Don't play down my disgust
Why am I told to ignore sexual harassment? Chloé Guilbert-Savary asks
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Recently, I received a reply to my Kijiji add, "Female Student Looking for a Roommate near York University." It came from a 27-year-old male describing himself as "fit," he found me "cute." He wanted to "swap pictures." He would "drive me to school" and was interested in becoming my roommate for "real cheap" if we agreed to a sexual partnership.
As a female, I have learned to disregard obscene and unwanted messages. Why lose time and energy on something that is so banal? But I took the occasion to tell my almost-17-year-old brother about my ad's response, in the hopes of raising a few questions in his mind. As we were cooking dinner, I told my brother and my father about the message.
I had barely finished describing the situation when my father started laughing: "So, did you have a picture up on your ad? He probably just found you cute!" My brother added: "Just don't answer the guy. It doesn't really matter."
Those words, spoken from my closest male relatives, are the reason I am writing this.
I struggle with the fact that I am shut down when I share my feelings about an unwelcome and uninvited message. I struggle with the reaffirmation of oppression in my family's words. I struggle understanding how little support, interest and understanding my relatives showed. I struggle with how young and how ingrained within this patriarchal tradition my little brother has become.
"It doesn't really matter." Oh, soft socialization! This time, spoken by my brother. Another time, spoken by a friend. Next time, spoken by the law. By a police officer. By a mother. By a bystander.
The reply on Kijiji was harassment: It was an offensive sexual message via personal communication to convey an unwanted message offering sex-related activities. The loose legal definition of online sexual harassment is a tool that can be manipulated for anyone's favour, generally to banalize an action. There is a tendency to question what one defines as "harassment": The strategy is to prove the ways in which an action was not harassment. This is unhealthy, as it justifies violence against women, disempowers them by making vocabulary inaccessible to their use, isolates women, twists a legally unacceptable situation into a subjectively unpleasant situation. No one should have to receive and simply accept that such e-mails end up on their screen. Such behaviour should not be dismissed nor disdained.
For harassment to happen, one can argue that the action needs to be repeated. I argue this is completely wrong: For harassment to happen, an action needs to be inappropriate and hurtful. It is not respectful and extremely clumsy to flirt with anyone through sexual comments.
Harassment is cumulative. It takes multiple forms and is more or less hidden. For me, this Kijiji reply added to the three other replies along the same line that I received. It added to the multiple catcalls or honks sent my way when I am in the street; to the time a man touched my breast with his left hand while greeting me with his right hand; to the many times neighbours asked for my phone number when in the elevator (it's a long ride to my floor); to the poor measures undertaken by universities to prevent harassment; and to the times random strangers call me "beauty."
Why do I need to endure this? Because of gender, you will answer. I remember telling my Indian female roommate about being asked for my phone number. She answered: "When there is a flower, the butterflies will come."
We are taught that it is acceptable for a man to see a woman as desirable. Men learn to understand women as a little too distracting. We learn to understand a woman as being open for invitations. We forgive men; they are righteous.
I don't understand how being "a flower" is a compliment at all: Being a flower puts me in an aggressive and defensive position.
So again, I ask: "Why do I need to endure this?" Because predation was taught as romantic.
Harassment is hurtful and dehumanizing. I am tired of being reduced to a piece of steak. It is sexist to address a human being as a mere sexual figure because of apparent gender. Why are my inquiring roommates not asking what type of books I read?
Harassment is traumatic. I wish I lived in a world where I did not need to live with disillusions. I wish I could always see the best in anyone. I wish I could always be vulnerable and open without the fear of anyone hurting me. I don't care whether my roommate is male or female; I am happy sharing my space with anyone with whom I feel safe.
But I will be honest: I now explicitly state that I am not wishing for any romantic/sexual partnerships with my roommate/landlord. (Yes, I've had landlords, too, alluding to this "arrangement.")
Still, I am confident that I will find a respectful, considerate and thoughtful roommate – regardless of their gender. Please, read this essay as a simple manifestation of a human reaching out to other humans, in the hopes of understanding one another better.
Chloé Guilbert-Savary lives in Toronto.