The War on Women and Girls

Today my heart aches. I saw in my Twitter feed that on the weekend two women had been brutally assaulted, raped, and left for dead. One victim is a sixteen-year-old girl in Winnipeg, the other is a thirty-year-old woman in Calgary. The attack on the latter was described by police as extremely violent. Both are in the hospital… and I am beside myself.

Part of what is so upsetting is that these vicious attacks have occurred in the wake of recent major news headlines concerning rampant sexual harassment and violence against women – Gamergate, Ghomeshigate, the recent suspension of two Liberal MPs in Ottawa for sexual harassment, and most disturbingly, the global outrage against the reviled, self-proclaimed “dating coach,” Julien Blanc, who travels around the world to give seminars on how to sexually assault women.

It was the Ghomeshi scandal and the Twitter hash tag, #BeenRapedNeverReported, several weeks ago that sparked an unprecedented and much needed conversation that is still going strong. This morning CBC Radio’s current affairs program, The Current, discussed the culture of fear and abuse that women experience, and how men can get involved in the fight against sexism and misogyny. (Listen to the audio segment – length 22 minutes). Sigh… we have such a long way to go.

So… after these two latest horrific assaults on the weekend I am left feeling speechless and helpless, yet it is my outrage that compels me to scream at my keyboard and formulate meaningful words and thoughts that need to be shouted from rooftops everywhere. Is there going to be no end to this???

Ultimately I feel, as every woman must, that those attacks—those victims—are in some way connected to me personally. Why? Because never before has the war on women been so outrageously obvious. Never before has the war on women and girls everywhere been so desperately in need of being formally addressed.

In my last post I touched on the role of government in ignoring the problem:

The Canadian government’s complicity in the escalation of the current crisis is in my opinion reprehensible. By ignoring repeated calls for a public inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is guilty of turning a blind eye to rape culture. Through arrogance, male entitlement, inaction, and cold-heartedness, his style of leadership inadvertently sends a message loud and clear to abusers, rapists, murderers, and misogynists everywhere that human rights violations against WOMEN are tolerated in this country. Women are open season, have your way with them. Harper’s stance is unacceptable.

Tragically, someone did have his way with a sixteen-year-old girl and left her to die by the Assiniboin River. Tragically, someone did have his way with a thirty-year-old woman and left her to die in the bushes by a C-Train platform. It’s a miracle that either survived. Now their lives have been changed forever, and whether they truly “survive” remains to be seen.

With regard to Prime Minister Harper and his denial that there is a crisis, he has washed his hands of it stating that it is a matter for the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, as if the statistics regarding sexual assault were not alarming enough, the monumental and nationwide outpouring of outrage, grief, tears, disclosures, debates, discussions, and conversations these past weeks should be a glaring sign that it’s time—time for effective leadership strategies, time for criminal law revisions, time for compassionate treatment of sexual assault victims, time for curriculum revisions in education, and the list goes on.

For the leader of a nation to stand by and do nothing is to allow the war on women and girls to continue, and most tragically, to continue blaming the victims. How many more victims will it take? The ugly truth is, this isn’t even war—it’s all out genocide.

Read more on Julien Blanc
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To the two victims in Winnipeg and Calgary (and to all the other unreported victims who have been violated these past few days) we stand with you and wish you strength and healing through this difficult time.

Seduction, Intimacy, Betrayal

Experiencing betrayal, on any level, is never easy. This past week, the country was rocked by a particularly troubling sex scandal that triggered a re-examination of the staggering number of unreported incidents of rape and violence against women. Our collective shock and outrage mushroomed into a national conversation facilitated by the Internet and social media stretching from coast to coast. As a result, victims are coming forward, and for the first time women who have never spoken about their assaults (some dating as far back as thirty and forty years) are talking. The sheer magnitude of what has occurred cannot be overstated.

The scandal involves Jian Ghomeshi, disgraced media darling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and former host of the popular syndicated arts and culture program, Q. He was fired on October 26th after which, wave after wave of shocking allegations emerged over a five day period—allegations so disturbing that they knocked the wind out of me in a way that few events have since the 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre of fourteen female students in Montreal. While some may argue that there is no comparison, they do in fact share one fundamental commonality—violence against women. And for that reason, this story has touched me on a very personal level. Let me explain.

As a loyal fan of public broadcasting for many years, Jian’s seductive voice (along with those of several other beloved CBC hosts) has been a daily staple in my private, cultural landscape. And like cherished friends who have the capacity to nourish the mind and soul, these voices have been present—in my home, in my car, and indeed, in my head. You see, Jian was my radio “boyfriend.”  Intimacy comes in many guises, but so do shock and betrayal.

