Where to start? Well, why not start with pussy-grabbing?
When I was seven years old I had a school friend my age named Zach. We totally hit it off, and bonded over things like singing along to Beatles songs on the class record player. We called ourselves “The Junior Beatles” and our favorite song was “Run For Your Life”, which is all about how the man will kill the “little girl” if he “catches her with another man”. Ironic, yes. Somehow I didn’t realize what the song was saying at the time, I just loved the music. I still do, except for the lyrics.
Anyway, Zach and I were great friends until the day came when we played a game outside with another boy, where we straddled the slide and took turns going through each other’s legs, like bridges. I went under the boys’ legs, then it was my turn to be the bridge. As Zach went under my legs he reached up and swatted me on the crotch. We were seven years old, and one could look at this as a harmless action, but there was harm done in that moment, and after it we weren’t friends anymore. The Junior Beatles disbanded.
In the realm of sexual harassment, if you put this moment in that category, and I do because of it’s impact on me, this was very minor. It was not the first, nor the last, nor the worst, of the harassment that I’ve experienced, but it communicated something very essential to me: that Zach did not view me as “Jenny” but as “a girl”, not a unique person but a person with a vagina, which was something he wanted to grab. I knew he wouldn’t have gone for my crotch if I was a boy. I didn’t tell him not to grab me there, I had no words to articulate what I felt, but I couldn’t be friends with him anymore after that, because in the context of the friendship I felt erased as a person.
The most misogynous joke I ever heard was this: What do you call the skin around a vagina? Answer: A girl. It’s a sick joke, right? But it does boil down the psychology to its bare essence, the one that underpins all acts of sexual violence.
My Characters Too – Sexual Assault/Harassment in Fiction
Some famous writer once said that as a writer you have to love your characters, and then you have to do terrible things to them. This was definitely the case for me in writing House of Rougeaux, where three of my seven protagonists survive sexual assault, harassment or misconduct. I included incidents of this kind of violence in the lives of these characters because women in their circumstances were much more likely than not to encounter it. These events were painful to write, one of them especially, and while I attempted to avoid anything gratuitous in their description, I had to try to make them seem real. Sexual violence is not a principal theme in the book, but the incidents do drive the plot and have an impact on all the characters.
Historically, and I think we can include the present era in history, all females living under patriarchy have been subject to sexual violence, and the less power we have in society, due to race, class and/or other factors, the more subject we are. Currently, as we know, there’s a lot of media attention on celebrities and powerful men in Hollywood that are known to be sexual predators, with women bravely coming forward to speak out, and some of these men are finally facing some consequences. It seems like a step in the right direction. Why sexual predators are routinely granted impunity and protection, by both men and women who surround them, is a big fucking mystery to me, and I think is, frankly, the worst part of all.
Case in point, as if anyone needs another one: Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of a popular radio show on CBC (Canada’s equivalent to NPR), a supposedly progressive organization. For years, Ghomeshi aggressively harassed and assaulted numerous women, coworkers included, and the CBC management did nothing. Finally, when he faced criminal charges –again, after some brave women spoke out and took action– he was fired. As a radio listener I myself was duped. I liked the show and actually thought the guy was a feminist. But apparently he had a reputation all over Toronto, and women who had gone to the police, or to their supervisors at CBC, were routinely ignored.
Let’s imagine one of these exchanges:
Employee: “My boss just grabbed me from behind and said he wanted to ‘hate-fuck’ me.” (This really happened BTW).
“Yeah, well, he’s a celebrity, so… I will just ignore you now.”
Like Cosby, Ghomeshi was found not-guilty in the end and faced no penalty, but personally I take comfort in the fact that his life and reputation are trashed. He may not serve any jail time, but I can’t imagine he hasn’t finally had some real consequences.
As we all know, it’s not just rich and powerful, and/or celebrity men who carry out this kind of behavior, it’s anyone who exploits whatever power differential is at hand. Most of us never deal personally with the rich and powerful, but all females deal with males, and there are a lot of misguided and predatory males. It is true that there are female perpetrators and male victims, I would never discount the truth and suffering there, but the numbers are drastically different. So, being female: Me too, and my characters too. Of course I’ve been harassed. Is there a woman out there who has not been harassed for being female? I myself am not a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, but many women close to me are. For some reason I got lucky.
I’ve been lucky in all kinds of ways, including having parents who defied patriarchal norms: my mom was strong and independent, my dad was gentle and kind, and I spent my childhood in the Free-to-be-You-and-me 1970’s San Francisco Bay Area. Even so, the messages that sexual violence was normal (like the Beatles song, uncritically played in the classroom) were all around, starting early with Saturday morning cartoons. Was it entertaining when Bluto carried off the yelping Olive Oil? Was it funny when Pepe Le Pew forced himself on the cat? No, it was repulsive. And I don’t mean that intellectually, I felt repulsed as a child. In the pantheon of male superheroes there was only Wonder Woman to look up to, and she, unlike the guys, had to parade around virtually naked. By the time I was four years old I had internalized so many messages about the weakness and objectification of women that I refused to wear dresses. I didn’t want to be a weak victim, I wanted autonomy, so I responded in the only way I could at the time.
As an adult, and as a writer, I continue to respond in the ways I think I can, and these themes show up in my books, because I am principally interested in the empowerment of women. In House of Rougeaux, for example, the young Martine Rougeaux, working as a domestic in the home of an upper-class white family, in Montreal in 1925, finds herself alone one day with her employer, who crosses a line and scares her to death, setting events in motion that alter her life.
On this altered course, Martine encounters and old school friend, Lucille Travis, a young woman who makes her living as a dancer in a nightclub. Having lost her older brother in The Great War, and her father before him to illness, Lucille becomes the sole breadwinner for the rest of her family –her ailing mother and her ten year old brother. Financially, being a dancer is the best of the few options available to Lucille, but she pays the price of being shunned by her church-going community—the community to which Martine and her family belong. Reconnecting with her friend, and in light of their respective situations, Martine is forced to reexamine her notions of morality, and must negotiate with her family when she and Lucille devise a plan together that is both small and radical.
So, me too, and my characters too. But I would also like to propose an alternate “Me too” here, because the women I know who are survivors of sexual violence are also incredible responders, who have spent years courageously speaking out, healing themselves, empowering other women, and raising compassionate, empowered, responsible kids. I can’t claim to have ever done anything heroic, not like many women I know, and not like my characters. But I do what I can to support other women, and do what I can to raise an empowered kid. I’m pretty proud of that.