Wednesday, January 25, 2017

When talking hurts

Personal disclosure is necessary, but can still disadvantage us.

By disclosing we help each other and we make it OK to talk. But stigma can’t be solved by disclosure alone. It’s unrealistic to believe there aren’t still personal risks to disclosure, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. It can still disadvantage us. “Us” being the nebulous, diverse, extremely varying body of people affected by mental health issues. Or depending on how you prefer to frame it, the mentally ill. 

The hardest thing to convey about mental illness is that illness, like health, is a continuum. It is not a binary state – well or not, ill or not. How do we compare health? How do we compare and evaluate sickness? What does it meant to be diagnosed? Is “diagnosis” a static state? We know that a lack of diagnosis does not mean a lack of illness.

I’ve been fairly fortunate and feel privileged to have not experienced as much stigma or discrimination as others have related to their mental illness. I know there are a variety of intsercting reasons for this. I have always been pretty open with my struggles and have attempted, at least, to be frank and offer disclosure slightly ahead of the curve of increasing social acceptance and mainstream discourse of mental health issues. A friend, someone I really admire when it comes to her disclosure about mental illness, called me a pioneer once. That meant a lot to me. Still, I find myself holding back a lot of the time. I find myself unable to disclose or share with the frankness of some in my network, some whose disclosure I admire, and empathize with, and have received real and tangible comfort from. Because the stigma is very, very real.

And while I hesitate to align myself in a facile way with the new wave of discourse on “what it’s like to be high functioning” or brand myself as someone who “you wouldn’t believe is ill!” because the last thing I want is to promote and perpetuate a dichotomy: a dichotomy between those who experience illness but not so much stigma, and those who, because of the nature and severity of their experiences and/or various intersecting ways they are marginalized, truly bear the brunt of societal stigma. The fact that people have been surprised when I disclosed I experienced illness was intended to be read, by me, as some sort of compliment. I get the intention, and appreciate how you see me, but it’s a weird experience.

But we cannot hierarchialize levels of “functioning” among ourselves, which can serve to compound the stigma for those who are, at times, “low functioning,” whatever that means.

We’ve all been there. Illness is fluid.

How do we, who experience illness, show compassion and allyship with those who also experience illness but experience levels and impacts of stigma in different ways?

I’m thinking about this because I recently felt extreme and upsetting discrimination as a result of bureaucratic, institutional stigma. The kind of stigma we justify and protect because “well, that’s just the way it is, the way it has to be!” Within our mechanisms of evaluating and understanding health and risk, we have not erased mental illness stigma. We have not found a way to bring nuance into rubrics and standardized forms. Without delving too deep into an experience that was truly triggering (a phrase I don’t use lightly), I did an insurance related interview and disclosed my experiences with mental illness.

I disclosed because my illnesses – depression and anxiety – are well documented within the medical industrial complex. I’ve lived more than half my life somewhere on the continuum – being treated, not being treated, feeling ill, feeling well, feeling like my illnesses are latent or in remission. How do you answer yes or no questions about mental illness and treatment? What is “being treated?”

When was your last episode?

How frequent are your episodes?

Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?


Plus complete disclosure on medications, frequency, dosages, etc.

Once you’ve been sick, are you always just post-sickness? A mental illness survivor? Do I ever get to reset, or will my medical history haunt me forever? 

How come we often don’t see mental illness as on par with physical illness when it comes to support and access to care, yet we conflate it with physical health when convenient?

I disclosed I have a prescription – primarily used for insomnia these days – that I use infrequently. It takes me about a year to use 20. Doesn’t matter – that means I’m medicated.

I disclosed that, after almost two years without daily medication, I asked my doc to try a new prescription. I went so far as to fill it a few months after getting the prescription, and ultimately decided not to use it. I’m very, very pro medication and think it can be a great help. It has been for me at various times. But it didn’t feel right for me now. Yet I disclosed. I tried to convey the nuance. But there is no room for nuance when it comes to standardized evaluations of sickness or health, so it counted against me. As did the mere two months of free, sporadic, university counselling centre counselling sessions that I undertook before I finished my latest academic program.

