Here are two sobering and real stories about young women in Halifax, NS.
A couple of years ago, at a Christmas party in a small academic department at a university in Halifax, someone slipped a date-rape drug into one woman student’s drink. Suddenly the woman felt dizzy and sick; through her haze, she guessed what had happened. Shakily, she took out her cell phone and began to document how she felt –- as a way to focus; she hoped she would not pass out. She somehow remembered that she still had a key to a small office in the building. Somehow that night she made it down the hall, and down the stairs. On her phone, she kept note of anything she could remember, any man who asked to help her, any man who tried to befriend her or any man who followed her from the party. She finally made it to the room, and locked the door behind her. There she must have passed out. Hours later, she awoke on the floor. She was relieved at the thought she had not been sexually assaulted or raped. She knew it because she had kept the diary on her smart phone. Her last entry had been at midnight, just after she had arrived in the safe room, and had locked the door.
A few days later, she went to the university administration and demanded to find out who had spiked her drink. The administration made a small effort to find the culprit or culprits. Within a couple of days the administration reported that none of her classmates at the party had admitted to spiking her drink; no one had come forward. But the party had been a small one, with no faculty members present. The university’s response was at first tentative, then muddled and finally resigned to dropping the investigation. Halifax had a sexual assault centre, but the student felt that since she did not think she had been sexually assaulted, there was no point reporting. She did not know if there was a feminist group in town. Somehow she forced herself to return to classes, knowing that someone in one of them, someone she knew, had drugged her with the intention of raping her. She waited out the next four months. She was a good student, who graduated near the top of her class. As another woman said, “She was brilliant; she figured out a way so they couldn’t rape her.” After graduation, the young woman left the city, and has not returned.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning…
Just before Covid hit, on a Saturday night, a party of young women was drinking at a downtown Halifax bar. One of the women remembers nothing of the evening. She knows only that she woke up on a bed in a strange room in the daytime. She was alone. Her jacket, her skirt and her underwear had been tossed on the floor. In a panic she looked out the window – and guessed she was in a hotel room. Terrified, she put on her clothes, grabbed her purse and ran out of the room to the hotel lobby. Through tears she phoned a friend to pick her up.
The friend had been worried when she did not return to their apartment that night—but reasoned that maybe she had stayed over with a friend with whom she went to the bar. The young woman and her driver friend went to the hospital. The nurses there confirmed she had been sexually assaulted—probably by more than one attacker.
The woman’s drink had been spiked. Someone had taken her to a hotel room. She probably couldn’t stand, so someone had to have propped her up and almost dragged her to the room. Every major hotel these days has cameras – in the lobby, in the elevators and in the hallways. Every major hotel rents rooms only to those with credit cards who can also show photo ID. It is possible to find out who did this. It is likely that the bartender or waiter was involved—after all someone must have advised her three women friends that she was sick and going home earlier, on her own. Or something like that — otherwise wouldn’t her friends have wondered where she had gone? No one will ever know the answers or ask the questions — the young woman refused to go to the police.
‘They Walk Among Us’
Fast forward to this week’s episode of the British true crime podcast, They Walk Among Us. episode 33 focuses on a young man in Manchester who raped more than 200 men in a year or two. He went to pubs, or hung around outside of them. He saw men who seemed alone, or separated from their friends, or standing outside smoking. He befriended any tall, good looking muscular man and invited him to his nearby flat for a nightcap. The man was often so drunk he agreed to the offer of a quiet place to lie down for a while, or a chance to use a phone to call a taxi. Once inside, the slightly-built friendly young host offered the visitor another drink. The host laced it with GHB. Within minutes the visitor had passed out on the floor; the young man used his phone to video his rape of the victim. The next morning, the victim seldom remembered any of this; so no one went to the police. When some victims remembered waking up in someone else’s apartment, they often apologized to their host for crashing at the stranger’s house overnight.
At trial, the culprit insisted the victims had given consent. What’s more he claimed he took the videos for himself only – he never distributed the videos or uploaded them to the web. He denied all the rapes and in so doing, forced the Crown to prosecute each of the hundreds of crimes individually. The British police and the courts went mad over this case. They were incensed because of the emotional harm and grief the court cases caused the victims. Experts testified about how horrible this had been for the men. Some of the men remembered going to the flat, and nothing more. Others didn’t even remember that. Many victims simply did not recognize the rapist who was sitting in the dock. Out of despair, one victim had tried to take his own life; others had their relationships end; some became so despondent and sick, they lost their jobs.
