Category Archives: Harassment

A Tale of Two Sex Crimes: Douglas, Ghomeshi, and Process in Sexual Assault

By Esther MendelsohnPrison Massacre

T’was the best of times for sexual predators, t’was the worst of times for the women upon which they prey.

A female judge faces removal from the bench for an incident involving nude photos which were shown and distributed online without her knowledge or consent. She has been the subject of a pernicious and protracted inquiry for over two and a half years. Meanwhile, in the Twitterverse, Jian Ghomeshi’s fans and supporters are decrying the supposed lack of due process in his termination from the CBC.

Court of Queen’s Bench Associate Chief Justice Lori Douglas has been at the centre of a nude photo scandal that has rocked the Manitoba judiciary for over four years. Her trespass? Allowing her husband to take nude photos of her. Her husband, Jack King, who was also a lawyer and has since passed away, then showed the photos, without her knowledge or consent, to a male client in a bid to entice him into having sex with his wife—again, unbeknownst to her. After Justice Douglas was appointed to the Manitoba bench, the client claimed Mr. King’s actions constituted sexual harassment and filed a $67 million law suit and a formal complaint with Canadian Judicial Council, but settled for $25, 000 with a promise to destroy and never distribute the photos. He then proceeded to distribute the photos.

Before the scandal broke, and leading up to her appointment, Justice Douglas duly disclosed the existence of the photos to the appointment committee. In fact, it was a well-known secret. She is now being accused of not disclosing this fact and of altering her personal diary when she learned of the inquiry.

The inquiry, set up by the CJC, has been plagued with accusations of bias and mass resignations. The new panel consists of three senior judges—all male. Delays and debates about costs have characterized the inquiry, and there seems to be no end in sight. Even though the panel has admitted that the allegations are weak, they insist on marching on.

Now the panel wants to see the photos. To show them again, even to the panel members alone, would be a gross infringement on her privacy, a fresh violation of her sexual integrity, and utterly irrelevant to the matter at hand. The main problem with her conduct, ostensibly at least, is that she allegedly tried to cover up the existence of the photos. (Even if she did, she did so in the context of a society which devalues women’s work, misunderstands and misrepresents women’s sexuality, and simultaneously sexualizes and objectifies women while demanding they remain chaste.) Seeing the pictures will not elucidate any proof of whether or not Justice Douglas disclosed their existence.

d94c413b2ec88423f558371620452b62   The chill effect is glaringly obvious. How are we supposed to have a representative bench (and bar) if a female judge is being lambasted for things she chooses to do in her private life which harm no one and have absolutely no bearing on her ability to adjudicate cases? 

Can we not trust a woman who takes nude photos? Why not? If the issue is framed as being whether the public believes this judge can decide a case impartially, we are essentially harnessing women’s success to their sexuality and our perception of their abilities to their personal choices. We are once again putting women’s lives and careers at the mercy of society which still has an overwhelmingly distorted view on women, their sexuality, their abilities, and their collective character (as though such a thing exists). 

Every day, brutal sexual assaults go unreported or under-punished, perpetrators often acquitted on technicalities or because of society’s distorted view of women. But when a female judge is linked to nude photos (leaving aside the troubling fact that she is the victim of cyber sexual harassment/assault), the system will leave no stone unturned in its pursuit of “justice”.

To be sure, the standards to which judges are held are higher than those to which media personalities are held, and that is just as it should be. It is also true that the type inquiry of which the still Honourable Justice Douglas has been the subject and the criminal proceedings which could face Ghomeshi are quite different. The point of comparison, however, is the extent to which processes are used and abused when the subject of the process is a sexual offence.

While the inquiry into Justice Douglas’s personal life has been marred by prejudice and driven by discriminatory beliefs, Ghomeshi has set the agenda even before any charges have been laid. Ghomeshi, in a show of keen media acumen, got everyone talking about BDSM. Only those  familiar with BDSM and those familiar with the issues surrounding sexual assault were able to see the Facebook diatribe for what it as—a distraction. He has also been using litigation to silence his victims and confuse and pressure the CBC into ignoring allegations against him.