Undertaking medication and or counselling should be viewed as indicative of healing. Of trying. Of taking action. Of wellness! Yet for this purpose, disclosing meant I was sick. And within this institutionalized framework of assessing my health, it was allowed, it was OK, it was even legislated, to stigmatize me. So I was declined this insurance. Even though my illnesses are (gratefully) not affecting my ability to work and participate. Because being anywhere on that illness spectrum made me risky, even though, we know that mental health is a fluid, every changing state, something we all, with or without diagnoses, need to work at and maintain. There is no 100 per cent mentally healthy person to compare ourselves to, is there?

It hurt because I’ve been so fortunate to almost never, in almost 30 years, feel dehumanized because of my mental illness. I’ve had friends and bosses and coworkers and professors who saw me as a whole person, a dynamic, strong, resilient, motivated person. I’ve been so privileged to go through stretches where my illnesses have not needed to be a part of my identity in any public, social way – where they were under the radar. Not concealed, just not relevant. My illnesses have very, very rarely affected my motivation, concentration, and ability to work and complete my post-secondary education. 

I know I am fortunate. Still, sometimes they affect various aspects of my life. Sometimes I have no energy at all. Could it be the staggeringly challenging and frequently forgotten-about physical symptoms of depression? Or my anemia and vitamin deficiency? Or a long history of simply being really busy and doing a lot of stuff and exhausting my body? Who knows?!

We have to talk about mental health. I, like many of you, feel a responsibility to disclose, especially if sharing the knowledge of my experiences, my ebb and flow, and my various recoveries, helps someone feel less alone and more hopeful. We need to remember that many among us feel they cannot disclose and share. 

When encouraging people to talk, we need to remember that talking can hurt. It can hurt some of us more than others. But not talking is not the solution.

And if we ask people to talk, we have to be prepared to listen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Women online: Sexist harassment is not inevitable

The first in a series of posts about different facets of feminist activism online, the disturbing pitfalls of being a woman on the Internet, and how being online has reinforced to many the work that still needs to be done.

We all know how dismally toxic the Internet and social media can be for women. What worries me is how banal this knowledge has become. This knowledge is so self-evident, so widely known, so relatively undisputed (save for the self-appointed, mansplaining Devil’s Advocates among us who are likely to downplay or deny) that the harassment of women begins to feel naturalized. Even though sexism and misogyny are systemic, structural, and deeply engrained, and need to be acknowledged and recognized as such, it is extremely dangerous to begin to see the tormenting of women in virtual spaces as inevitable   or worse still, a necessary byproduct of being a woman online that women have to accept and cope with if they want to participate.

It is so bad that we have all kinds of comparative mechanisms for evaluating gendered harassment and sexist attacks   “it’s not that bad, ” “it’s not as bad as _______,” “it’s not like what________ experienced.” What level of online abuse and harassment and/or threats based on gender is acceptable?

As women, our expectations can become so low that we feel grateful to have evaded online abuse, rather than feeling that getting to
1. exist, 2. participate online and (if applicable) 3. present ourselves as feminists without being attacked is a basic entitlement.

Of course, these pitfalls can affect women through online channels regardless of how much they put themselves out there online. It’s not just the most social media active and outspoken people   women who have any online presence, or who must use social media for their work, or who simply have an email address, can be targets.

The ease and inextricability of digital communications gives an enormous amount of 24/7 access to strangers and public figures and have emboldened many with an enormous sense of entitlement to this access.

I often refer to discussion of this topic as “women online” because as many woman identified or otherwise socially marginalized people know, just being online, taking up virtual space and existing, let alone using platforms for feminist messages, can be dangerous. By being online, we rebel and claim space for our thoughts, voices, and lives. And not everyone wants us to be in these spaces. We need to be, because:

  • Activism and campaigns that occur online and through digital platforms in virtual spaces are meaningful forms of tackling current issues and contributing to feminist projects.
  • There is great potential for online spaces and communities to be an important frontier for women’s rights and feminism due to the ability to self-publish and access discourse directly, but
  • Like the broader, non-virtual world, the Internet can be a dismal, toxic hellscape for women’s voices.


