The Cities Men Don’t See, part 2

This was going to be a kind of dry impersonal piece on gender, race, and transit, but since my last post, things have changed a bit.

Most recently, there has been a string of sexual assaults across the city. Many women are afraid to go out alone. In my circle of politically active women friends, we’ve been meeting and talking among ourselves about dealing with sexual harassment and assault. Several have organized block parties after the upcoming Take Back the Night, with the aim of creating those “eyes on the street” that I talked about in my previous post on nightspace.

So, as your resident killjoy, in advance of #TBTB and TBTN, I’m going to talk about why nightspace is not the only—or most—dangerous space, and why truly transformative work requires some heavy self-criticism.

The war at home

The most infuriating part of our public discussions has been the reaction from many well-meaning people (nearly all men). Every time we speak out, there’s this chorus of “But we’re not all like that” and “Ignore him and he’ll go away” and “Don’t dress like a whore” and “Aren’t we even allowed to talk about what a woman can do to make herself less of an easy target?” and “What does ‘rape’ even mean nowadays?”

Most men have difficulty with the simple fact that when it comes to coping with systemic violence against women, their opinion, right or wrong, is irrelevant[note]. So in addition to keeping ourselves safe we must also pour our energy into validating the feelings of “progressive” men who require constant reassurance that we don’t mean them.

But I do mean them, and that’s the problem. By and large, the men who stalk, harass, abuse, and assault us are not monsters, or mentally ill, or even strangers. They are respected community members, charismatic guys, philanthropists, hardworking fathers, trusted friends…It’s easy to deal with random outsider creeps. Much, much harder when it’s one of us, a popular guy or a pillar of the community. Confronting a perpetrator who is an insider often means risking one’s social cachet, connections, professional reputation. Based on admittedly anecdotal evidence, the victim is not believed. They are obliged to ostracize themselves. It’s safer to keep it on the DL, take a newcomer aside and say privately, “Watch out for that guy.”

Any given man is probably not going to hurt you. But if he does, he will probably face no consequences for his actions. He may not even know he’s done anything wrong. This scares the shit out of me. I tell men this and they look at me like I’ve got two heads.

And so many men have no. fucking. clue. Never mind how long women have been writing and speaking and demonstrating about this…never mind the many well-known instances of mass rape as a weapon of war…never mind the sex abuse scandals…never mind that it’s the twenty-first century and you can read for yourself women exhaustively documenting and discussing daily experience of sexual intimidation…never mind that they could just ask the women in their lives, if they trust them enough…

Men need to step up and stop pretending that rape and abuse are something that other people do.

Women qua women

Christ, I’m sick of having to write this, I’ve read this kind of thing a zillion times. Look—telling people to hang out in public, a police presence in neighbourhoods like Kensington, that’s great, but tell that to black youth in public housing projects or trans women sex workers in the gay village or panhandlers in the downtown core or mentally ill people or anyone else who is widely considered inappropriate or dangerous in public and has good reason to be wary of police.

To be just a woman, to organize for women qua women, is a luxury and a limit. The typical objection is that no movement can be everything to everyone. But often the solutions offered by women-qua-women organizers are not just partial; they are actively alienating or even hostile to the more complicated, inconvenient sorts of women. See, for example, how some women of colour have critiqued Toronto’s own Slutwalk.

Anti-VAW strategies that only address our womanness and elide our class or sexuality or race run the risk of benefiting the — you know what, I’ve been trying for at least a quarter hour to finish this sentence and I just can’t make myself do it. These ideas are hardly new and have been explained by better thinkers than me.

What I said about men and violence against women goes also for organizers who don’t feel comfortable dealing with race or gender identity or whatever. The solution is not to go ahead and organize without acknowledging it, or (perhaps worse) with a token acknowledgement (“We recognize that we cannot speak for x women but…”). If we don’t feel quite suitable for a leadership role because we don’t represent the women we speak for, we need to step back, seek out and support the women who do.

With this in mind, after Take Back the Block, let’s work not only to keep each other safe, but to continually avoid the path of least resistance.

In love and solidarity,


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