By Christine McLaughlin
My background in the history of women and gender has led me to be critical of treating history as a linear march towards progress. In spite of this, I have very much taken for granted what I thought was a much safer and open space for women in my contemporary time and place.
I realized how deeply my own personal experience shaped this point of view when I was sexually violated. This experience emphasized that a safe space in many ways is very much a state of mind, while a state of mind can very much be shaped by experience.
One warm summer evening, I was sitting on a park bench perched alongside a busy city street. A man passing by me suddenly veered towards me, looming over me and forcing my back against the bench as I desperately sought to maintain some space between us. He laid his hand on my breast, muttering incoherently. I helplessly shook my head, my body frozen as I tried to register that he was touching me. Looking up into his eyes, I saw anger buried deeply, and perhaps satisfaction in knowing he was in a position of power over me. Fear wracked my body as I realized this man was more physically powerful than I – that I was powerless to stop him. He pulled back, but before I could breath a sigh of relief he was back over me, touching me again. I glanced down towards my chest, and he raised his hand, hitting me in the face.
Fortunately, a group of my friends were nearby. One rushed over when he saw what was happening, shoving him away from me. His effort caused him to be chased by the assailant after he’d pulled a beer bottle out of his bag, a wig falling from it onto the sidewalk in the process. As he threw one beer bottle, he withdrew another, threatening to use his knife as he pursued my friend. The chase continued up the block to the police station where it abruptly ended.
The entire incident lasted less than five minutes, but its reverberations continue to affect me. I’ve never faced such great difficulty opening my front door to face the outside world. Even in broad daylight, in a crowded public space, I no longer feel safe. I remember well what it is like to feel completely alone in a crowd.
I have always been aware that multiple sexual assaults occurred at my workplace, but never before had that scared me enough to prevent me from walking across a poorly lit parking lot on the outskirts of campus. Never before have I felt so vulnerable while waiting for a bus in a large, open and populated space. I’ve never felt terrified when a man approaches me for directions or stops to hold a door, involuntarily positioning myself out of arms reach. Moving freely around my workplace, or anywhere for that matter, has never been an issue for me – until now.
Recovering from trauma is never an easy process. Sometimes it’s difficult to get back on that horse and ride, but lest I want to spend a lifetime confined to the home, ride I must. This has forced a readjustment of myself. I’ve experienced firsthand how important pure physical power can still be in my contemporary civil society.
As reports of violence abound, most recently with the horrific Eaton Centre and Danzig shootings in the Greater Toronto Area and the theatre shootings in Colorodo, some may wonder what’s going on? Yet, according to Statistics Canada, crime in the country is at its lowest level in forty years.
Somehow this doesn’t make me feel any safer. An experience that lasted less than five minutes has overshadowed the thousands of positive and safe experiences I’ve had in public spaces, completely reconditioning the way I interact within and perceive my environment. Despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, I feel less safe than I ever have. The mind is a powerful thing; mine has been deeply shaped by a single experience.
Crime doesn’t only affect women. However, as my experience was highly sexualized, it has emphasized to me my vulnerability in a woman’s body, and how quickly power and control over the body can be ceded to pure physical might. Incidences of sexual assault may be decreasing in Canada, but half of Canadian women have survived at least one incidence of sexual or physical assault, while only 10 per cent of sexual assaults on women are reported to the police. Masculine and feminine norms, along with the highly gendered nature of sexual assault, undoubtedly leaves many male victims hesitant to report these crimes. I have developed a deep appreciation for the too many who have somehow managed to carry on in the wake of sexual assault; it can be incredibly difficult to move freely in a world tinged by fear, vulnerability and powerlessness.
My personal experience has left me feeling as though the world has regressed around me, becoming a much less safe space. While I remain determined to overcome, it has powerfully reinforced how deeply power and criminality remain tied to sex, gender and sexuality.
Christine McLaughlin is a PhD Candidate at York University and co-editor of ActiveHistory.ca.