LIVING ON A FAULT LINE: SEXUAL SHAME
I've never written a blog before, but recent media news about the sexual allegations against Jian Ghomeshi have prompted me to think more deeply about ideas that this project, this film, have caused me to explore in the last few years.
There have been some fantastic articles around the Jian Ghomeshi case and they are easy to access, so I don't need to cover that ground again.
Personally, I think the most relatable concepts in the whole situation are secrets, shame & tolerance. Understanding what we, particularly as women, are willing to bear in our sexual relationships and encounters.
I know very few, if any, women who haven't been in an uncomfortable or aggressive or violent or non-consentual sexual situation.
When I listened to the interview with Lucy Decoutere and she explained that, even after she was allegedly choked and hit, she went out on another date with Ghomeshi, it made sense to me.
I didn't find it surprising or hard to understand.
Thinking back I can pinpoint at least half a dozen sexual situations in my own life that left me feeling "uncomfortable", some more serious than others.
When I was in highschool I was hanging out with a group of people. We were all at one guy's house and his parents were asleep upstairs. Everyone else left and I was alone with the guy. I remember he started to tickle me. I asked him to stop, but I remember being really quiet about it because I didn't want to wake his parents. He didn't stop, he kept tickling me, he tried to kiss me, he pulled me towards him across the carpet.
I recall feeling scared, but also surprised and uncertain. Calling out to wake his parents wasn't an option, because I knew that would be embarassing - what would I say? What would they do?
It all just felt horribly shameful.
I just wanted it to stop.
Eventually he "let me go" and I walked home in the dark. I remember a sense of relief, a sense of shame, a sense of fear...but I also remember that it didn't even dawn on me until much later that something actually could have happened to me, that I was really, potentially, in a dangerous situation. It felt surreal.
I didn't tell anyone. It didn't seem like there was much to tell because 'nothing happened'.
Years later, in my mid-twenties, I was in a verbally & sexually abusive marriage for four years.
One day my husband raped me.
I didn't want to have sex, I made that clear and he had sex with me by force.
By definition it was rape.
I remember thinking that, even as it was happening.
And when it was over, I had a sense of relief, anger, frustration, disgust, shame...some of it directed at him, some directed at myself.
I don't think I told anyone.
Maybe a friend, but maybe not.
I certainly didn't consider going to the police.
What would I say?
What would they do?
Was I prepared to leave that relationship?
No, not yet, (that was still a couple of years away)...so it just became part of the fabric of my life and my lessons - something that happened that day that I would take as much care as possible to not allow to happen again.
I considered myself then, and consider myself now, a strong and confident woman. This view of myself allowed me to not see the destructive and abusive relationship I was in and to not see myself as someone who would be subjected to situations I was unable to handle. So, I just got on with things.
My stories aren't uncommon or particularly notable.
Ultimately, I'm not as interested in the telling of the stories as I am in the explanation or exploration of what's underneath them.
The first part of that for me is the question of education, discussion, value.
Even though I, instinctually, knew that violations against me felt wrong, that they were scary or dangerous I understood that I was feeling fear and that what was happening was not 'right'. I don't think anyone had ever had really explicit conversations with me about sex, about power, about empowerment, about expectation, about my body, about men, about attraction, about rape - there was so much I didn't know, so much I was trying to figure out during these interactions, so much I was trying to process.
It's almost like the encounters themselves taught me the lessons and only then could I start to understand what to do with them.
It seems really backwards and overwhelming...but also really, really subtle.
In 2011, I started to work on this film INSIDE HER SEX. A huge undertaking, to create a narrative that explores female sexuality and shame in 70 minutes. Part of the reason that this undertaking was so substantial is that I think shame is so subtle and hard to see that to film it is even more daunting.
Recently I've been equating sexual shame to living on a fault line. It runs through us or under us, almost invisible, until the plates shift, something happens and all of a sudden we are shaking, everything is disrupted and the ground below us can't support us any longer.
Part of the problem is that my shame isn't your shame. In fact, I may tell you a story about my shame and you may not even see the shame in my story.
My shame may be about masturbation or orgasm or fantasy, but yours isn't.
You have different shame.
In fact, we run the risk that my view of your shame may result in my casting judgment on you, and vice versa. This idea is well articulated in this commentary piece from today's Toronto Star by Jia Junaid.
So, how do we have these conversations and when do we start?
How do we start to have clear explicit dialogue about our individual issues and preferences and predilictions without fear of judgment or repercussions?
How do we educate children about sexuality and individuality and empowerment and choice?
How do we teach about consent?
On the surface it seems like such a simple concept and, on the surface, it is. If I say yes, it's consentual and we proceed. If I say no, we stop.
But, I have to wonder if it's really so simple? What if we haven't had the education to understand the choices? What if I'm too embarrassed to tell someone that I don't understand what they are asking of me?
What if I don't know the words they are using or haven't had sexual relations before? What if I feel pressured or ashamed? What if things get out of hand and I don't know how to stop them? What if I think saying 'no' will put me in danger?
Ultimately, I think that there is so much secrecy and shame and fear and haziness around sex and sexuality that we are left fumbling in the dark.
I think we owe it to ourselves and our children to have explicit and direct conversations, to have comprehensive sex education programs available for children and adults. Education that goes beyond explanations about how to make babies and where to find fallopian tubes, education that give people tools to understand and explore their own sexuality in a safe way so that when they are faced with situations where they need to gain or provide consent, they know what that means and what their options are.
Until we stop living on a sexual fault line we will always be waiting for the next quake to hit.