Windsor Law’s Professor David Tanovich suggests in a piece published by The Globe and Mail that if lawyers suspect a lawsuit is frivolous or an abuse of process, they are precluded from taking it on, as per the Law Society’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Ghomeshi is represented by a union and any disputes with his employer must therefore go to arbitration, so money, restoring his good name, or being reinstated cannot possibly be his end game in filing suit. Rather, by suing the CBC, he is attempting to silence victims and any manager who dares to intervene in workplace sexual harassment. 

Much of the discussion surrounding the Ghomeshi scandal and the still-unfolding sexual harassment scandal emanating from the Hill, has coalesced around the question why don’t victims come forward

The question is predicated on the assumption that there is a process for redress and that this process is just. But the process can be manipulated. Despite decades of reform, the old tropes can still be found in judgments and in the media’s dissection of a case. Everything from the point of reporting communicates to victims that they should never have reported in the first place. The knowledge that the police will likely not believe you, the embarrassing examination in chief, the excruciating cross examination, the abysmal conviction rate, the farcical sentences, the demonization for being the person who ruined his career—there are plenty of reasons not to report. And if those reasons are not enough to dissuade victims from reporting, the fact that the process itself can be abused to suit the ends of the perpetrator probably will.

Society’s distorted view of women and sexuality allows people to use the system for ends utterly counter to our notions for justice. Ghomeshi using a lawsuit to silence victims and prevent intervention by managers, a blackmailer suing the victim of cyber sexual assault, a judicial inquiry conducting a witch-hunt against a victim and attempting to dictate the acceptable gamut for women’s private lives are just a few recent examples. There is certainly a process in sexual assault cases, but it seems to serve the perpetrators, not justice.

(Since this article was originally published, ACJ Douglas agreed to retire early in exchange for the CJC staying the inquiry. An open letter was written by the author of this article and was signed by hundreds of law students, professors, and lawyers across Canada and the US:

 https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1k4iXC46yKCK0ZeLord7pvWFCNsuT1wAIiZ-S8TgDg54/viewform?edit_requested=true

The CJC issued a response which can be found here:

https://www.cjc-ccm.gc.ca/cmslib/general/Douglas_Docs/CJC%20letter%20to%20Ms%20Mendelsohn%202014-12-10.pdf

This article was originally published in The Orbiter Dicta . Esther Mendelsohn is a second-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School.)



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Sexual Assault and the Law in Canada

by Esther Mendelsohn 

College-Rape-Petition-Image_-via-genderuniversity

One in every four women in North America will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime. Only six percent of assaults are reported to police, less than half of those result in criminal charges being laid, and only one quarter of those end in a conviction.[1] And yet, the myths surrounding rape persist, and it is all too easy to forget that behind every statistic is a victim whose world has been shattered.

The Conundrum

In Canada, the laws pertaining to rape have evolved over the years, becoming among the most progressive in the developed world. Canada is the only country to have a rape shield law which includes the complainant’s sexual history with the defendant (in other words, a victim’s sexual history with the accused does not exempt the latter from prosecution). In 1983, The Criminal Code of Canada (CCC) was amended to include marital rape. By that time, there were already limits vis-à-vis the cross examination of rape victims, particularly as it pertains to sexual history, and requirements for informal corroboration and recency were also abolished. In the 1991 Seaboyer case, then Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé noted in her reasons that evidence that a complainant was a prostitute is irrelevant and prejudicial. In 1992, Parliament clarified the definitions of “consent” and “mistake of fact”, and expanded the list of circumstances when consent does not exist as well as defences which do not apply, such as extreme intoxication.[2]

To be sure, there have been criticisms of the new laws, especially against the renaming of “rape” as “sexual assault”.[3] Some say that the new nomenclature is watered down, and therefore makes it easier to dole out lighter sentences, even though the purpose of the new terminology was to emphasize the violent nature of the crime.[4] These criticisms, however, are misdirected. It’s not just about what we call it, it’s about how we’re dealing with it—or more to the point, not dealing with it. For some looking on from the sidelines, it would seem that our criminal justice system takes drug offences more seriously than it does sexual assault, despite what the law says.[5]