Trolling. Personal insults. Misogyny. Rape threats. Death threats. This toxic hellscape can be a reality for any woman or marginalized person, not necessarily those who identify as feminists or are doing overtly feminist work online.

Not surprisingly, the issue of online hostility and harassment of women and other marginalized people has only intensified as online platforms have become increasingly employed in social justice and activist work.

The sexism that percolates in the non-virtual world often translates into virtual spheres as unfettered and anonymous access to harass and abuse women. The argument that actions in virtual realms are less significant or meaningful than in the so called “real world” is often used to dismiss the abuse that occurs there. What happens to women online matters and has real effects, not least of all because of the fact that online harassment and abuse often contain real, offline threats. With rapid and increasing integration of digital technologies and platforms into every aspect of our lives, it’s unrealistic to expect women – or anyone – to be able to ignore what occurs there.

It strikes me what gargantuan expectations we have for women’s resilience in an increasingly hostile climate where the sexist status quo is critiqued but remains resistant to radical upheaval. How could we possibly expect women to ignore and not feel threatened and terrified by misogynist abuse, and rape and death threats?

Male privilege can be an incredible shield to feeling truly threatened by cruel comments and attacks.

I believe that online dialogue and activism are powerful ways to provoke cultural norms and beliefs to change and evolve. I know for myself, my feminist consciousness really arose in the age of blogs and Internet content because I felt able to learn more about different experiences and issues I wouldn’t otherwise have access too. For me, online writing and using Twitter and Facebook to discuss feminist issues and concern is interwoven with my experience of feminist activism. But our cultural contributions are hampered by toxic, sexist online spaces.

I’m reminded today of a status I posted two years ago while working as a web and social media editor and comment moderator:

“Today in the wild world of news website comment moderation: Moderator is accused of being a woman because someone’s comment supposedly wasn’t posted.”

(The actual comment was much cruder).

We can’t accept the toxic hellscape. When I feel discouraged, I think of this quote from a great, feminist friend who told me this after some disappointing experience online that I can’t even remember:

“Remember that the Internet is a Mad Max-esque place. And you are Imperator Furiosa.”






Thursday, October 13, 2016

The continuum of consent


Not unlike most weeks, this last week there’s been a lot of discussion about sexual assault, consent, and male entitlement to women’s bodies in the wake of the Trump Tapes. Of course, few people are surprised that Donald Trump would boast about touching and kissing women without their willing participation (and if its a rich, powerful, famous man initiating outside of a mutually agreed upon relationship, or in a semi-public context, could any reciprocity really be called willing?) What’s sad is our lack of surprise. Trump’s repeated degradation and outright contempt for women is not new. What frightens me is normalizing these low expectations. I am sad that I’m not shocked about how deep this (rich, privileged, white) man’s sense of entitlement and disregard for women’s personhood goes. I want to believe that Trump is an extreme outlier, a caricature of outlandish misogyny, but I know thats not true.

I was five-years-old the first time someone – another child, a boy – touched my body invasively. I won’t say where it happened or the context, in order to protect those involved because, of course, as a girl and a woman I’ve been socialized to feel bad about other people making bad decisions and I struggle to hold people rightfully accountable. The point is, at least one adult knew about it and minimized and dismissed it, because “children are curious.”

They are, but they also need to be told to keep their goddamn hands to themselves.

That was the first of many implicit and accidental lessons I was taught about my general lack of bodily autonomy. It was the first of many lessons on the fact that I couldn’t truly expect boys to leave it – my body – alone.

