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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss England

Posts tagged trauma

The sky turned grey the day after
To match my head the day after
I lay on the table and
allowed myself to be at the mercy of
doctors and this body
The one that just seems to
Keep failing me
Betraying me
When all I want is to
do this thing I feel called to do
I-
Motherless child
I-
Childless mother
Felt grey the day after
Cervix still open
Another lifeless love
Lifted from my body.

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Check out my interview with Maggie Robbins here!

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We talk about:

  • Radical inclusion and empowering families
  • The Village Hearth Northumberland
  • Living with cancer
  • Navigating the healthcare system as a survivor of sexual violence
  • Gynaecology and rape culture
  • Parenting through trauma

Features Tunes:
Littlest Birds by The Be Good Tanyas
Rainy Saturday by Hayden
Orion Town 2 by Frontier Ruckus
I Feel It All by Feist

aka. “Acknowledging autonomy as a means of building healthier communities”

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(image shows myself and my best friend, Luna the shepherd dog, in an open field surrounded by trees, representing simultaneous autonomy and interconnection).

Can you think of a time in your life where you wanted to be part of a community of people who you grew close with, even loved? Where you put a lot of time and energy into creating that community with some sort of shared goal or intention? Me too.

I’ve been a part of theatre communities where we worked on shows together, activist communities where the shared goal is dismantling rape culture or working towards environmental sustainability, and casual communities where the goal is simply to be friends. Sometimes this more casual community building looks like a group who gets together to share meals or to work together in a garden. Sometimes, like many people in my generation, this means online group chats.

Can you think of a time where you felt let down by your community? Maybe you were going through something really tough and craved the support of the community you’ve worked hard to build. Maybe you felt ignored or under appreciated. I can relate. It’s really easy when we feel this way in our communities to chalk it up to “toxic communities” and honestly, that’s the script that is growing to dominate a lot of modern thought around social justice. But I think that this is an oversimplification at best, and, more honestly, actively detrimental to the overall goal of community care and individual wellness that social justice aims to work towards.

Community building as a concept is complicated and I see a lot of discussion around some of the key pieces these days. Things like self-care, balancing emotional labour, and accountability. While it’s exciting that these discussions are happening at all, and it’s to be expected that thinkers will stumble their ways through these complex and imperfect topics, I, a white, queer, disabled woman who lives with CPTSD, am increasingly finding that the shallow way we discuss this stuff is more harmful than helpful.

Basically, what I’m asserting here is that the problem isn’t that we are building toxic communities, it’s that we are empowering individuals to engage in behaviours that are toxic to themselves, and thus, toxic when it comes to building healthier communities. We mistake enabling self-harming behaviours for care in attempt to acknowledge that the violence perpetrated against marginalized people is real and unfair. However, by encouraging a victim mindset, we effectively marginalize people who have been affected by systemic violence even further.

I don’t believe that it is my job (or my business) to dictate how anyone else chooses to cope with or react to their experiences in the world. I believe that is up to each individual, and that building healthier communities relies on each individual to do their own work. It’s easier, when we have experienced trauma and/or violence to follow scripts where we validate one another’s pain (effectively playing in to the same power dynamics we claim to be working to dismantle) rather than addressing and taking ownership for our own experiences and subsequent (re)actions.

What it comes down to for me, as an individual, is this: do I want to commit to my trauma and live in it, or do I want to live my best life where I acknowledge my trauma without allowing it to control my life?

In the context of a society where there are unequal distributions of power, I would agree that it’s true that one cannot fully control what happens to them or every event of their lives, but what one can control is how they choose to respond to what happens. When it comes to community building, when we are all so committed to living in our own emotional shit, we tend to project that on to other people in our community.

For me, my dissatisfaction in communities I’ve experienced as toxic has a lot less to do with anyone else’s actions but my own dissatisfaction with myself. This results in me being so wrapped up in how worthless I feel (because trauma stuff) and feeling so bad about how I’m not feeling cared for by my community that I’m not being a good community member either. I’m not actually taking care of myself in a deep way either. I’m just wallowing in my own shit. Living there. Committing to it. It’s a lot easier to chalk my feelings up to other peoples’ actions rather than taking ownership for my own and doing something to actively work with whatever it is I’m going through. It keeps me trapped in my own shit.

Escaping and preventing toxic communities comes down to changing our perspectives from “they did this to me and this feels awful” to “this happened and it feels awful because I’m perceiving it as something that was done TO me that I have no control over.”. The reality is that you do have control over what you do with your hurt. Sure, communicating to the person you felt hurt by may be helpful, but what will be really helpful is you changing your perception (and thus, your reality) of the hurtful thing. It’s not about ignoring the hurt or “choosing not to feel it”. I mean, that sounds nice, but we all know it’s not that simple. It’s about feeling it and acknowledging that it probably had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the other person/people. What is yours is your reaction. When we accept people for where they are at, it makes for far healthier and happier interpersonal relationships. And when we can’t reconcile where someone’s at with the reality we’re choosing to actively build for ourselves, we get to choose the context in which you relate to that person.