Women’s Lives as Collateral Damage
This was the collateral damage that happened when men suffered the indignity of rape and abuse by a stranger. Women suffer this all the time. And worse. Statistics Canada tells us that 30% of women versus 8% of men have been sexually assaulted. For women it isn’t a one time rape by a stranger. A chart in the article reveals that while more than 22% of the men said they were not at all impacted by the sexual assault, only 2% of women said the same. Assault or abuse happen over and over again in many women’s lives. Their fear is genuine; women’s antennae are out – the fear of sexual assault and/or abuse is in the back of most women’s minds. They think about it when they go downtown for a drink;, when they are on an elevator or hallway in a hotel, or when someone they don’t like likes them.
Rape and abuse often set women up for abusive relationships, and violence in their marriages. Assault and abuse set women up for being bullied and terrorized at work. In my advocacy work in Equity Watch NS– an organization dedicated to fighting bullying, harassment and discrimination at work — I’ve found that most of the women who have faced serious bullying at work have been victims of sexual abuse, or sexual assault years – or decades — prior.
Most women’s previous assaults and abuses are never far from colouring their experience of the world decades later. A man has an “incident” – one bad man rapes another man when he was drunk, after he stumbles home with a stranger. It’s unusual, and it’s criminal.
But women are assaulted or raped often a handful of times over a lifetime. Some have to flee violence in their own homes. They have to take their children and hide – in a shelter, or escape to another town or city just to be safe. How is it that we have so little regard for women’s experiences that we allow our governments to squeeze these crucial necessary shelters.
Equity Watch is watching…
How is it that women have to walk away from jobs – or even careers –because of harassment, bullying and threats. Equity Watch has seen dozens of cases of women pursued by, harassed by, demeaned, threatened or humiliated by men either singly or in groups. Women in non-traditional occupations such as firefighters, or police, or prison guards stand out in our caseload. But also women who are secretaries, IT specialists, and health professionals – they too have been bullied or harassed to the breaking point. Their only option is to quit their jobs or go on short-term, then long-term, disability (if they are fortunate that their employer has such benefits — most don’t.) They cannot return to work with men (and occasionally women) who have physically or emotionally scarred them. If women are forced to take another job, it is often a less secure job at a fraction of their former pay.
Many have said that the Pandemic has resulted in a she-cession. Tens of thousands of womens’ jobs have been lost because the hospitality, retail and service sectors (which tend to employ women) have been decimated. But on top of that, women face financial ruin because the workplace itself is often a poisoned environment.
The rapist in the podcast They Walk Among Us was convicted (mainly on the basis of the video evidence, as the men did not want to testify in open court). He received a 30-year prison sentence, which the crown appealed. Ultimately, he got a 40-year sentence. The culprits who prey on women, the everyday sexual harassers, the bullies, usually keep their jobs, and even get promoted. A case in point is the well-known case of Liane Tessier. Tessier, a Halifax firefighter, was harassed, threatened and demeaned for years by supervisors and colleagues in the fire service. In 2007 she filed a complaint with the NS Human Rights Commission that she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender. First the Commission rejected her complaint, so she had to appeal their decision to the Court of Appeal. The Court forced the NS Human Rights Commission to re-visit her complaint. It wasn’t until 10 years later – in 2017 – that an investigation found in her favour. The NS Human Rights Commission has not done a good job in fighting against gender discrimination. To read more, see Equity Watch’s critique Justice Impeded: a Critique of the NS Human Rights Regime here. Though eventually, her complaint was upheld, Tessier never could work for the Fire service again. So she had to give up a career she was good at and a career she loved. She gave the employer and the Human Rights Commission a list of the bullies and harassers – but to the best of her knowledge not one was disciplined. In fact most had been promoted! And Tessier was not the only one. Other women in the Halifax Fire service came forward and their complaints went unheard and unaddressed.
Where is a woman to turn? And how can it be just that it is women, and people of colour who suffer bullying which leads them to lives of unemployment, or underemployment and misery. It also leads them to lives of poverty.
In Tessier’s case, she found other work in a male-dominated occupation because those occupations tend to pay much higher than typical women’s occupations. At her new job, she was also harassed and bullied. Her struggle continues.
Yet few men’s struggles continue. Few men are plunged into poverty because they can no longer cope with the harassment and bullying in the workplace. The other day was Pink Shirt Day — aside from companies and governments trying to feel good about flying the flag against bullying — what are they really doing? We all know the answer — Not much.
Featured image: Sexual Assault: The Roadshow, photo credit: Leah Sandals. This is a shipping container with artifacts, art and stories about sexual assault against women. It was first first set up as an exhibit in downtown Toronto by author Jane Doe and Lillian Allen, a Black dub poet. Between 2016-2018 the exhibit moved to 15 Ontario towns or cities. Read more about Canadian author, Jane Doe. Her book is worth reading: The Story of Jane Doe: A Book about Rape (2004).