It’s taken a long time – my life thus far – to slowly understand what I call the continuum of consent. For several years as I became more engaged in feminist and anti-violence advocacy it dawned on me that I was “lucky” I’d never been raped. I remember thinking, wow, how lucky am I to have made it to 25 or 27 or now, 29, without having been raped. Then I realized how sad it was to live in a culture in which sexual violence is so pervasive, and feels so inevitable, that I felt I was fortunate to have enjoyed a relative absence of sexual violence. As if I had gained access to something extra, something special, as opposed to the bare minimum of what I should expect and deserve as a human person.

As I started to really dig into my experiences socialized female within this culture, I started to realize there was a lot more to it – that women’s experiences around consent and non-consent were more complex than two camps – those who have been raped and those who have not been raped.

The continuum of consent. Whether or not a woman has experienced rape, she’s absolutely had experiences that range from completely consensual to non-consensual. Once I started to imagine consent around sexual contact as a continuum, I realized how many of my sexual experiences hadn’t been completely consensual after all.

I think of all the times a man has touched me without my permission, and I have ignored, deflected, or wriggled out of the situation rather than confront. Sometimes, it’s been because confrontation hasn’t been physically safe. Sometimes, it’d been because the power dynamics of the situation made it unsafe or threatening. Other times, it’s been because I simply didn’t want to embarrass the man. How did I learn to value a man’s potential embarrassment over my bodily autonomy? Where did that come from?

I’ve beat myself up over missed opportunities to call out sexist behaviour and unwanted attention. Sometimes I am able – I’ve felt able to resist, to call out the situation when it’s been more than warranted. There are other times I felt the only course of action was to simply endure. I’ve felt sad and enraged afterward, but the deck is stacked against women trying to confront. It’s OK, even socially sanctioned, for our bodily autonomy to be invaded and disrespected, but not OK to resist it vocally. Don’t we all just have to learn to take a joke, after all?

It takes a long time to unlearn what is so readily and purposefully taught socially. It has taken a long time for me to learn, to really understand, that you can consent to one thing and not another. That consent can have conditions. That consent can be withdrawn. How did we learn that sexual violence is our fault? How did we learn to be ashamed of what other people have done to us? And how did we learn not to talk about it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What we mean when we say rape culture

There's no such thing as rape culture. Rape is illegal, prosecutable under law, and everyone hates rapists!

Yeaaaah OK so no one who calls out, and lives under the threat of, rape culture has suggested that, universally, rape is formally, openly condoned and accepted. If we say rape is normalized, we don’t mean that society isn’t upset about it or that individual people don’t challenge or condemn it. We mean that male physical and sexual aggression feels socially inevitable because it has always happened and seems to keep happening. We worry about how to report it, how to support victims, and how to punish or deter perpetrators because the idea of it not happening again seems wholly unlikely. 

We are so used to it, we are unable to defamiliarize rape and remember that it exists within a cultural framework that sustains its continuation.


Related links:

Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker

Stanford rape case: Sex offender's dad says 6 months is too harsh for '20 minutes of action'

Because the Onion's satirization of the case is on point: 

College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed

Those who ignorantly deny the world as it is and claim that rape culture is a fabrication are usually so stupefied by the embeddedness of this culture that it’s invisible to them. The same people who deny that a culture is flawed and problematic are usually those benefitting the most from that status quo. The people who insert themselves into arguments decrying feminism and claiming sexism isn’t so bad, really, are usually the most privileged, most immune, and the least likely to become victims. Like any social ill that disproportionately affects a marginalized group that people dont care that much about anyway, society throws up its hands.

Which begs the question – where does an incessant need to argue against the existence of something a person hasn’t experienced come from? What causes some boys and men to be adamant that a phenomenon they have no lenses through which to glimpse firsthand couldn’t possibly exist. Because it doesn’t happen to them. If it doesn’t happen to them, it can’t be real. Because patriarchy.

