#BeenRapedNeverReported · #BelieveSurvivors · social media · solidarity

Sweaty Concepts & Solidarity

All last week I walked around in a clammy, sweaty fog. I was getting over a cold, yes, but there was more to it than that. My jaw ached from clenching. My stomach jumped. I was distracted and tired and short-tempered. And I was that terrible kind of hot/cold all the time.

As I sat at my kitchen table on Thursday morning, trying to hit my word count before the baby woke up from her nap, before I had to get ready to go to campus and teach, before all of that, I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back. Drip drip drip. I sat there, tense and typing. My jaw ached. That muscle between my thumb and forefinger was tight and sore. My hips hurt from tapping my feet while I worked. My eyes were having trouble focussing.

As I sat there, writing and sweating, I listened to the radio. CBC Radio 2, to be precise. I had been up since about seven that morning, so I had heard three rounds of the hourly news by this point. My ears pricked up each time the bom-bom-bom! sounded on the hour. I noticed right away, at seven, that instead of  the usual male voice saying “it is seven o’clock, and this is CBC News,” that today it was a woman making the announcements. Interesting, I thought. Savvy choice, I thought.

It was a woman, who, at eight o’clock, announce that “some women’s groups were upset by the Jian Ghomeshi trial proceedings.” Some women’s groups? Fuck you, CBC, I thought. Do better, I thought.

It was a woman’s voice who, at ten o’clock, announced that the judge would be reading the proceedings beginning at eleven.

And then, at noon, while I sat at my kitchen table, it was a man announcing the news. A man telling me that the verdict was “not guilty on all counts.” It was a man. Someone, somewhere at CBC thought to make that shift–women preparing listeners for a verdict, a man to give it. Huh, I thought. Sinister choice, I thought. No small thing, these micro-aggressions.

After I listened to those five words–not guilty on all counts–my ears started ringing. I tried to split my attention between my daughter, who was awake and clamouring for a bottle, and the sound bytes from the judge who decided it was a good idea, a fine plan, to verbally attack the three women who came forward as witnesses in this trial. This judge, this man, took it upon himself to try and tear down all the work these women had done. It was them, their bodies, their words that he disrespected.

As I stood in the kitchen feeling like the floor was getting further and further away my phone started to buzz. Friends and acquaintances were reaching out to each other, trying to make sense of the vertigo and nausea we were all feeling.

It was me, you, my daughter who got called into question with the judge’s monologue. That’s what I was thinking as I stood in my kitchen, shaking. Don’t talk to me about the law right now, I thought, I get it. I am another reasonably intelligent woman. Talk to me instead about how you hold up someone’s story and say no, this doesn’t count. Your experience is wrong, questionable, doesn’t matter. And then talk to me about metonymy, because this judge wasn’t just talking about the three women in that courtroom. No. He was saying “don’t trust any survivor.”

Listening to him filled me with an electric and incandescent rage. I had to sit down. I was so angry and shocked I could hardly see. Another example of words being weaponized. That’s what this judge gave us.

These women, oh, how I have thought of them in the past year and the past month. Their bodies had to carry their words and their stories into that courtroom. What would that feel like? When I am nervous and have to speak in front of people my voice shakes. I get tunnel vision. I break into a cold sweat. This happens a lot, because I am a lecturer. But the difference between my physical reactions to public speaking is that I, ostensibly, am the one in power in the classroom. Not these women. No, despite their bravery, and despite all we know about how we don’t fully know what trauma does to memory, despite all of this they were not the ones given power and agency in that room.

Sarah Ahmed’s notion of “sweaty concepts” is my guide here, as I try to think about embodiment and survival. As I try to think about embodiment and survival and solidarity. For Ahmed, the phrase “sweaty concepts” is a way of demonstrating how the work of description and exploration is labour. 

Here she is:
A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it…. 

When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. 

Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing…[1]

Trying to write about living in rape culture is exhausting. It makes me sweat and shake. Trying to write as a way of witnessing is, as Ahmed articulates, difficult. For every brilliant piece of writing about rape culture I read, I wonder what it cost the person who wrote it. How much sweat? How much shaking. 

And yet, they keep coming. The stories keep coming. The narratives are intersecting, and points of connection–between sexual assault, rape culture, transphobia, racism, and the failures of the carceral system–are becoming more and more clear. 

The cost of writing, and of speaking, seems to be far smaller than the cost of holding it in. Not everyone can talk about their experiences, I know that. I believe survivors who don’t report (I didn’t), who can’t speak up (I couldn’t). What I mean is this: things are shifting. Survivors, supporters, and allies are doing the hard, sweaty labour of thinking and writing their stories in public. We are writing through the sweatiness and shaking

It is difficult, this trying, but we are doing it. 

Need some inspiration and fuel for your resolve? Give yourself the gift of reading all the links in the GUTS Sunday round-up for this week

And know you’re not alone. 

#BeenRapedNeverReported · one year later · reflection · risk · women and violence

This Changed Me

It has been a year and a handful of days since CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi. Do you remember how the news broke? I do. I remember seeing it on Twitter first and thinking “how strange.” And then, later that evening, I recall sitting on the couch with my partner. We were both looking at Facebook — oh, modern life — and came across Ghomeshi’s long, bizarre, self-defensive post. Remember that? That’s the post in which he claimed that the CBC had fired him for his sexual preferences. I recall thinking at the time that there had to be more to the story. But even more that that, I distinctly remember thinking: how shrewd. How insightful. What a smart and deliberately pre-emptive use of social media. Rather than wait for the porous and vague language of preliminary news reports here was someone who knew the power of harnessing public opinion. Further, here was someone who knew how gender plays a powerful role in public opinion. A well-known man confessing and apologizing for his less-than-vanilla proclivities but asking for the public to respect his privacy? Wow, I thought. Very savvy.

