Monday, October 27, 2014

The Bedrooms of the Nation

"There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation" was one of Pierre Trudeau's more infamous quotes. It was said to defend the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1968 & 1969, a huge omnibus bill that sought to decriminalize homosexuality, abortions and birth control, and several other things that slightly defied logic for a bill of its size but it has drastically shaped Canada today.

It is also being incorrectly repeated by fans in a weird attempt to defend a popular radio personality's insistence that he did not commit sexual violence against several women, thus stating that at least 4 women are lying in a smear campaign led by a "jilted ex lover." 

When Trudeau said that there was no place in the bedrooms of the nation, it was because at that time, bedrooms were safe. I do not mean that they were a safe space for the people in the bedroom. (Nor am I referring to possibly the dumbest failed hashtag in the history of Canadian politics.) But bedrooms were a safe space for many acts we now acknowledge as abhorrent.  

1983 is a year that happened 14 years after 1969.

Rape was what happened when a penis entered a vagina. Rape was something that happened on street corners. Consent didn't even have to be a factor, and it could be applied in bulk if it was acknowledged. Victims were questioned about their motivations, their clothing, their character.

Things are not perfect yet, but they have changed.

***

His roommates definitely heard my awkward, sharp shriek. It was so loud and the apartment walls were so thin that the neighbouring units might have heard it as well. But we were in one of those buildings where screams, especially those that could be explained away as just shrieks or maybe even yelps, didn’t incite much reaction. And even if someone had come, I would have said I was fine, because I was fine, kind of.

I wasn’t entirely fine. Although I don’t look back at his attempt to transition one consensual act into another not discussed with any sort of trauma, my body might. The days after he attempted to intrude me, parts ached in so many different ways. There were shooting pains when I sat in a particular position. There was the awkward angle I had to hold my legs. And then there was the dull ache, like a bruise from inside, that stayed with me for a few days. Nothing about any of this struck me as a problem. When you don’t have much more sexual experience than the loss of virginity, the thought of aches and sharp pains are entirely logical.

Nothing about this awful encounter approached anything that could be described as kinky, let alone BDSM. Neither of us were will coordinated enough in the actions we were trying to interpret into pleasure for there to be focus on any other element added to heighten the experience. Instead, it was the time honoured game of adulthood that I had been training for; one partner taking just a little bit more than the other had agreed, a test to see if I was cool. Cool was his word, after.

“I thought you’d be cool with that,” he justified himself his quivering partner.

“Yeah, sure, it just hurt,” I explained shakily, as if hurting was something that could be 'just' a side note.

To me, boys, because we were not so young but we were still perched on the edge of being boys and girls or men and women, boys were still poltergeists or leprechauns or something tricky. I saw myself, my body, as something that had to be defended from all of the males. I kept my keys in between my fingers for the men who walked behind me at night. I covered my beer bottle mouth with my thumb around the guys I liked at parties. I made sure not to stray too far from the pack when I was about the boys I wanted to kiss. I was still at the age where I saw the other sex as the providers of mutual pleasure but it was my job, my duty to manipulate them into allowing me to achieving it safely. Even the nicest of them still posed threats because patriarchy was teaching both of us that men couldn’t control themselves.

What would I call what happened with him? I don’t have to think about it because I wasn’t hurt badly enough for me to consider anything more than fooling around gone awry. It’s impossible for me to even know what happened as I look back. I dumped him the next day. We would meet again at a party a bit more than a year later, a year after my first year of education at my lovely feminist university, and he would complain to me about a string of failed relationships since ours and tell me they weren’t cool like I was. I could only make guess at what that meant, but the empowering realization that sexism and homophobia were oppression had prepared me for this moment.

I told him he was an asshole. The look he gave me was not one of revelation.

I went on to have better sex with better people. And, as a side note to any younger readers, I don’t just mean better as in ‘didn’t hurt.’ The hottest experiences in my life have always been respectful, before, after, and during, even when the nature of the actions didn’t necessarily reflect that. But we knew, because we talked, and that was hot too. We whispered our desires into ears as we nibbled earlobes and we urged each other to take safe risks with our minds and bodies, the parameters of what we were okay doing leading to unprecedented creativity.

My transition into respectful sex wasn’t smooth, but from what I gather from chatting with others it seldom is. I once joked with my professor that my safe word is Brenda Hattie’s Women’s Studies class, but in a way the statement rings incredibly true. We’re so focused on the minutiae of consent. Did they say yes? Did they say no? as if the entire conversation of consent is just obtaining a password to one’s body, as if you can gain entry by hacking it. Brenda’s class is my safe word because it taught me a framework to have these conversations, to be okay saying no, and to teach me how to engage with others respectfully too.

Nothing about consent is easy. He decided to surprise me with something didn’t hurt me too badly, not for too long. But the culture that created his decision and anyone else’s, anyone who wants to do something with a heavier hand or a bit more intention without asking, is the same.

The conversation we are having is about so much more than one radio personality, and it's important to be mindful that we are speaking to people who have been potentially victimized when we are quick to defend someone based on feelings.

This does not mean Jian Ghomeshi did any one particular thing. This just means that I advocate believing in victims. Sometimes it means victims are telling the truth and the accused is found guilty. Sometimes it means victims are telling the truth and they choose not to press charges. Sometimes it means victims are telling the truth and the accused is not found guilty. Sometimes it means victims are telling the truth but it is not something that falls under certain charges. But none of this should empower us not to believe victims.

I believe in victims.
I believe in survivors.

Trudeau Sr.’s prolific words were to normalize certain sexual and lifestyle actions, but not sexual violence nor assault. They’re clever if taken in context, but like all words they leave room to be picked at, and they’re in favour of laws, not the law themselves.

The state belongs wherever victims speak up.

-

I find Metrac to be an excellent source of information if you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence. I strongly encourage you to talk to someone you trust, whether it is in a clinical environment like a doctor's office, a legal environment like with a police officer, or a resource centre like a women's centre. You can make the best decision that is right for you if you have the best information. You have done nothing wrong. My heart goes out to you.

-

Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of working as a lead on www.morethanyes.ca on a contract with Students Nova Scotia. More Than Yes! is an enthusiastic consent based campaign initially targeted at university students in Nova Scotia. My former employer’s opinions are not reflected in this post, but I believe it is a necessary clarity. And check out the posters; they’re pretty great.