Sexism lingers too…

Chatting in a café with friends, we traded comments on the predictable verdict in the Jian Gomeshi trial* – along with the eye-rolling you do when you know there’s nothing new to say. How sad is that?

There was an unspoken assumption there: we all tended to believe the ‘complainants’ — that they were in various ways probably sexually abused by him. Is that not presumptuous? Possibly. Maybe even dangerous for the justice system. But — just about all women we’ve known (that’s a lot of women, after many decades of urban living) have experienced some variation of male sexual abuse, and most wouldn’t have even thought of a formal complaint. What’s the point?

That reality hovers around beneath many social relationships, only surfacing on occasion, like a quiet, fluttering sense of unease, under certain circumstances. Like a change in group composition as innocent as a person leaving or entering a room, for example. It has something to do with unpredictability.

I have tiny memories of events long ago that added up to a barely noticeable — but chronic — wariness. A late evening with a few friends at a lodge, chatting by the fire, going off to bed one by one, and finally there were just two – me naively chatting, and the other suddenly grabbing and lunging for a kiss. Shocked and sleepless, I wondered what to do. If I told his wife, would she hate me? Blame me? Ruin my reputation? The friendship was over.

Another time as a guest, I suddenly awakened to the sound of the bedroom door handle being tried. I had suspicions about which guy was on the other side of the door, but was never sure. Luckily I had instinctively locked the door. The rest of my night was filled with nightmares, the morning breakfast uncomfortable.

Once after visiting a friend, her husband drove me to the airport. Suddenly he reached over and put his hand on my knee. I froze, afraid to do anything with the car travelling so fast. Luckily he thought better of it, and I got to my flight. Besides, I thought the move was open to interpretation and didn’t want to believe the worst. That was in the late sixties, when some of us were barely beginning to realize we even had rights. Most of us didn’t yet have a vocabulary to talk about such things. And it was still a “boys will be boys” world.

Those who have not had such experiences might wonder what the problem is, or make assumptions about the victim. I remember as a young office worker being sceptical when another young woman – very upset – told me ‘the boss’ had made a pass at her and she didn’t know what to do. I thought she came to work looking “too sexy”, and I didn’t sympathize. I also thought she was ‘a little neurotic’. Unfortunately, we don’t get to re-do those events based on later insight and understanding. I’d love to have the chance to apologize.

I showed this to a man who said, “So does that mean a guy is never supposed to try anything?” I said yes. Get permission.**

Why have so many men apparently thought nothing of imposing these acts on women? Is it because they know they can count on a woman’s embarrassed silence? Certainly that worked in my generation. So I can identify with these younger, more violently abused women who got it half right at least – they may have waited too long, they may have got their stories (memories) a little mixed up, but damn! They lodged their complaints. That took more guts than I have. And they have the support of possibly millions of women who are inclined to believe them.


** – (print version was titled: Consent is still the key)

This entry was posted in equality, male chauvinism, reflections, Sexism, sexual assault. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sexism lingers too…

  1. john zande says:

    “So does that mean a guy is never supposed to try anything?” I said yes. Get permission.**

    How could someone even harbour the thought that imposing yourself is somehow right?

  2. Frightening experiences which I, as a man, have fortunately never had to endure.

    >>> “Why have so many men apparently thought nothing of imposing these acts on women?”

    There is no simple answer to that question. Some men are naturally aggressive and accustomed to getting their way. Some men are sexually frustrated and respond to women in inappropriate ways. Some men suffer from psychological problems which manifest in physical and emotional abuse, not only to others but also to themselves. There are probably countless other reasons.

    Whenever I’m posed with complex questions on human sexuality, I look to the animal kingdom (i.e. mammals) for behavioral parallels. If one studies reproduction in species living mostly solitary lives (e.g. most felines), and compare that to species which live in herds or packs (e.g. bison, wolves), the effects of social organization on sexuality become apparent. Social groups tend to favor dominant males and hierarchical females leaving lesser members as reproductive outcasts. In solitary species, this effect is much less pronounced because there are typically fewer mating opportunities and therefore less inclination for individuals to be sexually selective. For humans, it can be asserted that the complexity and density of modern civilization exerts tremendous sexual pressures on individuals.

  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. The justice system needs to be changed from the adversarial — winner-loser — way it currently operates and the particularly punishing ways it deals with victims of sexual abuse. Your kind of discussion and remembering is very important. Thank you.

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