This isn’t to say that we should stick around people who contribute to us feeling bad or who we don’t ultimately feel are conducive to our journey in wellness. It’s also not about anyone being “at fault”. It’s never so simple as a simple perpetrator/victim dynamic. We are all hurt beings in some way, we are all trying to stumble our way to happiness and fulfillment. But what I think we, as social justice oriented thinkers and carers, would benefit from is actually acknowledging the role of autonomy in community building.

(Big thanks to Sabrina Scott and Susan Kesper for taking the time to provide feedback on this piece and supporting me in making it better!)

 

 

 

 

 

This is a guest piece written by Nikki EatKS. You can listen to Nikki’s podcast, Everything and the Kitchen Sink here.

“An opinion piece from a sexual assault survivor, a mother, a wife, an educator, an independent podcaster — depending on the day, the order of importance changes.”

 

Please note the fine print before reading the article:

 

  • The hyperlinks are put there so that you will click on and read more. Sometimes all I can find is a wiki link; yes, I know that is not ideal, but more power to you and your badass research skills.
  • Reading more helps you keep informed. Stay informed.
  • This “ * ”  indicates that there is more info at the end of the article but I don’t want to disrupt a flow of a piece to point out every possible retort on this opinion piece. Always, always refer to the second bullet point if you have to.
  • Please also be aware that I go into some detail of my assaults.
  • Get yourself a tea/coffee/blanket and find comfort when you can.
  • I always struggle when reading about someone’s assault story so please, please  remember self care.

  • If you feel that you can write a better piece, please, by all means, do so.
  • I use explicit words sometimes and you might not like my approach in some things I describe.
  • If you are male and you feel offended by this article, I recommend that you do some self-reflection rather than taking it as a personal attack.
  • If you feel that this is biased or intended as an attack on men, it’s not.
  • I appreciate, understand and am aware that the violence also happens to men, POC, trans and other minorities. You can choose to, and you have the right to, pick apart my opinion piece for the lack of inclusiveness; or you can realize that the point of me writing this, opening up and sharing my personal story, sharing my ideas to you, the reader, is about coming together, not to divide us.
  • This article should empower you: to show you that you can help stop this so that your mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin,wife, partner, colleague, friend, or child never, ever, have to experience violence, sexual assault, or sexual harassment.
  • Remember, we can be part of the solution, but by doing nothing, we are part of the problem.

 

 

 

With over 636,000 self-reported incidents of sexual assault in 2014, in Canada alone, I can safely say that you probably know one, two, or more women/individuals  that have been sexually assaulted. The difference is that you might not be privy to that information. In many cases, women feel that they will be judged or looked at differently if they share their experiences with their friends, partners, co-workers, family.

Sexual assault/harassment/violence doesn’t necessarily happen only once to a woman in her lifetime either.  A woman could have been raped and then a few months or years down the road,  groped at a concert or nightclub. In fact, concert and nightclub groping are more common than you might think.

If this continues to repeatedly happen to an individual, then surely it is the individual’s sole responsibility for not protecting themselves or being more vigilant about their safety, right?  Note that the victim’s safety is frequently perceived as solely the responsibility of the victim. Jackson Katz, a well-known American educator points out the inequality in perception of responsibility in gender violence. This makes the statistic about incident counts a little too surreal, because while many of the cases are reported, not even half of reported cases are tried in a court of law, and even fewer get a conviction. SACHA statistics report that there are 460,000 sexual assaults that happen per year in Canada. Out of every 1,000 assaults, only 3 lead to conviction.

While cases like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and just recently Albert Schultz and the suspension of VICE EXECS have invigorated  the already established  movement (METOO) of women feeling that they have a voice to speak up and out about the violence/harassment and in 2018, a new movement to support women is emerging called Time’s UP, where 300 women are fighting sexual harassment in industry in the USA. This is all great, and I hope that we never stop bringing movements together.

times

Photo taken from twitter from a #TIMESUP twitter hashtag.

In the past there have been both celebrity cases and regular cases where the outcome shocked the world. I am talking about Jian Ghomeshi,* Bill Cosby, Brock Turner: cases where the victims were not given justice to the fullest extent of the law. And this is very important for us to remember. For every success in a conviction, there are still many that could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or where the sentence given did not fit the extremity of the crime.

 

 

A glimpse into the Criminal Court “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” Implications, and The Civil Court Claim verdicts and What It Means

Currently in the United States, the Obama policy on campus sexual assault investigations are being scrapped by the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos, who maintain that the Obama-mandated standard is lower than the criminal courts’ standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” “Reasonable doubt” is why many women cannot get justice in a criminal court. The sad reality is that because the courts won’t proceed with a case that cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the victims in such cases are consequently considered liars. If one has the money, the emotional strength and it is also allowed by the courts in that state or province, then one can file a civil suit.

A prime example of this is the Andrea Constand v William H. Cosby Jr. civil lawsuit where Costand was ready with 13 women as potential witnesses if the case went to court. The case was resolved with an undisclosed settlement of cash and a non-disclosure agreement. However, in 2015 a judge had ordered that Cosby’s deposition was to be unsealed, because the information mattered to the present cases. A settlement out of court is not an admission of criminal guilt, despite public opinion. Settlements are a cost-effective way for both parties to avoid enduring the high legal fees that are associated with a court trial.  However, it is possible that information obtained in the course of reaching a civil settlement would later be used as evidence in a criminal case — but, as demonstrated with the the Cosby civil case, that is at the discretion of the judge.

