Bringing stories of sexual harassment to light

In April, let’s think carefully about how we can create a culture of consent

April is the month of Sexual Assault Awareness, asking people everywhere to stop, reflect, and consider the omnipresent rape culture in our society and what each of us can do to combat it. The Red My Lips campaign calls for supporters to wear red lipstick all month long (or a red accessory of your choice) to show solidarity for victims and survivors of sexual assault, and spread the message that rapists are the ones responsible to stop rape, not the victims. Consent (or lack thereof) and sexual assault are issues that affect us all. There have been great strides in the last year to increase the visibility of these issues—take, for example, the video of the woman walking through New York for 10 hours, which captured street harassment. At The Concordian offices, we began discussing how each and every one of us has come into contact with varying levels of sexual aggression countless times. We will not pretend to know (and sincerely hope that we and nobody else will ever know) the unimaginably excruciating experience of rape, but most of us (and all the women) have experienced harassment. So this month, we challenge you all to think about what consent is. Hint: this is what it is not:

From Sara Baron-Goodman, Life editor:

12 a.m.: I was at a pub in Paris with two friends, enjoying a night out. A group of three young men came up to us and started chatting. They seemed nice enough, so we decided to join them at their table and have a few drinks.

1:30 a.m.: When we had finished our first round of cocktails, they offered to buy us some more. The “never leave your drink unattended” alarms sounded in my head, and so we sent one of our friends to go to the bar to order the drinks with them. But, I guess in the one second when she blinked or turned away, one or all of the young men pounced on the opportunity to slip what we later found out was Rohypnol into our glasses.

Colourless and odourless—like most date rape drugs—we had no idea that we were sipping from poisoned goblets until about a half hour later, when one of my friends began acting much more drunk than she normally would after two drinks, and complaining that she felt sick.

2:30 a.m. Looking at her, I could see that something was not quite right, so we hopped into a cab and went home to the apartment we shared. She was sick the whole cab ride home; I berated her for being a lightweight.

3:30 a.m.: My (apparently much slower) metabolism kicked in and I began to feel nauseous and lightheaded. I struggled to sit up in bed and the room spun. My eyes wouldn’t fixate on anything, and my head felt like a balloon about to pop. I tried to stand up but my legs had ceased to work, so I crawled on all fours to the bathroom where I, too, was sick throughout the night.

For the next 30-odd hours, my friend and I could barely get out of our respective beds, we couldn’t keep down any food or liquids, and standing up to walk to the bathroom required baby steps and clutching the wall for support. A quick Google search of our symptoms told us that the most likely culprit was Rohypnol, which is legally sold as sleeping pills in France. Mixed with alcohol, it could be deadly.

I do feel overwhelmingly lucky that we all managed to leave the bar when we did, and get home safely. At the same time, I realize how incredibly perverse it is that I should feel lucky of all things, after somebody very deliberately tried to strip me of my right to agency over my own body.

From Mia Pearson, Music editor:

It must have only been 10 p.m. when my group of four girlfriends and I went out to our favourite bar in the northern end of Paris. My small stature and bright hair like a beacon of light to some figures in the shadows, seemed to draw a lot of unwanted attention. One (rather large) man started to follow us, and as we sped up, so did he. He began to taunt me, followed by his two cronies. At that point, I had lagged a little behind from the group.

Then, without forewarning, he grabbed me, air humping me from behind as he held onto my body. I began to yell “GET THE FUCK OFF ME,” which alerted my friends who came to my rescue. This only seemed to egg him on. The man then began to body slam my friends into nearby cars as they tried to pry him off me. We all ran as fast as we could to get away, while they chased us down the better part of the next block. Even once we had outrun them we were aggressively cat-called by other gangs in the shadows. The bar was our safe haven, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so eager to have a drink.

Cat-calling had been a regular nightly affair in Paris as it is in so many cities, but I never thought I would have to endure that kind of physical invasion. This was just the first of many similar experiences, obstacles to surmount every time we wanted to go out after nightfall. I returned to Montreal months later, with the fear of those Paris streets still lingering in my mind.