The Root of the Problem

Defence Attorneys

A successful Ottawa lawyer, speaking at a seminar said that “if you destroy the complainant in a prosecution…you destroy the head. You cut off the head of the Crown’s case and the case is dead. My own experience is the preliminary inquiry is the ideal place in a sexual assault trial to try and win it all… you’ve got to attack the complainant with all you’ve got so that he or she will say I’m not coming back in front of 12 good citizens to repeat this bullshit story that I’ve just told the judge.”[6] It’s no coincidence that the violent imagery in his words mirrors the violent nature of sexual assault, and the scenario he describes traumatizes many survivors and deters other victims from seeking justice. When a complainant is questioned by police and cross-examined on the stand, he or she is forced to relive the trauma of the assault and the feelings of shame and guilt are compounded.  It would seem that while we have enshrined the principle of an accused being innocent until proven guilty, we have also enshrined the opposite principle with regards to victims of sexual assault.

Judges

            When Alberta Court of Appeal Judge John McClung acquitted Steve Ewanchuk of raping a 17 year-old girl, he noted that the defendant’s actions were “far less criminal than hormonal”, adding that the victim “did not present herself [to her attacker] in a bonnet and crinolines”. Ever the crusader for justice and equality for women, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé, found hers being the lone voice decrying McClung’s comments in her reasons for overturning the acquittal. She correctly noted that, by McClung’s logic, men would never be held responsible for sexual assault so long as they could prove they were under the influence of their hormones.[7]

            But Justice McClung did not accept the ruling or the Justice’s comments. In an unprecedented move, McClung wrote an open letter published in the National Post, where he accused Justice L’Heureux-Dubé of a “graceless slide into personal invective”—comments obviously predicated on the notion that women are overly emotional and unable to separate the personal from the professional. It seemed as though McClung himself was sliding gracelessly into personal invective, but he did not stop there. In what can only be called a cruel ad hominem attack, McClung said that the rise in male suicides in Quebec (the province from which Justice L’Heureux-Dubé hails) could be attributed to feminism and opinions such as those held by the former Justice. He claimed not to know that her husband had taken his own life only a few years prior.[8] Our judicial system demands, and indeed, has institutionalized civility amongst lawyers and judges—opposing counsel even refer to one another as “my friend”; Justice McClung’s letter not only exposed his own misogyny and hostility towards women, it also fell short of the standard of civility to which lawyers and judges are held. (This is the same Justice McClung who analogized homosexuality and sexual assault in the Vriend case, and yes, he is related to the Canadian suffragette Nellie McClung, who is, no doubt, turning in her grave.)

            These are sad examples of the problem in our country. The laws are clear, and they are progressive; the problem lies primarily with the bar and the bench. Women are discouraged from reporting sexual assault because they know they may not be believed or that their experience may be trivialized. They know they may be viciously cross-examined—and who could blame them given the fact that defence attorneys feel empowered to metaphorically send the victim to the guillotine on cross examination. They know that convictions are rare, which will only exacerbate the feelings of shame and guilt so common among victims of sexual assault. Female lawyers and judges brave enough to speak out against the underlying sexism amongst some of their colleagues know they will likely be labelled irrational or radical, and the outcry from male barristers and judges is simply not loud enough.

 

Preliminary General Solutions

Having more women on the bar and bench is an important step in creating just laws and just decisions. It is important to recognize, however, that this must happen in tandem with male lawyers and judges standing up and challenging the way in which sexual assault is trivialized in our judicial system.

Educating the Lawyers & Judges

Lawyers are required to complete a certain number of Continuing Professional Development hours each year. Programs which deal with ethics are eligible, but not mandatory. It is my humble submission that courses on ethical lawyering in sexual assault cases should be mandatory for the entire criminal bar. Defence attorneys must understand the legal and ethical limits of mounting a defence in a sexual assault case, and must be held accountable when they cross the line in court. Prosecutors must be able to recognize and effectively deal with inappropriate questioning by defence counsel. Judges must understand the unique nature of sexual assault and its effect on the victim, and the pain of reliving the assault on the witness stand. We must obliterate every rape myth from our judicial system, and work to apply our laws and procedural rules more effectively. Educating lawyers and judges is crucial, and cannot be left up to the goodwill of individual practitioners.

