn’t venture to find out. She said she didn’t know what happened. She was drinking hard, “you know, like I normally do. She blacked out around 10 pm she thought, but she couldn’t be sure.   She came to the next morning around 6 and found her way to my desk a few hours later.

Her jaw was bruised; her lip was split and her eye was beginning to show the signs of being blackened. The dark purple bruise raising harsh against her beautiful young face. She had lost her glasses and was squinting to see me.  Her knuckles were bloody and her hand was swollen. She had faint bruises beinning to colour the soft skin around her wrists as though someone had forcefully held her tightly. I saw the imprint of what looked like someone’s thumb on her forearm.

I asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital or to the clinic to get a rape kit done. She told me “No. It doesn’t matter.” I asked her what she meant by that. She responded quite casually that, “It’s not like it’s never happened before. And it’s totally going to happen again so what’s the point? I just want to take a shower and go to sleep.”

I realized in that moment that she was right. It had happened to her before. To her. To her friends. To so many of her peers. Her best friend had gone missing the week before; she was picked up by someone at a gas station in the middle of the night and hadn’t been heard from since. This girl, the one in front of me, told me she felt lucky that “nothing bad happened last night” and that this was just how her life went so she would “forget about it and get over it. This is what life is like…for real.”

Though our experiences are very different, this young woman and I both live in a world where we argue over who gets the blame when women are victimized. We question the value of teaching our children about consent, and allow people to opt their children out of sex-ed classes. . We continue to victimblame and all the while, these experiences become normalized.

Statistics Canada tells us that half of all women experience at least one incident of physical violence after the age of 16, and that more than 65% of Canadians know at least one woman who has been physically or sexually assaulted.   Though crime rates are falling all across the country, it is important to remember that fewer than 10% of sexual assaults are reported, and for those that do report, I have seen first hand the way the systems can demoralize and dehumanize the victim by fumbling callously through the process.

Sitting in on a police interview as an adult support for a young women that had reported she had been raped, the male officer said to the young woman aggressively “what makes me think you’re not making this up? Your story isn’t making any sense. Are you lying to me?” Ashamed, scared, hurt and angry, the girl shut down after he said this.  She told the officer that she was lying; that she made it all up and just wanted to go home. Months later, she told me that she had been telling the truth; that she had really been raped, but that she didn’t want to deal with it or think about it.  She was 16 years old.

The issue, as it stands is complex; it’s overwhelming. It’s about fairness and safety and vulnerability. It’s about equality and community and love and compassion. It’s about bullying and power. It’s about body image and popular music and celebrities. It’s about honesty and the media and the desensitization of our society, our culture, our kids. It’s about being accountable to one another and standing up for what we believe in;  about being able to share our experiences and opinions in healthy, meaningful ways without fear of being called down by those who disagree.  It’s about having us as adults help youth navigate through the tricky systems of our society so that they can make better choices for themselves and their friends.

It is our responsibility to keep other people safe; looking out for our peers is a central tenant of every Kindergarten class in this country.  It is our job to send the message to the young women and men that are growing up in this complex and uncertain world that their safety is important. Their bodies matter. They belong to a community that is accountable, and cares.

How do you plan to do your part?