Living through the specter of sexual violence is the tax women pay for living in the world. That sure as hell isn’t fair, but in my experience, it’s true. I wish it weren’t, and I hope one day it won’t be, but in 2016, the consequence of embodying womanhood is that people feel empowered to tell you what they think of your body, or worse yet, to use your body.
My friends are harassed on a daily basis. They receive gendered, racialized, and ableist comments while grocery shopping or walking their dogs. They are slut-shamed, fat-shamed, and, when things get really bad, they are assaulted.
Being a woman in the streets is flat-out dangerous. I used to be so appreciative that in Toronto, the city I call home, buses are required to let women off between stops between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. I thought this was a small but valuable reprieve from the treacheries of the outside world. I used to be grateful for the Toronto Transit Commission, which we Torontonians refer to as The TTC. I naively used to view public transit as a safe space that worked hard to protect me, and then last week, my bus driver sexually harassed me.
I do not say this lightly, but the sexual harassment I received at the hands of a TTC bus driver was the most troubling and traumatizing of my life. I have been called a “slut,” a “hot piece of ass,” a “dirty lesbian,” and an “ugly cunt” by strange men on the sidewalk, but none of that compares to what I heard from someone I trusted to keep me safe.
The day my bus driver harassed me started out the way most mornings do for me, around 6:00 a.m. — It wasn't pitch-black out, but it was dark. I got on at my normal stop outside, the one just steps from my home. I was commuting to work while listening to Hamilton and worrying about American politics. It was early, and I wasn’t particularly awake yet. I was listening to “My Shot” in an effort to get myself pumped for the day. I barely noticed that I was the only person left on the vehicle. Everyone had gotten off at the stop before, leaving me alone with a driver who seemed kindly enough when I boarded earlier that morning.
Like I always do, I requested my stop on autopilot. I was set to work late that night. I was bracing myself for an extra-long day. I was anticipating banal office woes, like broken photocopiers or too many emails. I did not for a moment suspect my problem would become the man who was driving me to my office.
“You can’t get off, miss,” the bus driver decreed with an eerie confidence.
“Excuse me.” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. It was hard to make out the words over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice. Looking back, I was probably in denial too. No one wants to think that a friendly looking bus driver may actually be a sexual predator, myself included.
“I’m not letting you get off. You can’t.” His tone was serious.
“What?” I’m dreaming, I thought. I’m dreaming. Wake up!
“You can’t get off,” he repeated. Then he added, suggestively, “You can’t get off when you just got on.” He gave me what Victorian novelists would refer to as a lascivious look.
In that moment, I knew my driver did not have to open the bus’s doors if he did not want to. He could drive me away, to the middle of nowhere. He could rape and kill me if he wanted. He had all the power. He could strangle me. He could stab me. He could shoot me in the head. I saw my naked body lying motionless in a ditch. I saw my mother’s face. I wished I’d returned her text from the day before. I wondered if I’d ever hear her voice again.
In that moment, I didn’t know if I was being sexually harassed or if I was about to be sexually assaulted. I had no idea whether I was about die, or if I was the victim of a sick joke about this man’s ability to violate me should he choose to do so.
I frantically tried to recall the self-defense classes they made us take in high school. I remembered nothing. I felt light-headed. Was I going to faint?
Every woman grows up seeing stories of lost girls on the news and knowing it could have been her. We grew up hearing names like Elizabeth Smart or Leslie Mahaffy. Then there are the girls of colour who are also victims, whose names we almost never hear, but they are out there too, missing.
We know it could be us. We know what separates us from the girls who get abducted isn’t intelligence or responsible parents, but sheer luck. It scares us to admit that, so we don’t. We try to stay safe, to maintain the illusion of control over our lives. We pretend some spaces are protected. We pretend there are places where it’s OK to let our guards down, if only for a moment. We believe these fictions because sometimes we need a break from the truth.
If you’re like me, you download special safety apps on your phone, you avoid strangers on the street, and you never leave your drink unattended at a pub. You do this for peace of mind. It’s like a security blanket that makes you feel good but does nothing meaningful to protect you. At the end of the day, all the precautions in the world cannot keep you truly safe.
When I left for work that morning, it was early. Few people were out on the street. I wanted some exercise, but I thought taking public transit was safer than just walking. I forgot the truth, which is that for women, there is no such thing as a safe space.
We all know the statistics. I know women are likeliest to be assaulted by their friends and family. You are most vulnerable where you feel safe. Out there, in the world, where you are primed for danger, you are on guard. You are prepared and insulated by your suspicion. When you feel comfortable enough to zone out and enjoy Hamilton, that is the moment when everything goes awry.
As my bus driver threatened to turn me into his hostage, as I clung to the hope this was some sort of sick joke, I screamed. I didn’t realize I was making noise at first. I was in the process of dissociating from my body, preparing for my possible rape and murder. In retrospect, I remember hearing myself cry, “Let me off!” I remember seeing my life flash before my eyes. I remember remembering the first time I was sexually assaulted, when I was 9. I was in a basement. It was someone I knew. I was somewhere I thought nothing could happen to me. My parents thought I was playing. I remembered the second time I was sexually assaulted. I was in my university dorm room, barely 18 and a foot shorter than my attacker. And then I remembered when I woke up that morning.
If only I’d walked to work rather than taking the bus. If only I made more money, owned a car, and could have driven. If only I were not a woman…
And then, as quickly as it started, it ended. The bus doors opened to reveal my stop, and I ran. I didn’t know if I was running for my life or running away from someone with an abhorrent sense of humour. And I never truly will.
The story of what happened to me is not unique. A man used his position and his power to scare me, to toy with me. It is possible he was seriously considering assaulting me, then thought better of it. It is possible he only threatened me for kicks. It is possible all he wanted was to see the fear in my eyes, to know I knew he could rape and kill me if he wanted to.
I walked away shaking that day, and then I went to work and did my job as I always do. The banality of my trauma was perhaps the worst part. It wasn’t the first time someone used my sexuality to scare me, and it may not be the last. Even if I am fortunate enough never to be the victim of sexual harassment or assault again, that thought is only so comforting. Other women I know surely will be.
As I write this, I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight. My anger and fear will keep me awake. As a little girl, I used to lie awake fearing the monsters I believed lived under my bed. I imagined them as fire-breathing dragons, or aliens who resembled E.T. As an adult, I know the monsters I fear look like normal people. They could be anyone. They are anywhere.
And while I know I live in a world where fear and assault characterize women’s lives, I want better. I wish I lived in a world where the women I know could feel safe. I wish that dream didn’t sound so big and so absurd to me now.
All I want is to sing along to my favourite songs on my way to work in the morning. All I want is to let my guard down without worrying that the moment I do, someone will attack me. All I want is for the women I know to feel safe without that being a lie.