Giving Victims a Voice

Many think that the prosecutor, or the Crown, is the voice of the victim in a sexual assault trial. The Crown must prove the elements of the crime, while the defence, though not legally obligated, usually chooses to raise reasonable doubt as to the Crown’s position. The Crown is not the victim’s lawyer, and is not even officially tasked with securing a conviction, but must rather seek justice and represent the entire public. So who, then, gives the victim a voice in court? Professor Larry Wilson of Windsor Law has suggested that retaining independent legal counsel may encourage more sexual assault survivors to come forward and may mitigate or prevent some of the issues victims face when encountering the system. Legal Aid should be expanded to provide services to victims of sexual assault.[9] Unfortunately, LAO’s (Legal Aid Ontario) coffers are already strapped, but the general notion of giving victims a voice in the proceedings should guide our approach to sexual assault prosecution.

Wilson also notes that victims have come to be seen as mere witnesses, and nothing more; they are no longer parties to the proceedings.[10] Witnesses, although usually integral to each side’s case, simply provide pieces of the puzzle—they tell the police and the court what they saw or know. Parties to proceedings, on the other hand, play active roles and carry the case. While the rationale behind removing the victim as a party to the proceedings (namely that the complainant no longer has to bear the financial burden of prosecuting their attacker nor the burden of proving the elements of the crime, etc.) is understandable, the victim should not be allowed to languish in ignorance as the case proceeds, but rather be kept informed by the police and Crown every step of the way as a matter of policy and not discretion (as would be perfectly legal for police to do, as long as victims of sexual assault are not considered parties to the proceedings). Currently, because victims are not parties to the proceedings, there is no law or rule on informing the victim about developments in the case.[11] Given the nature of sexual assault and that it is essentially an attempt by the attacker to take power away from the victim, victims should be empowered in court and given standing during the proceedings, beyond the passive role of simply testifying and giving a victim impact statement.

A Separate Court Circuit

Christine McGoey, one of the most accomplished and impressive women on the bar, and Toronto’s first female head Crown Attorney, pioneered the domestic violence courts—a court circuit dedicated to domestic violence, where a special team of experienced crown attorneys are assigned to only those cases. A similar model—sexual assault court, may also offer another possible solution. Seasoned and specially trained crowns would handle sexual assault cases and would appear before specially trained judges. Since the evidentiary rules in sexual assault cases are already quite progressive, the specially trained judges would know to apply them without fumbling and would be empowered to balance the rights of the accused with those of claimant. By focusing on the Crown and judges, this approach does not interfere with the ability of the defence to provide answer to the charges against the accused.

Public Legal Education & Access to Lawyers in Times of Crisis

The legal profession is slowly waking up to the fact that maintaining the knowledge and information in the hands of lawyers alone is an untenable situation. To that extent, public legal education initiatives in different areas have emerged, usually in partnership with community organizations, and are, generally, succeeding in democratizing the access to legal information and empowering people to know their rights. Having lawyers on staff at rape crisis centres and women’s shelters would go a long way in empowering survivors to come forward or at least in helping them to make informed decisions. Lawyers doing education programs in high schools might be a good way to nip rape myths in the bud and teach young people about consent and the consequences of sexually assaulting another person. I have outlined several different suggestions which together may provide a solution, because a problem so serious and so complex necessitates a multi-tiered approach.

Concluding Thoughts & Points for Further Reflection

            The justice system should be thoughtful and analytical in its approach to remedying this problem, but thoughtfulness and analysis should not lull us into forgetting the urgency of this problem. It is indeed one of the most pressing issues in our judicial system today. That our society does not prioritize the bodily integrity of women has ramifications for both women and men. For women: we will not be able to fully realize our autonomy as individuals if we continue to live in a society which persists in its adherence to rape myths. We will never be respected as individuals until we are respected as a collective. We will never be able to feel completely safe until our safety and bodily integrity are as important to society as that of men or as that of victims of other crimes. So long as sexual assault victims are suspected of lying, and so long as those suspected liars are primarily women, both the men and women of our society will retain the notion that women have a lesser authenticity and that questioning their honesty is both natural and a prudent course of action. For men, the ramifications may not be as obvious, but they are certainly just as serious. Men cannot hope to be complete, compassionate, and rational individuals unless and until they accept the humanity in the other, in this case, women, and critically examine the fallacies that are rape myths as well as their implications. And neither women nor men can fully trust or respect a society and a judicial system which do not prioritize the bodily integrity of members of a certainsub[u1] group.

