I'd say it started out as another night out in Montreal, except that wouldn't be accurate. I almost never go out for drinks: working with clients in a different time zone means I have to get up extra early in the morning. That, as well as no longer being in my 20s, has reduced my outings. But my friend Steve was in town, visiting from Ottawa, and he wanted to have a drink. We met at a local coffee bar, saw a show, and moved on to a scruffier place, ‘cause who wants to get drunk surrounded by cookie-cutter hipsters?
We opted for a storied dive bar on the Main that hosts great punk rock gigs and is defined by an overall lack of pretension. I haven't encountered any trouble the few times I've been there before. It boasts a diverse clientele, including a few local drunks who gather around the pool table. As we stepped outside to have a smoke we encountered two palpably drunk guys. They started talking to us and I flirted for a bit with the bespectacled one, who looked kind of cute. His friend, who could barely stand on his feet, was celebrating his birthday.
“I’ve turned 29 today,” he said despondently. “It’s terrible,” I said, “Your life’s just ended.” “I know,” he nodded.
We went inside and the next time I went out to smoke by myself. The two friends were still standing there. “Dude, I haven’t had any pussy for over six months,” the birthday boy confided in his bespectacled friend. “There,” the bespectacled one said, pointing at my groin. “You have a pussy right here.”
I said, “Go fuck yourself” and went inside, feeling a darkness descending on me. I told Steve what had just happened, and could not just pick up our conversation where we had left it. I couldn’t comprehend how a nice conversation with two guys suddenly turned so ugly; how I went from being a person to a “pussy” within a moment; how a guy I was exchanging pleasantries with a moment ago allowed himself to point his finger at me and act the way he did. The transition from bonhomie to utter humiliation was too abrupt.
I once read that trauma occurs when you fail to respond. A research showed that in the aftermath of a widely-known child abduction case, the only children who didn’t suffer from PTSD were the ones who broke free and freed the others. I decided I would freeze up no more, that I wouldn’t be the colloquial doe, frozen in the headlights, gazing at a fast approaching runaway truck.
I went outside. “I’m sorry,” the bespectacled guy began as I cut him off. “Don’t talk to me,” I said. “You took a big old shit on my entire night. You took your pants down and crapped on my entire night. Don’t address me, don’t you ever talk to me, you disgusting piece of shit.”
I moved away and lit a cigarette. Damn, that felt good. He was genuinely sorry, I could see it in his eyes. He wanted to walk up to me and Steve told him, “No, don’t act like a privileged male who believes his apology deserves to be heard out. You behaved like a total dick, you’ll just have to live with that — if the girl told you to not approach her, leave her alone.”
As I returned inside, the birthday boy approached me. “On his behalf, I’m really sorry, I had a bad breakup and since then I find it difficult to come on to girls and that was his messed-up way of trying to help me out.” “It’s okay, you’ve done nothing wrong and I’m sorry about the breakup, been there myself.” At that point, his bespectacled friend came by, calling him to play pool with their other friends and mumbled another apology in my direction. Hearing the apologies, the bartender asked me whether everything was alright. “Yep, it remained in the verbal realm of abuse.” “I’m really sorry about this,” he added.
I felt good. Yes, a guy said an ugly thing, but three men have already apologized on his behalf. It’s actually pretty nice here in Canada! In fact, this was the first time I’ve been harassed in over a year and a half of living here. Montreal is easily one of the most feminist cities I’ve ever been to, especially compared to life in the Middle East. I’m hardly ever approached on the street, aside from the odd “Hey, what’s up?" I’ve never had to raise my voice to be heard, or been told there are things I can’t do because I’m a woman. When I went to have my bike repaired, the guy told me, to my astonishment, “Ain’t nothin' to it. Just buy the part and you can fix it yourself.” It’s merely that a guy in a scruffy pub late at night was being gross — and he apologized right away. I thought it would end there and then.
Resuming our conversation, Steve and I went back outside for one last cigarette. The birthday boy was there by himself: “It’s true that I haven’t been with a girl in a long time and, unless this guy is your boyfriend, perhaps you could give me a kiss?” he asked. “No way,” I said in disgust and turned away. “You know where I’m coming from, right pal?” he asked Steve, placing an arm on his shoulder. “Don’t expect any kind of sympathy from me,” Steve said, removing the arm. He kept begging me for a kiss as I inched away, muttering angrily, "Leave me alone.” I told Steve I wanted to move to the other side of the street.
