Letter from a Helpless, Self-Victimized, Fragile Snowflake

Before the #metoo movement, the article which most poignantly expressed my own experience of coming to terms with being a woman in this world was written by a man.

I don’t know how Desmond Cole would feel about this self-identification, given that it was his 2015 Toronto Life feature on the realities of being a black man in Toronto — under constant threat from the police based on nothing but the colour of his skin.

As a white woman, that is something I have never had to face. Yet the fact remains that Cole’s careful unfolding of his painful realization that he was treated as a second-class citizen by the same institution that was supposed to protect him brought some very personal tears to my eyes.

I don’t normally tear up while reading magazine articles. But Cole had done what only an exceptional writer can do: described his personal experience in a way that not only made me starkly aware of something suffered by another group of people, but also reflected an aspect of my own experience that I had never quite managed to articulate.

One moment really sticks with me. Wandering out one evening with his journal to find a place to write, Cole described his mind feeling expansive and open. He barely got a block before he was followed and stopped by a patrol car — questioned by armed police officers because he looked ‘suspicious.’

After that interaction, he wrote, he was scared and angry — his mind no longer felt open and free but shaken and confined. Heading out of his home, he had been feeling like nothing but himself — like a person living in a free country going for a walk and a think — but after the police intrusion he had been forcibly reminded, yet again, that to them, he was not himself but only his dark skin — that he was not as free in Toronto as a white person.

Maybe it was that this happened to him in East York — where I lived for most of my teenaged years — but despite never having been stopped by the police, I knew that feeling — of being jarred suddenly from free contemplation to narrow fear and anger.

I knew the feeling of heading out as a young person with a strong mind and a notebook, full of wide-ranging thoughts, only to be yanked out of my mind by men who instantly reduced me to an aspect of my appearance. Men who asserted their power over me and then drove away. Men who forced me to remember that I was vulnerable to them, physically weaker than them; that if I was to walk alone in the evening I did not have the luxury of uninhibited thought, even, really, of listening to music — constant vigilance is the price of liberty for some of us much more than others. Men whose intrusion into my mental and physical space was sudden and inescapable, whose words and actions carried the implicit — and sometimes explicit — threat of violence.

Like Desmond Cole, growing up I tried to ignore harassment. Because, of course, I didn’t want to believe it was happening. Of the racism his parents warned him about, Cole wrote “I tried to ignore what they said about my race, mostly because it seemed too cruel to be true.”

For better or for worse, my parents didn’t warn me about sexual harassment, but nevertheless, when it started — as soon as I developed breasts at age twelve I began being shouted at, followed, threatened, sometimes grabbed or taunted or showered in garbage, often by full-grown men — I shoved it out of my mind for as long as possible.

It did seem too cruel to be true — that this fear and restricted freedom would now be a regular part of my life simply because I was a girl. Every time was a little bit different, after all, and since it always happened when I was alone and no one else ever seemed to talk about it, for a while it was fairly easy to switch mental channels each time I got away. But after it had been happening for the better part of a decade — on the street, at parties, at work — I could no longer ignore it. I had to start talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it.

So when Le Monde publishes Catherine Deneuve & Co. saying that the less egregious stories of sexual harassment are about women making themselves into “d’éternelles victimes” and “de pauvres petites,” when Daphne Merkin in The New York Times describes it as “women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands, “and when Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic uses the Aziz Ansari furore to dismiss my entire generation of women as “weak,” nothing is more infuriating.

Who wants these things in their life? Who wants to believe that harassment has a good chance of happening to them every time they leave the house? Who wants to think about that, anticipate that, deal with that, talk about that, write about that, if they don’t absolutely have to?

That’s another way Cole’s piece hit home — “I would much rather write about sports or theatre or music than carding and incarceration. But I talk about race to survive. If I diminish the role my skin colour plays in my life, and in the lives of all racialized people, I can’t change anything.”

Exactly. I can’t tell you how much I wish I didn’t have to write about sexual harassment and gendered abuse of power. I wish I could still ignore it or sublimate it, like I did as a 12-year-old. I wish I never even had to think about it.

I understand why some women who, through their privilege or different experiences or particular mentalities have been able to make these things ok for themselves. I don’t blame them for that. I do blame them for telling the rest of us that we are choosing to be disturbed by harassment, that our stories arise from a perverse desire for self-victimization that acts as some kind of helpless-filter for our lives.

If you want to get dramatic, I’d say that with respect to sexual harassment, we are not victims; we are heroines. Every week, if not every day of our lives since we were far too young, we have coped with demeaning and threatening male impositions on our minds and bodies, and we have done it either without complaining or without being listened to or believed. We have dealt with the nasty and insidious effects of that harassment and isolation and we have soldiered on as best we could — still angling for better pay from a male boss, still learning what exactly will get Bill to shut up about our tits so we can get on with cleaning toilets, still fighting to be valued for raising children, still heading out alone at night to think.

Me walking at night with some (very non-harass-y!) Swedish friends

Now that we finally have a platform to talk about what our lives are like, how about we all just listen and reflect and cool it with the distracting in-fighting. If we want to have a discussion about the dangers of mob justice in the age of social media and widespread awareness of the failures of the justice system, let’s do that — Margaret Atwood laid the groundwork quite well in her January Globe and Mail article — but it’s another conversation.

As for young women speaking out about their experiences of unequal sexual power dynamics — whatever you do, don’t you dare call us helpless.