 

       Celebrities are taking up arms in the newspapers and social media platforms to get their voices heard.

I appreciate that celebrities are coming out now to share their assault stories. I appreciate women coming forward about celebrities and their workplace sexual harassment.  And this serves the media well, not only to keep us informed but also for clicks and website traffic. As well, after reading further on you will see that now, sexual assault survivors are taking this course of action because the court system is constantly failing to bring justice.  

I don’t want to downplay any victim coming forward to media because that takes a lot of courage. When a victim comes forward, they will be likely attacked on social media platforms with death threats/harassment/bullying. An aside:  I also think death threats and name-calling of attackers in no way assists the victims. If you are being factual in your posts, then post away.   

However, an accomplished woman, whether financially, socially, or academically, has a lot less to lose in life by coming forward with her story years after the fact.  Women recognize the stigma of being an assault survivor, and tend not to tell anyone because of the anticipated dramatic effect on how they are perceived in their workplace, academically, and socially. When you are just 20 years old and coming out with stories that happened recently, this can have an effect on your ability to further advance in your career, family life, social life etc.  When you are in your 30’s or 40’s and you come out with what happened to you, people begin to weigh and balance your accomplishments and failures against your story. Because to the world, that matters. The concept is a backwards, yet subtle societally-accepted approach to victim blaming. If we peer into the Cosby case, that spans over decades with more than 15 women coming forward, and  apply a  fine-toothed comb for details, one can see that what a woman did before and after the assault is still something that is discussed — however, never at an advantage to the victim.  

This brings me to the whole point of this opinion piece. Women’s voices are not being heard early enough. We are not finding resolution, solutions, intervention, and most importantly prevention of sexual assault/harassment early enough. It is not enough to tell men not to rape. We have to start thinking how we provide this important information and these strategies and when we do it.

 

Changing how we use the phrase “violence against women” to give society a good shock to the system

As a sexual assault survivor twice, and having been sexually harassed countless times, I feel that this age-old dilemma is not being confronted with the right scope of solutions. After the #METOO movement began, I discovered Jackson Katz and his profound statement hit me like a ton of bricks.

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many boys and men impregnated teenage girls.”

Now, Jackson Katz has been saying this for years, in fact in an interview he stated that this statement was part of a bigger presentation he did at a college 5 years prior to the #METOO movement. He continues to say that we absolve men from the responsibility. “Even the term, ‘violence against women’ is problematic…. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term, ‘violence against women’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them… Men aren’t even a part of it.” *

And this, this is the crux of everything we’re discussing here. Reword every statistic about violence against women and you will see that we have a bigger problem than you first realized. For example in the beginning of this piece I talked about the Canadian statistics…..Let’s reword that now, just for fun:

636,000 men sexually assaulted women in 2014.  Over half of those men will not be officially charged by police or be tried in a criminal court for assaulting women. Less than ⅓ of the 636,000 men that have sexually assaulted women will serve jail time.

When it’s written like that, it hits home, doesn’t it? We have a bigger problem that we thought and it’s been going on for decades without any let-up. So where do we go from here? We have to start these conversations young, and we have to really instill the importance of respect at a very early age. How early? Earlier than 15 years old.

 

Teenagers,  young adolescents, college and university students are statistically more prone to be victims of sexual assault/harassment than any other age demographic.

If you take a look at my first link about statistics you would see that in Canada, there was an specific age demographic in which these sexual assaults were taking place. I have included one of the many statistic photos that can be found in the StatsCan Link. The majority of the victims are between 15 to 24. And this is where I come in to share my experiences with assault with you. I am now 42 years old. I didn’t have social media platforms when I was a teenager/adolescent and I am very, very grateful for that. I am statistic that gets briefly talked about only when it’s a high-profile criminal case that the newspapers are covering. And this only if they can legally talk about it. But my experiences are not unusual. They are actually more common than you think.  

The first time I was sexually assaulted, it was at the age of 12 ( I was in grade eight) by a group of seven boys at the Catholic school I was attending in Mississauga, Ontario. We were coming back from a field trip and the school bus dropped us off at the school and it was already nighttime. I walked home with a friend. As my friend and I walked in the night, I suddenly heard someone shouting “Let’s get her!” I looked at my friend and suddenly I was crowded by boys from my school. Two of them managed to get me on the ground and three of them held me down while the other boys were lifting up my sweater to grab my breasts and attempting to put their hands down my pants. I believe that I was screaming because another classmate who happened to walk by (he was six feet tall) had shouted at them. I remember vividly getting up and walking on the road, with ongoing traffic coming at me. I was in shock, and had going through my head that the sidewalk wasn’t safe. The sidewalk wasn’t safe.

