Women’s World: A Primer

Most men, in my experience, really have no idea of the day-to-day insults, harassment and fear women endure at the hands of the opposite sex, quite aside from the larger and more visible problems of assault and societal and workplace inequality. In other words, even if some men understand the scale of #METOO (a debatable statement at best), I don’t think that many get the depth of it. I realize that I have lived a relatively comfortable life at a relatively good time in a relatively liberal society, but despite these advantages, I and the women around me have had to endure a surprising amount of emotional and/or physical pain inflicted by men. I therefore thought it might be instructive for me to itemize how this oppression has played out in my life.

Let’s start with a memory from my childhood I’d buried so deep that it only emerged a couple of years ago when I starting examining my past with a #METOO lens. (Imagine my surprise when this came bubbling to the surface!) My father, who was a journeyman musician, had many male colleagues and for years they had a rotating poker game. I dreaded when the game came to our house because of Mr. Vega (this is not his real name.) Mr. Vega was, I believe, a vibes player. He spoke English with a pronounced Spanish accent, always smelled of cigars, and wore glasses with thick, tinted lenses that obscured his eyes. All in all he appeared equally exotic and scary to the young, sheltered girl I was at the time.

It wasn’t just his appearance and smell that made me wary of Mr. Vega, however. He always asked for me especially to serve the sandwiches my mother made for these gatherings, and then he would insist that I remain next to him after making the delivery. My father would give me the stink-eye if I tried to sneak away, so I would be forced to just stand there as Mr. Vega fondled my rear-end whenever his hand was free to do so. My parents were clearly unaware of what he was surreptitiously doing to me under the table, and I had no vocabulary to express my discomfort and confusion. Mr. Vega exploited my innocence and betrayed my parents’ hospitality and trust – what a perverted prick!

The next example of male aggression that I encountered came when I was 10 years old. I had my first boyfriend that year and would often go to his house after school. One time I headed home from his place a little late and consequently took a short-cut through the hydro field in the hopes of making it home in time for dinner and thereby avoiding my mother’s anger. The hydro field is just what it sounds like – a large, unlit field empty but for the tall hydro poles marching across it. I’m guessing it was probably November because I remember it was cold and dark but there wasn’t yet snow on the ground.

I wasn’t very far into the field before I became aware that someone had entered it behind me which was to be expected as this was a well known short-cut used by all the kids in my school. It was way colder in the field than it had been on the street because there were no houses to act as a windbreak, and before long I picked up my pace. That’s when I noticed the person behind me had started walking faster as well, so I turned around to see who it was and alarm bells immediately went off in my head when I saw that it was a man. Grown-ups never used the hydro field in my experience, and I suddenly realized how completely vulnerable I was – alone, in the dark, and a long way from help should I need it.

That was when I started to run. They say, “Red Bull gives you wings!”, but I can’t imagine anything will ever make me more energized than I was at that moment running away from a faceless predator who was clearly giving chase and meant me harm. I was so energized in fact, and panicked if I’m being completely truthful, that I overshot the opening in the fence at the end of the field when I finally got to it. There was no way I could run back to access the gap as that was the direction from which the man was coming, so I had no choice but to climb the fence.

Now, I have never been what you would call an athletic sort of person, so climbing the fence was a big deal. Panic however made me stronger and more agile than I had ever been (gotta love that primal fight or flight adrenalin!), and I was somehow at the top of the fence before I knew it. I was just about to climb down the other side when I realized that I was caught – my coat was snared on the vertical metal wires sticking up from the chain link, and I simply could not work it free.

By this time the man was very close indeed, probably less than a dozen steps away from being able to leap up, grab one of my legs and yank me down. So in that split second, so fast that I don’t even remember making the decision, I unzipped my coat, pulled myself free and launched my whole body over the fence. I felt some soreness on my right side the following day, but at the time I simply jumped up and ran all the way home, letting myself in the side door so my mother wouldn’t notice that my coat was missing. I woke up extra early the next morning, donned one of my brother’s coats, and went back to the fence where I was hugely relieved to see my coat still hanging there. I never told any adult what had happened, knowing they would say it served me right for being so dumb as to walk by myself through a dark and deserted field. This sentiment mirrored exactly how I felt about the whole thing – stupid and completely responsible. I fear this kind of victim blaming is still rampant in our society when it comes to the ill treatment of girls and women.

The next relevant experience occurred in my 20’s when my husband and I were travelling through Italy. My bum is what my mother kindly called “generous”, meaning that it is large. Italian men are famous for appreciating derrieres like mine, and for showing their appreciation by pinching them. This may sound harmless enough, but being pinched is not only extremely startling but also quite painful. My rear-end was absolutely black and blue by the end of our second week in Italy, and so sore that it was difficult to sit down. I showed my husband the extent of the bruising and complained about how dehumanizing it felt to be pawed in this manner, and his response was to laugh and suggest I was being overly sensitive. Pinching was simply the way Italian men showed that they thought I was attractive, and I should be grateful for such attention. Thanks for your support and concern, honey.

It’s also the case that one of my best friends through elementary school had a dad who regularly hit her mother, and my very best friend through high school had a dad who regularly hit her mother. I know four women who have been raped – one at knife point by a man she had been talking to all evening who seemed nice, and three who were repeatedly assaulted by people they knew and thought they could trust. One of these chose not to tell her parents what was happening, fearing the information would upset her mother too much (how incredibly selfless is that?!), while the other two did inform their parents and were simply not believed. I myself endured 18 years of verbal and emotional abuse from a man who said he loved me, and have helped sooth the physical and psychological wounds of two women close to me who were beaten up by men who claimed to love them.

There are more recent accounts of harassment I’ve heard from the young women in my life as well. For example, my niece lives in Toronto and rides her bike to work, and she regularly posts about men making scary, unwelcome sexist comments as she rides past. Once a guy even grabbed her handlebar, but she managed to pry his hand off and get away. Then there’s the phone call I got a few summers ago from daughter. It was a brutally hot and humid day and she was wearing summer clothes in an effort not to be a complete sweat-ball after her fifteen minute walk to work, and because frankly that’s what everyone wears in such weather. She had been subjected to so many sexually aggressive comments in that short walk however, that she was crying with anger and fear when she called me from her workplace. She asked through her sobs why she should be subjected to such verbally hostile behaviour just walking down the street in the middle of the day?! Why indeed.

I do not report these incidents looking for sympathy, but rather to illustrate how pernicious and widespread the mistreatment of girls and women is. This is not a case of “poor me”, but rather of “me too”. (As an aside, given that all these incidents are true and commonplace for women living in a country where the right to equal treatment is entrenched in its national charter, one has to wonder how much worse it is for the vast majority of women in the world who live in countries where they have no guaranteed rights.) This is a clarion call to Canadian men that these problems run deep and wide even in a country as progressive and polite as ours, so perhaps it’s time to stand up and be a visible and active part of the solution.

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