If I say, according to my embodied experiences and knowledges as a woman in the world, that rape culture exists and is interwoven in a given society, culture or space (physical or virtual), I am not saying that everyone, or even anyone specifically, is openly, self-consciously promoting sexual assault and/or boasting about it (although, lets face it, those things actually do happen in certain instances, notably when perpetrators or bystanders have bragged about or even shared photos of women being assaulted). Its about naming and describing a larger, amorphous, invisible, systemic structure of sexism and denigration of women that guides and informs society. Its a byproduct of societies that are undeniably patriarchal and sexist.

You didn’t personally marginalize or devalue a woman on the basis of her gender or treat her with explicit, self-conscious bias? Congratulations. Sexism still exists. It’s crucial that people – especially those with male privilege – learn to see outside themselves and the bigger picture. 

Society is still sexist – that doesn’t mean I’m saying that you, Individual Man, are sexist. Be calm.

This article by Rebecca Blakey of GUTS really strikes at the heart of defining this nebulous idea that women find themselves having to explain over and over again:

“Rape culture is an environment in which rape is presumed to be inevitable and certain people are taught to fear rape and certain people are not. Rape persists because rape is related to the universal devaluing of people and behaviour deemed to be feminine. Rape persists because we ceaselessly conceive of rape as related to our conceptions of what is strange, or alien, to humanity. Rape persists because the language we ascribe to sex facilitates the weaponization of sex into rape.”

Do we live in societies in which rape is construed as a constant risk/possibility, in which women are taught they have to be safe and learn to avoid risk and protect themselves, and in which people, even people whose own child would do this, deny and downplay the trauma and seriousness of the offence? Do we grill and analyze victims/complainants and hold them accountable for something that was outside their control? Do we deny that certain coercive interactions weren’t really rape because there wasn’t a physical injury or it didn’t unfold according to a predetermined script of what constitutes legitimate assault? These realities are all symptoms of rape culture.

So no, no one is claiming that rape is openly sanctioned and permitted and that we don’t loathe rapists. But no sexist, racist, patriarchal, oppressive social structure or system acknowledges itself as such. No one admits “yes, we treat a certain group poorly and systemically marginalize them because we are indeed, racist. Racism is, indeed, the lens that guides us.” Rather, they know (read: believe) a certain group to be inferior and their lives to matter less.

If you argue that sexual assault stats “aren’t that bad” and lots of rapists do receive punishment, and you personally dislike rape and think it’s bad – you’re still operating within the ideological framework that rape is inevitable, a.k.a., you are operating within the reality of rape culture. Even if you claim to not blame victims, and not hold women as responsible for rape avoidance, you’re still accepting that rape happens and cannot be eradicated. We are so unfamiliar with the idea of world without sexual assault that having it happen less than it could or less than somewhere else feels like something to gloat about. 

Look how good we are. Look how we are raping women less than we could be.

It strikes me that the people claiming rape culture doesnt exist don’t usually argue that rape doesnt happen. Sure, the statistics and news stories and (few) arrests are there. The research to convey that sexual assaults are underreported – it’s all there. So why the resistance to acknowledging that our” society treats women, their bodies, and their sexualities in a way that blames victims for their assaults while finding insidious ways to explain and excuse male behaviour? Once again, because patriarchy. 

Rapists (especially economically privileged, white men) rape and often get away with. Because of all the systems that make it hard for victims to report, let alone pursue the unforgiving and traumatizing legal/court system, and all the systems that make it especially easy for men to bounce back. No one is more resilient against lasting repercussions than a privileged, heterosexual, cisgender, white man.

Rape culture shows us that the problem isn’t that there are a tonne of “sociopaths” running around, and that only strange, aberrant, messed up men would be so sick and misguided to commit assault. No. The problem is that otherwise normal guys do it, because they grew up and grew into their toxic masculinity, the flames fanned by rape culture, and they think they can have what they want, when they want it. 

Because if he is anything like Brock Turner, whose father evidently thinks raping an unconscious woman is a pretty minor college faux pas, he’s probably used to getting his way and feeling invincible. Because, explicitly or implicitly, he’s been taught that respecting a woman’s personal and bodily autonomy is not a priority. More of an inconvenience.