The classmate who shouted at the gang of boys somehow managed to get me back on the sidewalk, and he walked with my friend and me the rest of the way home. The attack literally happened not even a five-minute walk from my house. When I came home I told my parents what happened. The next day the boys were suspended from all sports teams and I was labelled a slut by both the boys and girls in the school. I stopped going out for recess and lunchtime and stayed in the office and did reception duty to stay away from the bullying as much as I could.  I remember one time after the incident, my mother was studying for an exam late and she wanted to go buy chocolate at the 24-hour Miracle Mart near our apartment building. It was about 1 in the morning, and I went with her because I was scared for her. We walked over and when we were walking back we were being followed by a man. I began to freak out, whispering and crying to her quietly. My mother, 5’2” and 90 pounds, looked at me and said, “Watch.”  I watched my mother in terror as she turned around and faced the man, who seemed drunk, and in a very stern voice said “Can I help you with something?” The man was frightened and I remember his stammering reply, “Ma’am, I am not trying to steal your purse.” My mother continued with, “You don’t need to walk this way, you can walk the other way,” and she stood there, waiting and watching him walk the other way. She didn’t turn back until he was several yards away.  She told me to never let them know you are scared, and to always be confident in knowing where you are going. That is all she said to me. At the end of the year, we moved to another city, as my dad was commuting from Mississauga to another city for work.

My parents never had conversations about my assault.  My parents are from a very different generation and trauma affects people differently. But that moment, walking to the grocery store, sunk into every fiber of my being. It became my mantra. I had a walk, an unmistakable walk that I was pretty much set out to kill someone. My walk was so specific that a friend could identify me from a distance. During my single years, this also made me less approachable in nightclubs. I never had a problem walking late at night from my teens to my late 20’s.

I am still self-conscious of how well-endowed my breasts are. I typically do not wear any top that reveals cleavage of any sort, and I always wear my trusty jean jacket if I look “too busty” in a top. There are times that people point out that I am being prudish or silly. I just tell them, “You know me, I’m quirky”, because really, I don’t need to explain my trauma every damn time to make a point. I couldn’t control what happened to me. Some days it’s hard for it not to affect me. But I am not weak because it affects me. I chalked this up to experience and promised myself that the next motherfucker that touched me would go down, My parents separated when I was 14, and it was an unhealthy relationship, so I am grateful that it ended. My teenage years were very messy, with living in shelters, panhandling, group homes and almost everything that went with that.

Now this might not seem important but if you have read anything about trauma, you will realize that I was suffering heavily from trauma from the assault, violence in my home, and my parents’ separation. But, on a positive note, I wasn’t sexually assaulted in this time period so yay me!

Fast-forward to my 20’s. At 22, I left my abusive, sexist partner. I tried to find a room to rent, as that was all I could afford at the time. I was working night shift as a cleaner at an office building and going to college during the day because I wanted a better life for the son that I had brought into this world:  instead of living on the social system.  I had to leave my son with his father (a decision that I will always regret and feel guilty for to this day) until I finished school because I did not have family support or the financial means to raise him. I didn’t have my parents, siblings , etc. to help me raise him, and my ex had a family network of support that I did not have.  

I don’t have an exceptionally trustful nature so I had asked friends for roommate recommendations. One friend recommended a man who lived between where my ex lived and where my work was, on a 24-hour streetcar line. So that man was who I ended up sharing a two-bedroom apartment with. One night my roommate planned a party and asked me to invite my friends. Only two of mine came because it was on short notice. All the rest were his friends, and there were no women. My friends felt uncomfortable and said that it was getting late and that they wanted to leave.

After they left there was a lot of sexual talk between my roommate and his friends. I said that I was tired and was going to go to bed. I went into my room, turned off the lights, shut my door and went to sleep in my dress shirt, dress pants and blazer. Yes, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to change into my nightclothes. I felt safer in my clothes. Clearly I knew something wasn’t right.

If you ask, why didn’t you leave? This was my home. I paid rent. I already ran away from one home because I didn’t feel safe; I wasn’t going to run from another. Because fuck that shit.

I heard the door open, and my roommate and two of his friends came into my tiny room and began running their hands up and down my body that was curled into a fetal position.  

I recall one of them said that they would love to run a Battery. (Battery is Jamaican slang for gang rape.) I did not know that at the time, but I knew I was in a serious situation and I was outnumbered. And I played possum and continued to pretend I was sleeping. The hands went up my shirt and they tried to move me to get into my pants from the front. At this point I shouted “Leave me the fuck alone! I am trying to sleep!” One of the men said, “We better leave her alone or she’ll will call 411.” I am sure that they were drunk and meant to say 911.

They left the room, and I waited until his friends left. I then called the police and filed a report and removed myself from the apartment and went back to my ex’s place, because I literally had nowhere else to go. An aside: Now I know what you’re thinking, I could have gone into a shelter. Well, clearly you’ve never lived in a shelter. You have to be there at a certain time to be admitted into the shelter. They don’t just let you walk in at one in the morning. They have curfews. I know, I lived in one when I was 16 and seeing drunks or people trying to come down off heroin at that age was enough for me to never want to see that again. This was also in 1997, and cell phones weren’t so accessible.

The detectives were very kind to me; they supported me, and gave me numbers to call if I needed counselling. It was almost a year after the fact when I received a phone call that my case was going to court. The detectives always reassured me that I was doing the right thing. That I did the right thing in calling and charging my roommate and his friends. The detectives did a better job than the crown of telling me the ins and outs of what was going to take place. They told me even that though I did the right thing, without being physically raped or having bruises, it would be a hard road for me to prove what happened.

