Unlike a couple of women I know, I have no Jian Ghomeshi story of my own. I’m too old, actually, to have one – almost his age, in fact. I can tell you I once watched him crowd a very pretty blond woman less than half his age on the street after an awards ceremony. I watched her shrink backward, with some nervous embarrassment as he stepped into that bubble of personal space that keeps us at a comfortable distance from our non-intimates. Just watching it made me squirm, and I remarked to the people I was standing with that he seemed painfully persistent in the face of some pretty clear body language. My companions just shrugged and went back to their conversation. Something was clearly wrong with me for giving this interaction my attention—one of a hundred reasons why it wouldn’t have occurred to me to intervene.
This weekend, though, I did intervene in a similar circumstance. Call it the Ghomeshi effect. I was at a restaurant with a guy I know well, a man who can get a bit overzealous when drunk. He was hitting on the waitress, trying different tacks every time she came to the table, and although she seemed unfazed by his unsubtle attention, I was uncomfortable on her behalf. Whoa. Down boy, I eventually said. Back to your kennel.
He laughed that off. So did she. I have no idea if my intervention had any impact, but I know I felt justified in the moment because of the public conversation that this scandal has provoked. I know I felt better saying something than saying nothing.
Because most of us have spent a lifetime saying nothing. Like virtually every woman I know, there have been incidents where I’ve wondered if I was to blame, whether I have led or misled someone, and my doubt has led me to allow things to continue well beyond my comfort level. In the days after Ghomeshi’s story unfolded, I had many conversations with friends in which we revisited these compromising moments. We weren’t looking for comfort so much as recognition, and our stories confirmed that the world is a lot nastier than we’re really prepared to accept.
The habit of silence starts young, particularly in the absence of public conversation. You think you are the only one, you fear the repercussions. He is older and established, you are not, so you say nothing to anyone when a teacher puts his tongue in your mouth, as happened to me, or calls you at home when he’s masturbating, which also happened, or a photographer grinds the bulge in his pants into your thigh, which happened, too. Instead of saying anything, you change schools. You give up your nascent modeling career. Your choices become dictated and limited by fear.
And those are just the incidents that happen behind closed doors. You don’t tell anyone about the guy who sticks his penis through the fence at you in the schoolyard after hours when you are 7. You feel embarrassed and ashamed and utterly confused and you want so badly to erase it, but there it is in your head, an image still so clear 40 years later.
Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to educating people around street harassment, released a video last week of a woman being subjected to leers, jeers and followers as she walked through a New York neighborhood. One hundred incidents in 10 hours. The only time I’ve been subject to something comparable was when I lived in Cairo for a year in my early twenties. The street harassment was constant. I was hissed at, groped, ground against in streets and buses, driven into dark alleyways by cab drivers, ogled by men with their penises in their hands. I was dressed modestly, befitting the culture, and I rationalized that it wasn’t me, it was the loose morals of the West that I represented to them, and I tried to bathe it all off at the end of each day. It was only when an Egyptian friend and I were walking back to our university campus in Tahrir square that I began to question it. She yelled at one man: What are you, a dog? Show some respect. Don’t you have a mother? A sister?
This was in 1990. I’ve never forgotten it. When I said “Down boy” to my male friend this weekend, I was remembering the Egyptian woman who had leapt to my defense. With the political protests of the last couple of years in Egypt, gang rape of women in Tahrir Square has become all too common, suggesting there can be a thin line between street harassment and violence.
My year in Cairo changed me. As a budding anthropologist, I knew I couldn’t live or work in a major Middle Eastern city ever again. My choices were once again dictated and limited by fear. Three months after returning home to Canada, I looked up one day and saw the world around me. In that moment, I realized: I had not looked up for months; my whole stance had shifted in order to deflect attention, deter interaction, armor myself.
If women are forced to contort themselves in this way in order to move through both public and private space, who do we become? Diminished and isolated in our own skin, isolated from each other and from the good men in our lives. Afraid not just to speak, but to be.
These stories are depressing. Depressing and ubiquitous. We risk shutting down as they pile up. But if we do, we become complicit. It’s the courage from hearing other women speak out that allowed me to take the smallest initiative and tell one man this weekend to rein it in. I still think of the pretty young blond woman outside the awards ceremony all those years ago. She may well have navigated her way successfully through that exchange, but I wonder whether, in the absence of friends around her, she could have used a mock friend, someone to swoop in and give her an option by saying: Sweetie, there’s someone I so want you to meet.