I encourage you all to find ways to break the myths surrounding sexual assault and to find the tools and perspectives unique to your profession or academic background which can bring us all towards a more just society. As a law student, I see things through the unique lens of the law, and both my perspective and approach to finding solutions are necessarily informed by legal reasoning. Lawyers enjoy a privileged position in society and have the power to effect change. We have helped create and perpetuate some of these problems, so it is only fitting that we do what we can to fix them. Indeed, lawyers can play a role in all of these solutions, and I call upon my classmates and future colleagues to do just that.

 

 

Special thanks to Professor David Tanovich and to Professor Donna Eansor. Prof. Tanovich inspired me to explore this topic, and taught me much of what I know about the law and perhaps even feminism. Professor Eansor lives feminism every day and leads by example.    


[3] While I have no issue with either term, for the sake of consistency, I will use “sexual assault” almost exclusively from this point on, because it is the current legal term. 

[5] An example of this is the fact that the new mandatory minimums apply mostly to drug-related offences, as well as sexual offences involving victims under the age of 16, but do not apply to the sexual assault of those over 16 years of age. Recently, a disgraced anesthesiologist was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting 21 female patients who were sedated at the time; that is less than 6 months per assault. http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2014/02/25/dr_george_doodnaught_gets_10_years_in_jail_for_sex_assault.html The new mandatory minimum sentences bill imposes a sentence of at least six months imprisonment for growing a certain number of marijuana plants.http://www.parl.gc.ca/About/Parliament/LegislativeSummaries/bills_ls.asp?ls=c10-04&Parl=41&Ses=1#a16

[6] “Victims of Sexual Assault: Who Represents Them In Criminal Proceedings?”. Wilson, Larry.http://www.lsuc.on.ca/media/eleventh_colloquium_wilson.pdf

[8] Ibid.

[9] Legal Aid does not currently provide services to victims of sexual assault, nor are victims required to retain the services of an attorney. In Ontario and Manitoba, legal assistance is provided for victims making a publication ban (medical and psychological records) application to the court.

[10] Wilson, Larry. “Victims of Sexual Assault; Who Represents Them In Criminal Proceedings?”http://www.lsuc.on.ca/media/eleventh_colloquium_wilson.pdf

[11] Ibid. As Wilson points out, there is a “Victim’s Bill of Rights”, but the “rights” are not enforceable and this is not an actual law, but rather a set of guiding principles. It falls on the individual officer or Crown to keep the victim informed, and unfortunately, these guidelines are not always adhered to, often as a result of heavy caseloads. There is a need for consistency.

The Bizarre Loneliness of Being Called a Cat

By Amy Medvick

catsI can remember that when I was younger I used to be sore about the fact that I was almost never cat-called, and I was jealous of the girls who regularly were. Getting that much attention from men was foreign to me. I assumed it must be because these girls were so much more beautiful than I was. I would think to myself, “If only I had that kind of effect on men, it would be simple enough to find one I like and date him. It would be so easy!” I was a lonely girl in those days.

Of course, occasionally I would receive one—the “nice legs!” or “nice ass!” variety—though this was quite rare. Always crude, and usually aimed at whatever region of my body was the most noticeable at the moment. I would try to understand them as compliments, hoping to bolster up my self-esteem, which worked a little, though at a price. I was always left feeling vaguely dirty and I assumed this was my own neurosis, some kind of complex female self-esteem thing that I needed to sort out before I could be truly beautiful—whether you go for the inner or the outer variety.

The first time I went to Brazil, I found the men to be so sweet. It seemed they only delivered genuine compliments to strange women on the street. I remember walking down Rua São Clemente in Rio, taking in the sights and sounds. “Linda,” said a nice-looking man as he walked past me: beautiful. How nice!

On later trips, made with a better understanding of the language, I came to realize that in Brazil, just as here, there are shady characters on street corners opining vulgarities at the female passers-by, along side the milder variety of cat-call. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to understand them.