In the courtroom, I was asked my version of what happened. I was asked what I wore. I told the the defence lawyer, the same thing that I am wearing right now. I purposely wore the exact same clothes I was assaulted in because I knew from reading that a victim’s clothing is always, always something the defence asks. I broke down many times answering the defence lawyers questions. I was asked, “Why didn’t I fight them off?” and “Why didn’t I scream loudly for help?” I explained that I was scared and that I feared for my life. I was then asked, “Why didn’t I get up and just run out the door?” I broke down so hard that the judge had asked me if we should adjourn. I didn’t want to go through this more than one day. I wanted to push through it.

After a couple of hours of recounting my story and defending myself from the defence lawyer the judge came back with his decision: there was not enough evidence to take my case to trial. He looked me right in the eye while I was on the stand and apologized to me, saying that it was my word against three others, and without evidence or witnesses…. He could not make a claim because there was no “beyond reasonable doubt.”

I was crushed. I can’t remember what happened next except that the detectives said that they believed me and that my claim would go into a database for sexual offenses, and maybe one day it will be cross- referenced to him with enough evidence to convict him, next time. Next time.

 

This changed me. Not only did I have my walk of “I will kill you” but I began to have an uncontrollable fear of men. If I saw a group of men walking on the street up ahead, I would cross the street and walk on the other side. When out shopping, or at the bank, I would wait for a female customer service rep. I would never deal with a male customer service rep. Clearly I suffered some heavy trauma, and I went into therapy to try and minimize my anxiety. When I saw men on the street I would sneer at them with my eyes as my way of saying “I will fuck you up if you breathe in my direction.”

I am one of many girls and women with these experiences.  In fact we tend to forget how horribly awkward and emotionally charged adolescents are, and the damage that can happen from experiencing assault at such a young age. I think one of the best examples is the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, where we can only use her name backwards, not the correct way because of the legality issues behind it. She committed suicide because of her ordeal. To take or to want to take your life means that you are swimming in such a depression that you just literally want it all to stop, no matter the cost.

Now depending on which news articles you read, some blame her, but in reality, there was simply not sufficient evidence to lay charges. Or the Torrington High School Rape Cases with FIVE students charged with various sexual offences. The Steubenville High School Rape case that had bullying and photos of the sexual assault circulated on social media. The Glen Ridge Rape where a girl with disabilities was raped with a boomstick and a baseball bat. Canadian Singer Kinley Dowling wrote a song about her rape that happened in high school 15 years ago.

Again, who is to say that the adults that are sexually assaulting women didn’t start when they were in their teens, and it became a “boys will be boys” mentality. We cannot necessarily look to upbringing as the problem, because teenagers and adults that come from “good family homes” are also the ones who are doing the assaulting. So what gives?

stats

Please note the fine print that data collection for 1 and 2 also include age demographics over 18 years old. Without including that, the majority of victims are between the age of 15 to 24, and also a high number are in the student demographic. Stats in the USA for sexual assault across college and university campus can be found as well.  

 

Teenagers and young adolescents should be our target age to provide factual information, provide guidance and support.

When I was 18 years old and in a co-op at my high school for a multi-media production course, we went and talked to grade eight girls and boys. Back then I had white-blonde hair in a Chelsea cut, so I looked pretty badass to them. I was talking with some of the girls as they brought up the topic or sex (or we did as a group for our filming, I can’t remember). The point is, back in 1994, these kids were talking about oral sex. They were 12 and 13.  It hit me that parents are terribly naive regarding what their children know about sex, and how they access information about sex. And this is before the Internet became widely accessible.

When my eldest son turned 12, I felt the urge to educate him because I didn’t think the world would.

Because of my experience not only as a survivor, but from what I knew of adolescents learning in grade eight, I took it upon myself to give him facts. Not the BS that parents sell their children that sex happens when two people love each other and only when they are married. I first told him at 12 that if he liked a girl or boy in a way that he wanted to kiss them, that if he got an erection it didn’t mean that he had to have sex. I told him that masturbation was completely normal, and that if he got an erection he could either masturbate, or deal with the discomfort that is called “blue balls,” but that he would not die from the pain.  

And then there was that bold random shock conversation at the dinner table when we was 12 that I still find hilarious, and so does he. He was sassing me at the table. I was pregnant with my second child, and I told him I deserved better respect because it took me 16 hours to push him out of my vagina. He spat out his water, with my comment and retorted, “but that is where you have sex!” And I replied cheekily, “Yes, if a penis goes in, something else nine months later might come out!”

When my friends found out that I was teaching my son about sex ed at 12, they were horrified. They said he was too young for the things I had shared with him. I told them the story about the kids I had talked with during my high-school co-op; they passed it off as an unusual circumstance. I didn’t tell my friends about my assaults because I was always of the belief that it was a stigma and that somehow I would be looked at negatively for experiencing what I did.

But I didn’t stop with teaching my son. I never told him what parts were required to have sex; already, at 12, he knew that. Instead of overwhelming him with information all at once, I did it in steps. It was set up just as random, casual conversations. I hated when I was lectured as a child, so I could only imagine how the important information would go in through one ear and out the other if I did it as a lecture.