A moment ago, his friend pointed at me, suggesting I was a sexual organ, and now he decides I’m here to satisfy his sexual needs. His apologies were worthless: I’m once again cast as an instrument for sexual gratification, rather than a person; he’s asking me for kisses as though I owe him something; and even tries to solicit male solidarity to make me perform the ultimate female task of satisfying him. Everything I did to feel better about myself and not be the doe-eyed victim was for nothing; their apologies amounted to mockery, and I was engulfed by the familiar pain of being reduced to an object.
I went inside to finish the last beer and couldn’t shrug it off. I felt my soul was crushed. I asked the bartender for a glass of water and whether he could put on Bikini Kill or another female punk band; I felt like I needed to hear some musical expression of female anger to restore my pride and my nerves. My offenders were seated at the other end of the bar, enjoying themselves, and there I was, barely able to utter a single word. The bartender apologized, saying the one playlist he had featured no such bands, and asking me whether there he could do anything for me. No, I said.
“Let’s go,” I told Steve. I picked up my glass of water on the way out and poured its contents on the birthday boy, saving some for his bespectacled friend. As I reached the door, the birthday boy jumped at me, shouting, “Why the hell did you do that for?” I pushed him away and three of his friends and the bartender grabbed him as he kept shouting and trying to come at me. The thought ran through my mind, “First you humiliate me and now you want to physically hurt me,” as my hand clenched into a fist and I felt his cheek pound against my knuckles. “She’s leaving, cut it out,” I heard the bartender say as the birthday boy kept struggling to lunge at me. My heart was pounding in my chest.
“Do you think I went too far?” I asked. “I think and hope they learned their lesson,” Steve responded. “Next time they’ll know better than treat women that way or at least will have learned there are consequences.” I took a deep breath trying to calm the palpitations. “This is not the first time it’s happened to me, I wonder if there’s something about me that invites this kind of attention?” I asked the ridiculous question, even though I knew that it’s not about me, but about a society that objectifies women at any given moment — from the books we are read as children to the media we consume as adults. Nobody just wakes up one day and decides to equate a woman with her sexual organ, or starts believing that asking a woman to provide him sexual gratification is a legitimate thing to do. And yet, that involuntary reflex reaction — that feeling of guilt — was in the back of my mind. “Of course not,” Steve replied.
“Of course not,” I echoed halfheartedly, knowing it was the right thing to say. I was still frightened; a man had just charged at me and had three others not held him back, who knows how it would’ve ended. After giving it some thought, I decided it would’ve been better for it to end with me getting a black eye, rather than keeping mum once again and adding to the accumulation of abusive incidents: When I have been grabbed against my will; when I’ve been humiliated and froze up. Better to be violent, I thought, than let this world — where violence against women is so deeply entrenched — paralyze me. Better to swing a punch than self-flagellate for failing to respond or for “bringing it upon myself.”
I’m not a violent person. Even now, despite believing that my reaction was justified, part of me is sorry for being a party to violence and thinks, “They were good guys who had too much to drink and couldn’t control themselves.” On the other hand, I realize what I did was an act of civil protest. This is also why I chose to write about it, even though it means I have to relive the intense unpleasantness I experienced.
Since I was 13, when a man copped a feel of my behind and gave me the “What are you gonna do about it?” look as I stared at him in shock, and the catcalling experienced throughout my early 20s, I have not responded to sexual harassment. We live in a world where women are being harassed all the time. I want women to respond in whichever way they see fit when they are humiliated and reduced to an instrument of sexual gratification. I want women of my generation, and the girls of following ones, to grow up with a big mouth and healthy instincts. I want to live in a world where such things are not part of our reality, but until then I want us to respond, whether verbally; with our fists; through public shaming; or by filing a complaint with the police. I want our throats to be hoarse and our fists fight-hardened, I want anything but to remain silent, because damn it, we’ve been silent long enough.
This post originally appeared on Haaretz and is reprinted here with permission.
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Osnat Ita Skoblinski is a multi-national writer trying to balance journalism, activism, digital media strategizing and globe-trotting. Montreal-based nomad, for now. Has an accent. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.