And then the real story broke. “More to the story” turned out to be many many women. Women who had experienced varying degrees of assault and harassment in professional, private, and semi-private settings. Women who did not feel safe coming forward, and women who did. I remember listening to Lucy de Coutere be interviewed about her decision to talk publicly about her experience with Ghomeshi. I remember what she said–that she felt she could come forward, and so she did in hopes that it would make other women feel strong–but I mostly remember her voice. Confident. Assured. Strong in her own truth. And controlled. Oh, her voice was so controlled. And I remember thinking wow, this woman. This woman and her bravery. She has brought her experience into the light of the public–not a warm light, that–for the good of other people. How generous, I thought. Thank you, I thought.

And then, of course, there was more. More women, yes. And more public backlash. The women who didn’t come forward were asked why. They weren’t even recipients of the question, not usually. Rather, there was a general distrust of anonymity and silence. Why wouldn’t you come forward and seek justice, the whole country–never mind the comments sections–seemed to ask, while simultaneously failing to make a connection with the myriad risks of doing so in public.

The conversations about Ghomeshi’s years of violence were triggering. Talking and hearing about it non-stop was exhausting. And yet, it felt as though it was time for something to change. Would it lead to cities and provinces and universities and colleges taking seriously the rise of rape culture on campus? Would these conversations lead to a public recognition and outcry for an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada? Would public opinion shift to trusting women when they say they’ve been abused?

Something else did start to happen. Women reached out to one another. Again, I saw this happen first on social media. In my town a group formed on the internet to talk about how we were dealing with this hyper public, inescapable, necessary-yet-gutting conversation about rape culture. Then, the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral. Women all over the internet were claiming their experiences of violence and teaching the general public not only why a huge percentage of sexualized violence goes unreported, they were also teaching us what that feels like. They were teaching us how violence that is both individualized and systematic–it happened to me, it happened within patriarchal culture, within racist culture, and so forth — gets metabolized or internalized. They were teaching us, these women.

I worried, last year, that social media, which can be such a crucial tool for consciousness-raising, would also backfire. I worried that the onslaught of a topic gone viral would just as quickly move out of the public eye.

What I am trying to think through here is, at root, two pronged: 1) How do we as a networked public keep huge issues at the forefront of the public conscience? 2) How do we both honour and continue to grapple with the cost — both visible and invisible — of speaking openly about experiences of gendered violence?

The title of my post comes from an article that Chatelaine published last week. In it the magazine notes that

The events of that day hit like a brick to a window — a “where were you when” moment for a great many Canadians. Regardless of how Ghomeshi’s trial plays out in 2016, we’re still feeling this scandal’s repercussions a year later. It led to thousands of conversations about sexual violence, workplace harassment and abuses of power. For those at the core of it — the survivors who came forward, the CBC employees who lost their jobs and Ghomeshi’s family — the fallout is ongoing and severe. But even for many further afield — crisis workers and policymakers, journalists and former colleagues — the scandal has had a powerful, lasting effect. 


The article interviews seven women about the lasting effect of this public discussion of rape culture. They are all worth reading carefully. I’m struck, especially, by Piya Chattopadhyay’s recollection of hosting Q the day the news broke, of how she is willing to admit how emotional she was. But I want to draw your attention to the last interview, which is with Sally Armstrong. She writes:

Immediately after the column, I had a phone call from a very well known Canadian man with lots of connections. He said, ‘Pick a Saturday—any Saturday that doesn’t have a Santa Claus Parade on it and I’ll organize a march of the men.’ I said ‘I hope you do. I’d be willing to help.’ But I never heard from him again. It didn’t surprise me because it takes a lot of effort to alter the status quo. The Jian Ghomeshi thing was an incident — that goes on in most offices across Canada today. And who’s going to do something about it? And I don’t believe a single incident has stopped because of the Jian Ghomeshi story.


Armstrong articulates what worries me so deeply about how we remember: as communities, as people. And as much as I am loath to admit it, I think, on a large scale, Armstrong is right. 
But I don’t want to end there, because on a smaller scale–and by small I mean geographically smaller scale–things have happened. The public discussions of rape culture and misogyny did change me. It reminded me that I am not just a teacher, I am a feminist professor. I am not just a person at the front of a classroom, I am a gendered body at the front of the room. I have to negotiate power dynamics every day, of course, but this? This incident renewed my resolve to talk about rape culture, gendered and racial inequity, and the function of power dynamics in my classrooms even when it makes me uncomfortable. Even when it might mean my student evaluations are chocked full of comments that “she’s too feminist.” Even when it is risky. Its my privilege and it is my responsibility to teach with a feminist lens. And so I do. I am. I’m trying.
And you know what? Something else happened, too. About two weeks after my baby was born I went to a brunch held by the founder of that online feminist discussion group. The group, which was full of women in the community who care about feminism and each other, had spent a year navigating the emotional rapids that came about after the news of Ghomeshi’s actions. It was a group of women who took the time to build a network of verbal support for one another in a space–the internet–that feels so ephemeral, so risky. And while I was jittery about meeting them in person, and shy and awkward and full of all the weird hormones that come with giving birth, I went. And as I walked up the stairs with my very wee girl to meet a group of women I’d really only talked with online someone said “Oh! A baby! Pass me that baby and get that woman a cup of coffee!” And so, as I passed my daughter to this familiar stranger’s arms I whispered in her ear “this is Lucy.”   
So thank you, Lucy, for holding my daughter. For making me brave. For being brave. Your bravery changed me. Your bravery makes things happen.