When he was 14, we talked about consent. As a survivor, this was important to me. I told him that if that if a girl says yes to touching or sex and then changes her mind, that’s okay. And he should never be angry about that. I told him sometimes a girl may feel that the only way to keep a boyfriend is to allow kissing and touching to happen and to always make sure that’s what she wants, not what he thinks she wants.

At age 16, we had the BIG talk. I knew he had a girlfriend, so I just point-blank asked him if he was having sex. He struggled with giving me an answer. I talked to him about the importance of condoms, the different types, and to be very careful with latex and spermicide condoms because his girlfriend could have an allergy to them. I also told him birth control pills were insufficient because they don’t protect from STDs and of course, I listed them all.

I went on about pre-ejaculation, and explained that birth control pills lessen in effectiveness if antibiotics are used, or it not taken regularly. My favourite response from him on that: “Yeah, I know, (a big sigh) I was born even though condoms and birth control were used, I get it.”  I really do believe he got it. That was the end of our conversations on those topics for a while.

He came to me later on with a dilemma that he didn’t know how to solve. He had a female friend at school that was being called a slut. He asked me if he should still be friends with her. I like to think my weird casual conversations with him allowed him to feel free to come to me. This was important. He was coming to me for help to navigate the crappy parts of high school.

I asked him, how are people calling her a slut, was it everyone at school or ex-boyfriends? He replied that it was mostly boys that she had dated, but that she would date one guy, and then three months later she would be dating another guy. I told him that whether she dates a guy for years or for a month, that is her choice. Maybe that boyfriend was horrible to her. He nodded, and continued to listen. I asked him, “Does she treat you differently? Is she mean to you?” He replied, “No.” Then I said to him, “What does it matter how many people she dates, or kisses or sleeps with?” At that moment, I swear I saw a lightbulb in his eyes, a flicker of “Yeah, you’re right!” He did remain friends with her, even when she went off to university.

Did I help squash the ideology of slut shaming? I would like to think so.

At 17, he called me on the phone, a little panicked. He said mom, “I think my girlfriend is pregnant because she is a week late getting her period.” He continued to tell me that they used a condom, but it broke, and he knew that there was a small chance that pre-cum could get her pregnant. His words. I was so proud of him for that moment. Then I had to go back to problem-solving mode. First, I asked if she was always regular with her periods, and if she was going through any stress at the moment. I then told him typically, a woman could be one to two weeks late getting her period and that doesn’t mean that she is pregnant. His girlfriend was 16 but her parents didn’t know they were having sex and her parents were extremely Christian, and they were both scared. I told him that after two weeks she could go to a walk-in clinic and get a pregnancy blood test, as it was more accurate than the store-bought pregnancy urine test. He told me she wouldn’t go to the doctor because she was scared that her parents will be called. And here is the pivotal moment. I told him that in Ontario, at the age of 16, parents do not have the right to access medical information about their children.

I could tell that vital information did a lot to alleviate the stressful situation. I then discussed with him that I would support both her and him in whatever choice SHE makes. I made it very clear to him that it is solely her choice if she is pregnant, whether to have the baby or get an abortion.  He seemed to really understand that.

In the end she wasn’t pregnant. My son passed the information I gave him to his girlfriend, so she could finally see her family doctor without fear and was able to get birth control. The fact that his girlfriend wasn’t aware of her rights, wasn’t aware of her options, bothered me.

When he turned 18, I told him that I was a sexual assault survivor. I think many people would argue that I shouldn’t be telling my son that. But it was important for him to know that it can happen to anyone. That it does happen to anyone, and despite it being a horrible thing to have happen to someone, that they can still have productive lives: They aren’t broken.

I am happy that his girlfriend is with my son, because he feels safe and secure enough with someone to ask questions. Not everyone is lucky to be paired that way.

Recently, the Ontario government revamped its sexual education curriculum and it begins in grade one. When the news came out that “sex education” was going to start at grade one many parents readied their pitchforks as they felt that it was too early to teach them about sex. This is simply a knee-jerk response, because had the angry parents really looked into the curriculum, in grade one they learn:

Identify body parts, including genitalia, using correct terminology. Recognize caring behaviours and exploitative behaviours.

…which basically means that they learn to call their body parts the anatomically correct name. A penis is a penis, not a “woo hoo” or other cute name. This is vital to help children to self-advocate at an early age against sexual exploitation. If a child tells a teacher that they were touched in their “woo hoo,” it’s not as direct as penis, plain and simple. Parents are urged to properly name body parts and teach children what is acceptable touching, and what is not, at an early age to protect them from sexual abuse.*

In grade six, seven and eight these are the curriculum parameters:

Grade 6: Identify factors that affect a person’s “self-concept;” for example stereotypes, gender identity and body image. Describe how to lay a foundation for healthy relationships by understanding changes that occur during adolescence. Assess the effects of stereotypes on social inclusion and relationships.

Grade 7: Explain the importance of understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity and the concept of consent. Identify common sexually transmitted infections and describe their symptoms. Identify ways of preventing STIs and unintended pregnancy. Assess the impact of different types of bullying or harassment, including sexting.

