How three incidents of sexual harassment changed me

say no to sexual harassment

The young man was sprawled across four seats in the back of the streetcar.

You could smell the booze emanating off of him all the way to the middle doors. The passengers avoided him, keeping a minimum two-seat buffer lest he wake up and cause a scene.

But he did wake up.

He woke up and staggered towards them, plopping himself next to diminutive women in her 30s, trapping her in one of the forward facing seats.

“You’re pretty,” he slurred, letting his head drop into her shoulder. She responded by pressing herself as close to the window as possible to move away from him.  

His head fell off of her shoulder. He frowned and looked at her.

“You’re not pretty. You’re ugly. You’re an ugly bitch, you know that!”

The woman continued to try to make herself invisible.

Not happy with being ignored, the drunk continued, “You know where I’m from? Gun City. That’s right, Gun City, not like this shit country! You know why Canada’s shit? Not enough guns, but I have one right here in my pocket. That’s right you ugly bitch – in my pocket.”

Sitting across from them, I pretended to be listening to my ipod but mentally promised myself, “If he touches her again I will say something.”  

He didn’t touch her again.

We made it to the subway station. The drunk staggered off, the woman hurried away and no one produced a gun.

Two days later, I’m in line at a Tim Horton’s when another random man, this one middle-aged, harasses an innocent woman.

“You’re a fucking whore you know that?” he says to her out of the blue.

This time the victim is me.

“Don’t talk to me,” I reply in what I hope is a calm yet forceful tone.

“I’ll talk to whoever I want you fucking bitch. You’re a cunt and fucking whore.”

“Go away,” I tell him. This makes him even angrier. “Don’t tell me what to do. I’ll spit in your face, you whore.”

He lunges toward me.

The guy in front of me turns around,

“She said leave her alone.” He moves toward the man, who is obviously insane. The man moves toward him. Not wanting this to escalate further, I step between them.

“Just ignore him, he’s crazy,” I say and we turn our backs on the man in obvious search of a fight.  

He mumbles a few more insults and then slithers away. Once he’s out of earshot, I break the tension.

“That’s the last time I date that guy. His online profile was so different than in person.” The people in line crack up and we go on with our days.

One of the men above was drunk. The other had mental health issues. Neither of these things makes their behaviour okay.

I feel bad that there are men like this in the world. I feel bad for the woman on the streetcar. But I feel good about I handled it when it happened to me.  

I stood up for myself – something I probably wouldn’t have done a month ago.   

The events of the past few weeks – the allegations against Jian Gomeshi, the video of the woman being catcalled on the streets of New York City and the suspension of two members of parliament – have opened a dialogue about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Judging from the flood of stories coming forward, it’s a dialogue that’s long overdue.  And with that conversation comes a form of empowerment.

After seeing the woman abused on the streetcar, I decided not to tolerate this kind of behaviour anymore.

It’s unacceptable from strangers. It’s even less acceptable from someone you know.

This week, one of my colleagues did an informal survey of my female officemates to see how many of us have experienced sexual harassment on the job at one time or another. Almost all of us had.

Often times, you don’t even realize you’re being harassed until the episode is over as was the case when a high-ranking executive at a video shoot I was directing said he couldn’t concentrate on his lines with me “looking like that.” When his assistant said, “Just try,” his response was “But look at her!”

I was dressed in a sensible blouse and skirt, but even if I had been wearing something more revealing his comments would have been inappropriate.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to respond other than blush, hope that the next take was the final one and mentally vow to never apply for a job in his department.

If it happened to me today, I would tell him comments on my appearance were inappropriate and ask if he needed a moment to review his lines. If the creep in Tim Horton’s kept harassing me today, I would whip out my phone and take a photo of him. If I was on the streetcar with the drunk again, I would tell the driver what was happening. And it’s not only me thinking about these things.

Today, I saw a tweet where a woman described a man who followed her on the street making her uncomfortable. She described exactly where she was and what he looked like. It had been retweeted over 300 times.

This is powerful stuff.

Women are learning. We are learning that ignoring it does not make it go away.  We are learning that we have a voice. And we are learning how to use it.

The first step is letting offenders know that what they are doing is unacceptable.  

I am done with worrying what others might think. I am done with being silent. I am done with feeling afraid. I am not accepting sexual harassment anymore. Are you?   

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