Until we begin to worry about the future of a survivor as much as the future of a convicted perpetrator, rape culture reigns.

Rape culture is felt – deeply felt – and its toxic symptoms are experienced daily by the woman identified among us. It is not the place of men to claim women are just imagining it while doing nothing to improve the world around them. Take a step back. Listen. Learn.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The law, the courts do not operate outside patriarchy

Regardless of whether or not you think Jian Ghomeshi is guilty of sexual assault and violent behaviour towards women, and whether or not you think the witnesses’ testimonies were “credible” or “consistent” or “trustworthy,” as defined by the law, it’s necessary to reconsider how we imagine and discuss the law, the courts, and justice.

Background:

Former Canadian Radio Star Jian Ghomeshi Acquitted of All Charges in Sex Assault Trial

Jian Ghomeshi acquitted on basis of ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘deception

None of us, except the women and Ghomeshi, know exactly what happened in the situations described. I wasn’t in the courtroom, and so, like most of us, I don’t know precisely how every aspect of the proceedings unfolded. Criticizing the structure and manner of sexual assault trials is not the same as claiming that we shouldn’t presume innocence until guilt can be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. And of course, an acquittal doesn’t mean that nothing wrong – or criminal – actually happened.

So, sure, based on the existing structure in place, in which the complainants bear the burden of proving and defending their allegations while the accused can choose to remain silent and avoid having to create and defend a “credible,” “consistent,” “trustworthy” story, I suppose the proceedings unfolded in a manner that supports the way criminal justice is administered. In the judge’s mind, there was obviously reasonable doubt and not enough evidence to convict.

I’m not going to analyze the witnesses’ testimonies and the ensuing criticism or deconstruct the judge’s written decision. An excellent and detailed response to individual sections of the decision and overall analysis of this issue can be found in Michelle Keep’s article here.

All I can say is that I believe the survivors. I also believe we have extensive research and knowledge on the traumatic psychological effects of sexual assault, abuse, and rape in a potently sexist society that is incredibly unforgiving to survivors at every stage of the process. There is lots of work that supports the challenges for people to recollect sequences of events, duration of time, and precise details during periods of stress and trauma, not least of all after more than 10 years have passed.

Combine this with the many strategies survivors take – and have always undertaken – to survive. There are strategies survivors may subconsciously undertake to not only get through the moment or event, but to reconstruct it in their minds, to remember it less painfully, to pretend it happened differently.

Many women want very badly to believe a rape was consensual.



Read the illustrated story “Trigger Warning: Breakfast” here.

We socialize women to behave in certain ways in order to cope with the persistent likelihood of sexual violence, to even be friendly or benevolent to the abuser in order to neutralize or better endure the situation, and then in turn we condemn them for acting in an “odd” manner – a manner not befitting a “victim.”

We know this. But this knowledge doesn’t make it very far in the logic of the courts. Why is that? Why does everything we know about how society has always treated women and how women have adapted to survive have little impact on how we administer justice?

The core issue: people defend the integrity, neutrality, and sanctity of the court of law as though it is not historically bound up in the same sexist superstructures that have shaped human existence and gender relations. 

The law has a conception of how crimes should be reported, victims should behave, and how memories should be recollected. Correspondence between survivors and completely justifiable and psychologically normal anger, frustration, and bitterness is deemed as conspiratorial rather than an indication of support and solidarity while enduring immense stress. Women continue to be maligned and discredited if they dare to be bitter.

The criminal justice system does not exist in some alternate dimension of reality in which society has not been shaped by male supremacy, sexism, and misogyny. We do not enter the court and step into a neutral, benevolent state where patriarchal attitudes and deeply entrenched stereotypes and prejudices fade away and evaluation of testimony operates apart from biases about how women do and should behave.