Grade 8: Identify and explain factors that can affect decisions about sexual activity. Demonstrate an understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation. Demonstrate an understanding of contraception and the concept of consent. Analyze the benefits and risks of relationships involving different degrees of sexual intimacy.

With the amount of evidence and statistics to point out the ages of 15 to 24 is a demographic that is heavily plagued with sexual assault, it’s time that more is done for this demographic. Yes, college and universities have counsellors and organizations. In a survey in 2016, it was discovered that one in six parents are planning to pull their children out of the new sex education curriculum. That means that for every six (or more) children, there is one male that is not going to have access to this information about boundaries and consent.

Remember the rephrasing the concept of ‘violence against women.” Let me rephrase my experience based on that:

At age 5, one male raped me, I will never be okay to tell that story. At age 12, seven boys sexually assaulted me. At age 22, three men sexually assaulted me. In 2013 at a concert, one man rubbed his ass in my crotch. In 2013,  one man who was drunk followed me off the subway to continue to harass me. Not counting the nightclub rubbing against me, a total of thirteen men have sexually assaulted or harassed just one woman.

Now the tough question: will and are these men capable of doing it again? If one is not criminally convicted of a crime, then why on earth would they think they have done something wrong?

This is not some news clip, or sound bite, that will go away. There is no epic media circus to follow whilst eating your popcorn. This is the reality of what most survivors are going through. Most of us just move on without justice. Seeking justice in the courtrooms is why we are failing at changing this. And I am fucking tired of the mountain, and mountain of women coming out, because what that means: this is not the fucking “boys will be boys” stupid stage bullshit ideology that they try to shove down our throats.

It means there is a HUGE fracture in our society, where we think not educating and instead censoring our kids is of benefit. Where the “bros before hoes” mantra, and not standing up to someone and saying this is not okay, is the convention. No, you can’t walk away, because walking away means you are letting that shit happen.

In the last five years, I know three women who have teenage daughters that have been sexually assaulted.  

I can only imagine the pain and suffering that they are going through to say how could I have protected my daughter more.

It’s not about protecting our daughters.

It’s about educating our sons.

###

*Further reading for you:

*Before you point out that Jian was found not guilty, read the 25-page court finding where the judge clearly stated:

“She may have been afraid to disclose this information. She may have been embarrassed to disclose this information. These would not be unreasonable feelings; but to say that she decided not to disclose this information because she thought it was of no importance is just not credible. To make matters worse, when given this last-minute opportunity to make full disclosure, she still failed to do so.”

You can read the full court document here

* The full interview with Jackson Katz

*  The end of limitations period in Ontario for reporting

* Protecting your child from sexual abuse

 

I strive never to sit
To create something still
I crave movement
It’s gotta do something ’cause
I’m permanently restless
I’m self-loathing when I
Rest
I’m exhausted though still
Spinning
Depleted and dancing
Short on breath
Restricted airways
From all those times
I’ve skipped through
Agony
Darkness
Lines across my arms
From all those times
I’ve struggled out of the grasp of
December’s long, ragged claws
The ones so
Carefully polished
Wondering if this winter
Will finally bring
The ultimate stillness
Where maybe,
For the first time
Since I can
Remember
I feel held.

CW: bodies, trauma, rape, rape culture, body modification, consent, coercion, violence, assault, police mention, racism, transmisogyny, sexism, ableism, healing
I’ve always loved body modification- tattoos, piercings, weird hair. I have my ear lobes stretched, and have for a long time. I have 17 tattoos, and have had pink, purple, blue, white, and red hair. At various points in my life, I’ve pierced my eyebrow, labret, lip, nostril, ears x like a million, bellybutton, and nipples. I also have my septum pierced. I think part of it is that I like to shock people (it weeds out those who are judgmental based on appearance really easily), I like to set myself apart from the preps (as any Good Punk does), and I simply appreciate the aesthetic. As a sexual assault survivor and a person in recovery from an eating disorder, I have also found found an immense amount of healing through the choice to modify my body in a way that suits my aesthetic in a way that is permanent (tattoos), or semi-permanent (piercings and hair). I get the choice. I get to consent. As an artist, I get to treat my body as a canvas. My body tells my stories in a way that I can always hold with me. I can see them, and I know they are real, even when I’m not sure what else is. I like the way I look because I love my body modifications. Modifying my body has been a hugely liberating, empowering, and healing process for me.
I grew up in a Suburb of Toronto that has since become a Big City. Then, I lived in a mid-size University Town full of hippies, anarchists, and students. For a period of time I also spent a lot of time in the Toronto Punk Scene. In all of those places, I found my people. I had a community of people who, like me, considered their bodies art forms that told their stories. To them, the ways I choose to modify my body weren’t overly shocking. In fact, my modifications really weren’t particularly radical at all. After I finished my undergrad, I moved to the Small Town where my partner had grown up. in this Small Town, there is a vibrant music, theatre, and art community, and on top of that, it seemed like the ideal place where we could slowly build our careers and raise our one-day, hypothetical family. 
In spite of the vibrant arts community and the small, but mighty radical community (which looks a lot different than the radical communities of the University Town and Toronto Punk Scene), I began to run into the problem my preppy parents had always warned me about: the vast majority of people in this Small Town took one look at me and identified me as not only a New Girl, but a Freak. In the 3 years I’ve lived here, I have grown to be a part of this community, and I have a lot of love for it. But I have also experienced violence based on the way I’ve chosen to modify my body. 
Now, I should note here that I chose to modify my body, and I chose to settle in a Small Town. There are many demographics of people who experience violence based on things that are not choice, but are visible and significant parts of who they are. As a white woman, I do not experience the violence that people of colour face in my community, and systemically. When my Small Town’s police association chose to launch a “Blue Lives Matter” campaign to make money to benefit the police, I had the privilege to make noise about how inappropriate that was without the fear of being harassed or attacked. As someone who is identified as cis by others, I do not experience the violence that visibly and openly transgender people face in my community. I can use a public restroom without people following me in and inquiring about my genitals. As a person who, more often than not, passes as able-bodied (even though I’m not), I do not experience the same types of violence as people in the community who are visibly disabled and/or who use visible mobility aids. I am able to shop in the stores downtown. The level that these acts of violence exist on are systemic, and they thrive in my Small Town. The violence that I am talking about regarding my body modifications does not diminish the fact that there are people in my community who experience violence on levels that I am privileged enough to never have to experience. 