Part of the reason why the Ghomeshi scandal has hit so hard is that, like many others, I too have experienced violence and non-consensual sex. I was young, naive, and didn’t know how to keep myself safe. If Facebook had existed back then, I likely would have ended up like Rehteah Parsons, a suicide statistic. Instead, I became another statistic—shamed, vilified, raped and never reported. It’s a story older than time, but I know too well how it goes—before, during, and after…including the scars that linger years later. And now, I can’t help it, but my rapists’ faces and penises have become interchangeable with Jian’s, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

One cannot un-hear or un-experience things. I’m still processing, but am hopeful that all of what has transpired this past week finally highlights the undercurrent of misogynistic attitudes still afflicting us today—from high school and beyond—and that we can finally make a real change for the better. Indeed, the conversation has begun, but there are so many questions.

Some are demanding to know why the CBC did nothing after complaints about Ghomeshi had been brought to their attention as early as 2010. Now it has come out that several universities also knew something was amiss, and had been warning young, female journalism students away from internships at the Q studio because of Ghomeshi’s notorious reputation. Each of these institutions will be facing some very tough questions in the coming weeks and months.

Unfortunately, the way complaints were (or were not) handled is not unique to the CBC. Most often, unwanted touching, comments, and bullying are not taken seriously, especially when it’s a “she said, he said” situation with no concrete evidence or witnesses. As a woman, I am familiar with the pattern. The following is an account of an incident that occurred about fifteen years after the assaults I experienced in my teens and early twenties.

While studying at the University of Guelph for my BFA, a fellow mature student (39) that I didn’t know cornered me in an empty classroom one afternoon under the pretext of showing me his intaglio copper plate, when I noticed his penis was fully out of his pants. I nervously stated, “You’re flying low,” at which point he acted like it was an accident and tucked it back in. At my brother’s urging, I reported the incident to campus police. Unnerved, I also signed up for Campus Safe Walk (for an escort to my car after dark), and over the next few days I began discreetly approaching female classmates to inquire if anything “odd” had happened to them in the printmaking department. Things got ugly when an indignant, younger male student got in my face and accused me of starting a “witch-hunt.” Sound familiar?

Later that week, in front of my peers, I was called out of class to the dean’s office where a university blue-suit (head of campus security) was waiting to see me. He stated that the pervert had been apprehended following numerous other complaints on campus regarding “a flasher” in the library and elsewhere. What I found confusing, however, was that he proceeded to minimize the gravity of the situation. He explained that the perpetrator was married, with a known history of indecent exposure in Montreal, but that he had expressed remorse, and voluntarily submitted himself to counseling. This man in the blue suit, smug in his authority, assured me that statistics show that “flashers” are NOT dangerous, and that they rarely attack. I replied that if a guy was going to show me his gun, I had to presume he might use it. Still, he went on and urged me not press charges, but I was confused because I had already reported criminal activity to the authorities. In the end, I allowed myself to be intimidated by the head of security – a man – and everything was swept under the carpet. Meanwhile, it was a very distressing time, fraught with fear and anxiety, which compromised my education and grades over a period of about one month (of a four-month semester).

Given the university’s handling of a sexual predator, and my later experience as a high school teacher attempting to address student bullying (including reporting it to administration), the CBC’s handling of the situation in the months leading up to Ghomeshi’s firing is not surprising to me. He was an adept manipulator, calculating in his [alleged] predation and attack strategies. It’s the same way that most bullies get away with murder, while endlessly tormenting their victims. Without witnesses, concrete proof, or anyone willing to stand up to them, things are very slow to change.

While a few heads may roll at the CBC in the end, tolerance and denial are systemic problems common to many workplaces, and everybody knows it—just like so many women from coast to coast “knew” about Jian, as Melissa describes so eloquently on her blog.

In the wake of Ghomeshi-gate, as it has come to be known, and in its magnitude and consequent exposure of bureaucratic indifference and complicity, we can only hope that the pernicious attitudes and business practices which ultimately enable rape culture are addressed and remedied once and for all. This conversation is long overdue, which brings us to the government.

Before I go on, it is important to point out that to digress into a philosophical debate (about investigative journalism, or the role of social media in the lightning speed with which it enabled public opinion to expound and chose sides) would be a tragedy. It would be a slap in the face to the countless victims of sexual violence, bullying, and abuse, no matter where or how it happened—be it in the bedroom, on the side of the road, or at work. We cannot forget that crimes have been committed.