Yes, read the decision. Recognize that the proceedings unfolded how they were designed to occur, and that the presumption of innocence remains intact. Also recognize that the justice system and the law’s antagonism towards marginalized groups and sexual assault survivors remains intact. The Ghomeshi verdict is a good time to consider how privilege factors into strident defences of the law and social structures. It’s often those least impacted or disadvantaged by an event or social ill who feel most compelled to weigh in critically. If this is you, I encourage you to consider if your opinion needs to be expressed today.

The system doesn’t need your defence, but there are many survivors and women reliving trauma, abuse, and harassment during this trial and verdict, who could really use your support and careful listening.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Constant vigilance


One of the first things I remember learning as a child was that people, likely men, might try to hurt me. It was all around me. From learning about sexual abuse and inappropriate touching in elementary school, to absorbing the cultural reality of the prevalence of sexual abuse and assault, it seemed inevitable.

I was about five years old when my father started teaching me self-defence. Just little things, such as using the palm of my hand to strike an attacker in the face. But beyond basic strategies, what he actually taught five-year-old me wasn’t how to fight, but that there might be a need to fight and defend myself. There is a distinct moment when a child discovers the possibility of violence in their lives. I learned it was connected to the fact that I was a girl, and people could try to take me or hold me down or hurt me. I knew then that it would be wrong, but that it was still possible, even likely.

The author, age 5.
My dad told me of a family friend’s child who outran a man who tried to grab her. I started running. By age 9 or 10 I was really into track and other sports. I was faster than all the boys, and felt I had to be.

In grade 3 a boy in my class told people that we had sex. Obviously this wasn’t true. But I learned that something that made this boy sound cool and grown-up made me look bad, that the same thing affected us differently. I learned then that my reputation was something else I was expected to protect.

In grade 9 I starred in the school play. Boys talked about catching a glimpse of my exposed body during a scene. It spread around the whole school that people saw my body, even though I knew it was made up. Still, I felt mocked and embarrassed. I learned then I had to be constantly vigilant about covering my body from leering eyes, should they try to humiliate me. I learned people would try to make my body something to be embarrassed about.

When I was 25, I finally revisited driving lessons in order to get my licence after years of not even practicing. The first (male) driving instructor sat so unnecessarily close to me, I was uncomfortable and couldn’t relax and focus. I was so embarrassed I got my mother to call on my behalf and request a new instructor without specifying why. The second (male) instructor started out OK for the first few sessions. Leading up to my road test, he was so vocally delighted to be teaching an adult, as opposed to the typical 16 and 17-year-olds, he thought this was a great opportunity to make sexual remarks, random strange and inappropriate comments, and generally make me extremely uncomfortable. He also interrogated me on why I changed instructors. I learned to stay silent to cope. I needed to get through this and get my licence and be done. He had all the power, and I needed to get this over with. I got my licence on the first try, and was free.

It wasn’t until 2-3 years later that I really thought through how it was sexual harassment, and I should have complained about him to his company. I learned how we, as women, often stay silent because we need to achieve something and can’t take on the fear and emotional burden of a confrontation. Were just trying to live our lives.

When I’ve travelled and when I lived in a bigger city for a year, I’ve been constantly vigilant. I know many boys and men have not been successfully taught to respect women, value consent, and resist entitlement to women’s bodies, as much as I’ve been taught to be vigilant and safe. We continue to teach women it’s their responsibility to avoid violence.

These are just a few things I learned, as a girl and a woman, in my society in which patriarchy and rape culture continue to have a foothold. There are other things I’ve learned and close calls I’ve had, too personal to discuss.

Now, at age 28, I’ve learned that, statistically, I’m so fortunate I haven’t had worse experiences. I see aspects of my gendered experiences as things to be grateful for, rather that deserving of.

 What is it like to not have to be constantly vigilant?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Whose job is it to call out workplace sexism and harassment?

Whose responsibility is it to make things better for everyone? Whose responsibility is it to make personal sacrifices and endure hardship to fight injustice?