That being said, I am a disabled, mad, modified femme who has experienced violence that is rooted in these subject positions and the power structures they exist in in the context of my life and the social world around me. I could write a million essays on gender-based violence and ableism and madness (okay, I already have and will continue to), but this essay isn’t about those things directly as much as it is about the violence I’ve experienced because I have chosen to modify my body. Even more specifically, this essay is about my septum piercing being a site of violence. My horseshoe-shaped, silver, 16 gauge septum ring.

Sometimes these acts of violence are subtle. Sometimes they’re off-handed comments about how it looks weird, or about how other people don’t like it. I know it may seem like a stretch to consider those things violent, but when one thing about you is a constant source of harassment, that begins to feel a lot like emotional abuse. And that shit feels violent.

It felt violent when a manager told me I could have the job if I took out my septum ring because it made me look like a freak.
It felt violent when another manager brought up that, although she liked my look, some clients may not feel comfortable receiving counselling from me because of my septum ring, and that this has been an issue in the past.
It felt violent when people came into bars I used to work in and told me I’d be so pretty without my septum ring and that I should take it out.
It felt violent when family members told me the same thing.
It felt violent when a youth I was working with told me I was stupid for having a septum piercing. 
I could go on for a while, but I won’t bore you. I will share the most explicitly violent thing that happened regarding my septum piercing though:
 I was working with a youth who loved candy. We went into the dollar store to buy some, and I lead him to the candy aisle. We were intercepted by a middle-aged woman who reached out, grabbed my septum ring, and held on to it tightly while telling my client that this was the best way to “keep my under control”. Shocked, I reached up, held onto the woman’s wrist, and gentle peeled her fingers off of my face. She continued ranting about how I needed to be controlled with a piercing like that, and then reached up and grabbed it again. I blocked her with my own arm, turned my back to her, and made space for my client to pass by me. He was scared and shocked and had a lot of questions I didn’t know how to answer, like, “why did she do that to you?”. 
The escalation of violence regarding my septum ring lead me to take it out (that, and because I felt as though my manager had a point that that particular form of body modification may isolate me from clients, which is the last thing I want, wrong or not). I no longer felt safe wearing my septum ring in public. I felt exposed, vulnerable. I like the way I look with it in, so I continued to wear it at home, but took it out when I was in public. After a few months without it, I put it back in today. I’ll still take it out for work, but on my days off, I want to try it out again.

The fact that anyone feels as though it’s appropriate to police what anyone does with their body or their expression of self feels really fucked up to me. It feels like a violation. The fixation on the way other people look fosters such a toxic culture of alienation and unattainable perfection. It took me a long time to learn that perfect isn’t a thing, and that my stories and how I choose to tell them (including my obsession with embodying them) are a hell of a lot more authentic that meeting a beauty standard set out by anyone but myself. But my believing that didn’t stop that act of violence from happening to me.

I mean, let’s call it what it is. Rape culture. Rape culture is all about coercing people into believing that they’re living authentically and that their identities were formed through consensual experiences. Rape culture it about deciding what is best for other people, touching people without their consent, maintaining control, and stripping control away from people who may question the authority of hegemonic society. Rape culture is why a middle-aged woman felt it was reasonable to grab something that was attached to my face and tell my male client that violating my personal space, body, and choices was the Right Thing to Do.

And I’ve gotta tell you, it sure did feel similar to being raped. I mean, obviously not in such an intense way, but my brain did the trauma thing. I remember freezing and thinking, “she is holding something that is attached to my face and she’s won’t let go” and then snapping into flight mode the same way I remember freezing and thinking, “he is inside of me, and he won’t listen to me saying no” and then snapping into flight mode.

I wish I could say that this essay is a call to action. A call to respect other peoples’ choices regarding how they express themselves, physically or otherwise. A call to get consent before touching people. A call to respect the boundaries of survivors regarding their own healing (and to give people the benefit of the doubt if they choose not disclose their survivor status to you). But it’s not. It’s just one of my stories.