I suspect, in fact, that for most of my life I had been experiencing a sort of language barrier with Canadian cat-calls too. But the barrier wasn’t Portuguese to English, the barrier was that I assumed I couldn’t possibly be the object of such attention. However, as my growing feminist awareness caused me to take more notice of my daily interactions with men, I began to perceive the constant commentary that follows me around as I’m trying to do my groceries or go to the bank or any of the many unremarkable tasks that fill my days. There was an irony to the process, since the more I took notice, the less I was able to even try construing what I was hearing as complimentary.

Now, you might be thinking, What’s so awful about receiving compliments as you go about your day?

But this is the tricky thing: cat-calls are rarely compliments, even though they often masquerade as such.

I never come out feeling more beautiful or desirable, nor do I feel that shy tickliness that comes from a really genuine compliment made in a more appropriate setting. I usually feel less beautiful and less desirable. Nope, cat-calls make me feel singled out, shamed for being noticed, and wondering if there’s something inappropriate about the way I’m dressed. In the worst cases, cat-calling can make me feel nervous or even afraid. In the best cases, I’m only bewildered, not sure if I’m the intended recipient. So often, the things said to me are simply bizarre.

m221184882But maybe I need to define what I mean by “cat-call”. I have a rather broad definition: I mean almost anything a male stranger says to me on the street that isn’t “Ma’am, you dropped your gloves” or “Where’s the nearest subway station?” or other similar practical interactions. Cat-calls are intended to get attention, provoke reactions, and put me in my place. These cat-calls often seem to have a sexual motivation, even if the statement isn’t clearly sexual, though there are other varieties as well.

However they manifest, they are a gendered phenomenon—I have never been spoken to by a female stranger in ways that fit into any of the above, or following, categories of cat-calling. Much of this commentary might not strike you as really being a cat-call. But ah, this is why I am redefining the term! There are multiple, public, gendered commentaries flying at women on the street every day, not only the overtly sexual but many others that share a similar intent with the cat-call as it is traditionally understood.

But perhaps some examples will illustrate better what it is like for me to walk down the street.

I might grow out my bangs. Maybe that will help.

I might grow out my bangs. Maybe that will help.

So, for example, one cat-call I frequently hear is an identification of my hairstyle. Some guy will mutter a phrase with the word “bangs” in it, or simply exclaim, “Bangs!” Something in the tone makes it clear that this has become my name. “Bangs!” he calls plaintively as I pass by without reacting. He sounds sad! I have broken his heart, he says in that one word. Why aren’t I wooed by his ability to describe me?

Clearly, I am cold-hearted. Also ungrateful.

Then, there are the instructional variety. One Saturday, I was walking down Bloor Street, eating chocolate covered almonds from the bulk-food store as I enjoyed the spring sunshine. I noticed this giant man eyeing a tiny woman up as she walked by. The ogling disturbed me. He noticed me noticing his ogling, and then it started. “You shouldn’t eat chocolate. I had to have two fillings because my teeth rotted out from eating chocolate my whole life.”

Oh, OK Sir. I won’t eat chocolate. Because you say so. My appetite is so unbecoming.

i-dare-youThere are regulars whom I have come to recognize, always making the same requests. “Smile, be happy!” he tells me every time I pass him. Clearly the Zen wisdom of this man trumps whatever may be happening in my life that day. Whatever my heartbreak, be it of the love, career, or dying-pet variety— it does not justify forcing him to endure my dour countenance. God forbid!

Some cat-calls are truly bizarre. “Do you like fireworks? Fireworks! Yes, you do!” This isn’t a sales pitch since fireworks aren’t for sale. Or maybe it is a metaphorical sales pitch with metaphorical fireworks. I don’t even flinch though, because at this point I’ve heard it all.

On second thought, this explains everything. Mistress of Murder indeed!

On second thought, this explains everything. Mistress of Murder indeed.