In my opinion, the Canadian government’s complicity in the escalation of a national crisis is reprehensible. By ignoring repeated calls for a public inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is guilty of turning a blind eye to rape culture. Through arrogance, male entitlement, inaction, and cold-heartedness, his style of leadership inadvertently sends a message loud and clear to abusers, rapists, murderers, and misogynists everywhere that human rights violations against WOMEN are tolerated in this country. Women are open season, have your way with them. Harper’s stance is an absolute disgrace.

So… maybe it has taken Ghomeshi and this moment to finally address the situation. Maybe this is the moment where every woman who has ever been beaten, harassed, raped, or abused finally has permission to speak out without fear of recrimination or humiliation.

On a final note, Margaret Wente in the last paragraph of her article soberly directs our attention towards the abusers. “The truth is that some men have been pigs, and some men always will be. These men should be outed, shamed and ostracized.” And so too have my thoughts shifted away from dwelling on the countless victims—too ashamed, confused, and intimidated to report their rapes—and towards the MEN who have committed these heinous crimes with impunity for too many years. It is chilling to think that these men are out there, likely reading these endless articles and essays along with the rest of us. So I say this:

I do remember my abusers from so many years ago. You were young men, which is typically when abusive patterns in the male population emerge. You engaged in predatory, pack mentality behaviours and callous slut shaming. You raped again and again. Though I’ve managed to more or less blot out those painful memories and carry on, it has taken decades to realize that the shame is not mine to bear. I can only hope that if any of you ever gained a conscience or some sense of morality, and later had daughters of your own, that you hang your heads in shame and horror every single day remembering what you did, and how devastatingly WRONG it was.

If there is anything positive to be gained from the Ghomeshi scandal, it’s that it has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of previously untold stories of abuse, rape, and violence; an increase in reporting of sex crimes and assaults; and a hard look at the abhorrent practice of victim blaming. This is a huge step in the right direction, but if things are truly going to change, we need to do a much better job of ensuring that our sons fully understand the meaning of consent and all that it implies.

Post-election Hangover

It’s been a week since municipal elections were held across Ontario, and many voters were not happy with the results. However, the elections were completely overshadowed by a shocking sex scandal involving CBC’s media darling, Jian Ghomeshi – a scandal that has rocked the country hard from coast to coast with unrelenting aftershocks since it first erupted on October 26th.

But… the dust has begun to settle, sort of… and while sex and politics often seem to go hand in hand, these recent and separate events might as well have happened on two different planets, so I’ll leave the sex part for my next post, and focus on the politics for now.

So… finally emerging from the murk of confusion and shock, small voices from across Ontario have begun to pull us back to where we left off a week ago. The complaints are old and familiar:  Who won the election??? OMG, they’ve chosen to stick with the status quo. Nothing will change. Why is voter turnout so appalling low??? Such apathy! What’s wrong with people?!!

On October 17th, an interesting article by Don Tapscott was published in The Star. I’ve thought a lot about the failings of governments and politics over the years, and Tapscott’s article was right on. He discussed a city, Guelph, “that is well on it’s way to re-imagining the role of local government.” So, to address some of the old, familiar complaints, this is my take on the situation.

Guelph had a 45% voter turnout, which was a significant 11% increase over the 2010 election, while Windsor saw the opposite with a 37.5% turnout for 2014. So they (Guelph) must be doing something right. Right?

Actually, there are numerous, complex factors that have contributed to today’s voter apathy and disengagement, especially within particular age groups. However, one of the biggest reasons in my opinion is that the current model of centralized governance is outdated—from the municipal level, all the way up to the federal level.

Currently, our governments maintain rigid patriarchal structures that, despite their democratic premise and inclusion of women, call on citizens to choose who is going to rule from the head of the table. After that we are as powerless as children. Once in place, most politicians seem intent on following their own agendas. This system is problematic, and no longer aligns with modern 21st century sensibilities shaped by the democratizing effects of the Internet, communal experiences, and global connectivity.

“…Guelph has demonstrated that cities can innovate. Through its fresh approach to problem-solving and open-government principles, Guelph is challenging the traditional industrial-age approach to local government and democracy. Shared ownership, decentralized decision-making, community engagement have the potential to shift the relationship from “us vs. them” to “we’re in this together.” Tapscott.

Healthy and progressive evolution must keep up with the times, but old hierarchies always resist and delay necessary change in order to retain their perceived power. While paradigm shifts in organized societies are always easier to recognize and analyze from a historical perspective, we know enough about our world today to understand that old constructs are no longer working very well.

The backlash against authoritarian and patriarchal societal constructs happened in the 1960s. Why, in 2014, have we not moved forward?