For background, familiarize yourself with news stories of a Newfoundland and Labrador fire department’s lone female firefighter facing sexual harassment in the workplace from her male peers, including the alleged use of a pornographic video in an instruction session with a male firefighter instructor. The problems have resulted in mass resignations. She’s since been accused of trying to turn it into a “gender issue.” (I’ll just leave that here).

My interest in this post is not about analyzing the horrible allegations of harassment that have surfaced and arguing all the reasons why this kind of treatment of women in male dominated professions is sickening, as this will likely be evident and agreed upon by the kind of people who will read this post, but rather thinking about the responsibility we implicitly place upon those facing harassment and discrimination to solve problems themselves. Read a previous post I wrote about workplace toxicity and gender here.

If you’re like me, you’ve felt in the past that you failed: you failed as a feminist, or an advocate, or a person who stands up. I speak out. I have shut down sexist comments face-to-face. I have been the one to stand up and school people. I’ve also been the one who was unable to fight back, especially when the sexism or mistreatment was directed at me.

It’s a horrible feeling, to think you could have done more, or should have done more, to call out injustice, double standards, or mistreatment against yourself or someone else.

But justice cannot be led by the victims or survivors alone.

When we hear stories of someone who did speak up, who faced the scrutiny of friends, peers, the media, the public, to call out mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination, at great personal and emotional cost, that’s amazing. Those people deserve to be applauded. It takes a lot of strength and courage to put yourself in the spotlight, either solely within a workplace or organization, or within the larger public eye, in order to draw attention to what you’ve experienced. Because we have so much admiration (or disdain and criticism, if you’re a victim-blaming sexist) for people who speak out about sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour, we then tend to sometimes question why someone wouldn’t speak out.

We ask: why didn’t she go to her boss? Why didn’t she tell someone? Why didn’t she confront?

Women have enough working against them, especially in male-dominated fields and workplaces, without getting the charge of “hysterical woman overreacting” or “angry feminist” levelled against them. And yes, someone will paint their rebuttal in that light. The only thing sexists like more than putting down women is doubly putting them down for speaking out.

Sometimes people experiencing sexual or gender-based harassment and a hostile work environment are just trying to survive. Living your life, going to work, and doing your job can be challenging enough without being tense and stressed at very moment about inappropriate comments and actions you’re expecting to reoccur, and worried about becoming alienated, overlooked for opportunities and promotions, or even losing your job for speaking out or accusing someone. The perpetrators of sexism, double standards for women and men, and general maintenance of the sanctity of patriarchy are typically not that open to criticism on their perpetuation of those very problems.

The targets of harassment may just want to get through the day. To blame them for not wanting to take on the burden and stress of fighting the issue just exacerbates the abuse and alienation they’ve already endured.

Often a woman’s, silence, awkward laughter, or reluctant participation are taken as cues (by the perpetrator or sexual harassment apologists) that she was not subjected to harassment or a toxic workplace. Imagine being that person. Imagine being surrounded by peers (and likely superiors) and subjected to inappropriate experiences and misconduct. Imagine not expecting it.

I can attest: the utter shock and surprise of an inappropriate comment, gesture, or action has been enough to make me quiet, awkwardly laugh, or try to joke my way out of the situation before. Sometimes the full impact is not even apparent until later. There are long reaching reverberations to bad treatment. Blaming a woman for going along with a threatening, alienating, or off-putting “joke,” in the moment after being blind-sided, is unacceptable.

I applaud a woman who feels able to make public the unfair treatment and hostility she has endured in the workplace and in a male dominated field. Her actions not only hold the perpetrators accountable, but work to hopefully help prevent future misconduct, or, if nothing else, make the public aware of the reprehensible behaviour. But at the same time, we can’t blame the woman who chooses not to take that route.

Yes, victims or survivors often drive change and awareness, but the burden of providing a safe, fair, accommodating workplace must fall on the employer and be shared by all employees. It’s not up to the target of harassment to fight for the right to be employed, given fair opportunity, and treated with respect