“Green!” cries the fireworks vendor. The colour of my dress.  Oh look, they’re describing me again. How come I don’t swoon? Well, I don’t really have time to swoon because I’m on my way to a Blasfemmers meeting. By the way, did you know I’m a feminist? Do you still find me so alluringly green now that you know that? Or does that make it more fun? Are you a hipster and is this ironic cat-calling, so tasteless and rAnDoM that it’s cool again? I don’t understand what you expect to accomplish! Please clarify!

No wait, please don’t!

But I don’t say any of that. Instead, I pull and tug at my sweater, trying to hide my shameful greenness.

“You look like Michael Jackson!”… great.

No comment.

But the worst cat-calls are the ones that don’t at all try to pretend they aren’t really insults.

One night, last summer:

I was waiting to cross the street, heard my phone receive a text. Took it out. Someone was confirming a rehearsal time. The lights changed; I started to cross. I put my phone back in my purse and took out my day-planner to write down the time. Not your typical street-crossing activity, I admit, but not really anyone’s business either. As I passed in front of the waiting car, I hear their voices: “Oooh, what are you writing in your diary? I hope it’s about me! Dear Diary, my vagina stinks.”

For a moment it was like trying to swim upstream as I struggled to comprehend what had just happened. Then it clicked, just in time to shout and gesture expletives as they sped away.

Later that night, walking home:

“Hey, what’s up? What? You won’t talk to us because we’re black?”

Yes. That’s the reason. I’m not talking to you, strange men in the dark of night, because I am a racist. If you were white, I’d be all like, “Heey booyss, hoowss it goin’?” That’s exactly how I interact with strange white men on the street. Because that is a safe thing for a woman to do at midnight.

NOT.

Two nights after that:

I was downtown hanging out with my Mom. I had been telling her about those two events earlier that week. Also talking to her about some guy who got all up in the grill of my feelings without really knowing what he was stirring up, and how I was trying to figure out what to do with all the disappointment, yet again.  Somehow these two topics were combining to make me feel incredibly hopeless about love, and awfully lonely.  I left for home feeling dejected, too exhausted to cry as I slowly descended on the escalator to the subway. A middle-aged man was on his way up.

k-bigpic

“Hellooo,” he cooed, eyebrows raised. Not particularly creative, but I didn’t have the energy to ignore him. Instead I watched him as he glided towards me, the tired weight of my eyes resting heavy upon him.

“What, so sad?” he said.

I wish we lived in a world where I could say, “Yes, so sad, and here’s why: because despite all this attention I get for doing absolutely nothing, I’m still lonely. It seems like it’s love and admiration that’s being heaped on me by strangers every day when I leave the house, but its not. It’s insult and aggression. If in some strange other universe you appealed to me, and I offered myself, I know you wouldn’t have me. Your anger is palpable. I think you might hate me. At the least, you have taught me that my place is to feel isolated, ashamed of being remarkable, and no matter how I try, your words still echo in my ears every time I talk to a man I genuinely care for. Those echoes make it a struggle to believe I can be taken seriously.”

Yet—yet—once in awhile:

A crisp, sunny February day. I’m out in my new neighbourhood, wrapped up in my vintage velvet coat. A man hovering outside the Roti Shop on my block calls out to me in his lilting Caribbean accent.

“Beautiful. Lady. Good Mornin’!”

And it was. And I felt, indeed, like a Beautiful Lady.

I can’t fully explain why this one felt so different from the rest, except maybe that it was genuine and benevolent. It brightened my day, and I think that was his intention. He wanted nothing from me, and wasn’t angry at me for reacting, not reacting, enjoying or feeling angry or shamed. Amid the din of the cat-calling, when the weight of all the bizarre loneliness inflicted by the flood of commentary threatens to pull me down, I think of this one. The compliment was nice, but that’s not really the important part. It’s just a relief to remember that being a Beautiful Lady should be nothing but a good thing.

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And now, to make us all feel better, here are a bunch of cute pictures of cats with phones:

spoof-call-cat

images

catcall

Cat-on-the-phone-2669339

cat-earial_1935239b

Cat Calling Mum

Picture by Mark Richards-Bruce the Cat dials 999 and gets the cops calling!

2369136756_0e0290fb16

108892817_amazoncom-cat-call---ipad-cover-protective-sleeve---

Keep it to yourself, bozo.

Keep it to yourself, bozo.

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