From Nathalie Laflamme, Editor-in-chief:

One night a few months ago, a woman came up to my car in the street, begging me to let her use my phone. She said that she had left her house to run away from her abusive husband. I let her use my phone, and she made calls to a few people for help, looking for someone to come get her. I ended up giving her a ride home, and she told me her life story, one that haunts me to this day. I offered to call the police multiple times, but she insisted that I shouldn’t. There’s more to this story, but that’s not what’s important for this particular anecdote. The next day, I was woken up by a call from a stranger, saying he had missed calls from my number, asking who I was. I made the mistake of telling him my name. He never did tell me his. I soon remembered the woman I had met, and told him that someone I didn’t know had made calls from my phone. He acknowledged this, and then said the following to me: “you have a beautiful voice. Are you married?” I told him that I was married (I’m not) and abruptly ended the conversation. I thought this whole weird experience was over. But it wasn’t. He kept calling me about twice a day for the next week. The next time, he caught me off guard, so I answered. He acted as though he was returning my call, being flirty on the phone. Most of the time, when he called, I would realize it was him and not answer. But sometimes I forgot. A few times, I got my boyfriend to answer for me. That seemed to stop the man from calling for a while, but soon the calls started again, often late at night or early in the morning, often catching me off guard. He still calls me once in a while, but now I know to ignore the call. I hate that I have to screen every unknown number, that he always surprises me. That he knows my name. That he makes me feel like it’s my fault he keeps calling. The worst part of this, in my eyes, is the fact that the reason that this man had my number in the first place was because a woman in trouble needed his help.

From Gregory Todaro, Copy Editor:

It happened to me where I thought I was safe: just outside my classroom here at Concordia. It was midway through the fall semester of my first year, and a group of my classmates and I were standing around, joking and talking after class. Fresh to Montreal that year, I had yet to make close friends, but I found myself enjoying the company of the group I was in. Suddenly, as a joke, one of the women in the group grabbed my bottom without warning. At first I couldn’t speak: I felt a rush of emotions ranging from embarrassment to anger. I was shocked that she felt that she had the permission to touch me without my consent, let alone in such a personal area. However, I quickly found my voice and, rather crossly, I told her that she didn’t have the right to put her hands on me in that way. She responded with a laugh. “I was just kidding,” she replied, “don’t freak out.”

I didn’t want to cause a scene so I just let it go. Later, a couple of other students told me they agree with me, saying she was out of line to put her hand on me without my consent. Despite this reassurance, even to this day, I am uncomfortable being near this woman. Even the times we weren’t alone, I felt the need to keep my distance and minimize all contact with her. What passed as a quick joke (or possibly more) in her mind now makes me nervous that one day someone else will think they have a right to my body with or without my consent.

w_IMG_8229From Michelle Gamage, Production manager:

I grew up in a very safe small town, so when I moved to Montreal it never occurred to me to be afraid of the night, to be afraid of drunk men, or to be afraid for my safety while I drunk-stumbled home to my empty apartment.

That mirage of safety was shattered one night while homeward-bound on the bus. Someone’s hand reached out to gently rest on top of mine. I glanced over at the misplaced hand and shook it off. But the hand came back to rest on mine again. So I gave its owner what I thought was a sharp, “don’t fuck with me,” look and shook his hand off again, this time with more force. But the hand came back a third time.

The bus luckily rolled up to my stop then and I decided to walk away from the situation. But as I stepped off the bus I felt two hands reach out and squeeze my hips and then slap my ass.

Oh. No. You. Fucking. Didn’t.

It took me zero seconds to turn around, get in this man’s face and let him know that he had no right to ever grope me and that he better be half-way to apologizing.

But this guy who had just—by literal definition—sexually assaulted me wasn’t anywhere near thinking that he needed to apologize. Instead he got right back in my face and started yelling and shoving me in a way that then allowed him to grope my breasts.

This man was not only refusing to apologize for groping me, but was now screaming in my face and shoving me so hard that I was stumbling backwards.

In the end the bus drove away and I realized through my blinding fury that I was in a very dangerous situation. So I stepped back, holding my palms out, and walked across the street.

The guy took this time to scream at the top of his lungs that I was a “skank, bitch, cunt, slut-whore,” and that “I better keep walking.” I just kept walking.

I got home safely that night, though it took me hours to fall asleep and I was still shaking with anger while brushing my teeth. Not only had I been wronged, but I had to be the one to step back and walk away.

I haven’t had any incidents like this since, but now when people cat-call me when I walk home alone at night the calls don’t seem as harmless as they once did. And for that I will always be furious.

From Emily Gaudet, Copy editor:

Like most children, I had family members who tickled me. The tickling was friendly, not malicious, but my relatives would not always stop when I asked them to. Adults might think that it’s okay to disregard children’s requests to stop because they often laugh when they are tickled. Refusing to stop sends the implicit message, however, that children do not own their bodies or get to decide how and when to be touched.

Like most children, I coped with unwanted tickling by kicking my legs and yelling, behaviours that adults tend to avoid producing in children. It wasn’t until my late teens, when I read feminist articles about street harassment and sexual assault, that I connected unwanted tickling with other unwanted touching. Now I try to respect my younger cousins’ desires to put them down, not to kiss them on the cheek or to let go of their hand.

I still hate being tickled, which is no great hardship in itself. But every light, ticklish touch reminds me that there are people who would strip me of my right to consent, maybe because they were not taught the importance of respecting others’ bodies.

From Natasha Taggart, Production assistant:

I consider myself a generally aware person. When I walk around the city, I tend to keep my eyes on the road and avoid distractions such as music and my phone. Of course, being as careful and alert as possible won’t stop someone with the intentions of harassing from doing so.

I can attest that taking all the pieces of advice you hear about safety for women such as “don’t walk alone–especially not at night” and “be sure to cover up your bits” doesn’t mean you won’t end up a victim yourself. Needless to say I certainly didn’t expect it to happen to me while I was with a friend in the middle of a freezing day in March, on my way home from school.

I was walking out of the metro, speed-walking to the bus stop, when I felt someone behind me grab my ass. I turned around, expecting to see a friend playing an extremely-inappropriate prank on me, only see a complete stranger running away in the opposite direction.

Stunned doesn’t quite cover the feeling you get after something like that happens to you out of the blue. Unexpectedly, I remember laughing immediately after it happened, probably at the ridiculousness of the situation. Or maybe I just had no idea how to process being assaulted in public. Regardless, after my laughter had died, I’m saddened to admit that my thoughts were consumed by things I could have done differently.

Looking back I wonder why these thoughts crossed my mind in the first place. How messed up is it that I actually blamed myself for someone else’s invasive and hurtful actions. Should I have worn a longer coat that day? Could I have taken a different route, avoiding the situation completely? Should I have run after him and knocked him unconscious? Maybe. Another thing that still bothers me: that I wondered to myself if I should report it to the police, but decided against it because “it’s probably not a big enough deal.”

But sexual assault—and yes, grabbing someone’s ass or boobs or crotch, or any part of their body uninvited, is sexual assault—is always a big enough deal.

From Laura Marchand, Opinions editor:

People say it’s not safe to travel the world alone—at least, not when you’re a young woman. But I have an unquenchable wanderlust and am not one for travelling with tours (or just about anyone), which obviously meant one thing: backpacking.

I left from Paris, a city where I was forced to swing around with my elbow out, narrowly missing the man who had been approaching me from behind. He was more forward than the ones who catcalled me on a frequent basis.

I stepped off the train in Amsterdam, where I instantly went about exploring the narrow streets and canals by the central station. I stopped at a crossing to let one of the trams go by, when a man stepped up next to me.

“Hey, sexy lady.”

As all women are trained to do, I ignored him. I heard a small ‘tch’ and the sound of someone spitting, followed by a muffled “bitch” as I crossed the street. It was an interaction that would set the tone for many meetings as I travelled.

There was the man in Italy who came out of an alley and walked beside me, desperately asking if I would let him “show me a magic trick.” The drunk Swedish men in Prague, who invited themselves to my table and asked if I had a boyfriend—many of them were old enough to be my father. Or, particularly, the man in my co-ed room in Rome, who watched me and undressed in front of me, to the point where I felt safer fleeing to the streets at 4:00 a.m. than I did in my bed. By the time I landed in Japan, even the (probably) good natured fashion photographer in Harajuku—who approached me in the middle of the day, on a crowded street, when I was walking with my boyfriend, who said he loved my style and wanted to take a picture—even he was painted by the broad brush of my experiences.

Now when I walk alone at night, I do so with gravel in my gut, spit in my eye and my keys clutched tightly between my knuckles. If there’s one thing I learned from travelling alone, it’s that if you are a young woman and have to swing—you damn well better not miss.


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