Why the little things matter: How small and seemingly harmless nuances lead to greater danger for women

·6 min read
Conversations on sexual violence and accountability continue to shake up communities in Saskatoon. (Mihai Surdu / Shutterstock - image credit)
Conversations on sexual violence and accountability continue to shake up communities in Saskatoon. (Mihai Surdu / Shutterstock - image credit)

This opinion piece was written by Shannon H. Myers, a writer and photographer (Shannon Heather) who grew up in Saskatoon. Myers has worked with many Saskatoon musicians and has maintained ties to the Saskatoon music community. She currently lives in Squamish, B.C.

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Trigger warning for those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

Like many women involved in the Saskatoon music community, I have spent the last few weeks muddling through conflicting emotions as several "me too" accounts have surfaced. Reading these stories has helped me to reconcile my own past experiences and forced me to stop denying their damage.

One thing that is glaringly apparent as I sift through accounts, opinions and memories, is that this is not a black and white issue where people are either guilty or innocent. We are all part of a larger system that contributes to the pervasiveness of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault.

Our actions fall somewhere on a sliding scale. Becoming aware of, understanding and accepting our own contributions are crucial steps toward change.

The first step is recognizing the severity of this issue.

Damage of microaggressions

I'm talking less about the overt damage of a clearly abhorrent trauma and more about the sneaky, insidious, pervasive, everlasting damage of normalizing microaggressions and predatory behaviour.

This damage comes from consistently giving women signals that their worth is in their physique, and that "girls" (infantilizing word) who are "relaxed," "laid back," "chill" and "cool" (read: don't speak up) are the most desirable. It makes women ignore red flags and tells us that such behaviour is not only acceptable, it's what we can expect if we want men in our lives.

These past weeks have forced me to look at the times I have normalized predatory behaviour. This should not be normalized. I can't stress that enough. I see now that these experiences contributed to a false sense of safety in more serious incidents of abuse later on.

What makes all of this especially difficult is that the perpetrators are not strangers or monsters. They are friends, acquaintances and boyfriends. They are our male role models. They have done good things for others.

It's important to understand that a person's ability to do and be "good" does not negate their capacity to inflict damage.

Action (or inaction) that seems minor can have a building and lasting impact.

Trauma continues

My most recent assault was not the first, but it was the most damaging. He was a friend. It was a social setting prior to the pandemic. I thought I was safe. He took advantage of that trust.

The level of violation has had severe physical and mental repercussions for me, including PTSD. The trauma will never fully leave me.

At the time, I would have described him as a "good guy." Some of his friends continue to.

There were times in the past where he made advances, sometimes relentlessly, but I played his behaviour off as harmless because that's what I was taught to do. Shrugging it off as no big deal often feels like the safest thing. We feel empathy when rejecting advances, so we minimize our comfort to make space for theirs at the expense of our safety.

Looking back, I'm sick at how safe I thought I was. There were so many signs of danger.

I have racked my brain, asking how I — a strong woman who loves and respects herself — could have ever allowed this abuse and others. Now, I have clarity. I was trained to allow it.

Survivors of assault often express guilt and shame. These emotions are, in part, why many don't speak up. There is a notion that unless every part of the scenario was forced beyond our control, we "should have" done differently. We should have recognized the danger. We should have been firmer. We should have fought. We should have, we should have.

But we didn't.

The resounding flood of similar stories showcases why. We were taught not to.

I am struck by common threads across women's reactions and inner narratives.

"Am I being too uptight?"

"Do I remember correctly?"

Our internal dialogue has us gaslighting ourselves, on top of the denial and normalizing behaviour we use to minimize trauma to our nervous systems.

It's becoming impossible to ignore how pervasive these traumas are across most of our female friends, and many of our male friends too.

I don't want to live in a world where assault is a guarantee for many. We all have to vow to do better, to do what we can to stop our friends, daughters, sisters, lovers, aunts, nieces, girlfriends and mothers from undergoing the enduring unwanted sexual attention, advances and assault that seem to be a rite of passage to womanhood.

I invite you to pause and reflect on how you may have contributed, in any way, to an imbalance of power and safety.

Do you share or accept jokes that are harmful? Have you observed something and said nothing? Have you accepted anything less than enthusiastic consent? Do you observe when females are outnumbered and make a conscious effort to ensure their comfort?

These are general questions that I think everyone (not just men) should be asking themselves.

Being a woman and a survivor of assault does not exempt me from responsibility. I, too, have caused damage. I have ignored, tolerated, brushed off and accepted behaviour that I should have stood up against. I have stayed silent. I have made excuses for "good guys" when I should have been ensuring the women brave enough to speak up felt heard, supported and validated.

To those I have hurt (directly and indirectly), I am deeply sorry. I am committed to lifelong work to ensure that I am a better ally.

No, "not all men" are transgressors. But it's getting sickeningly close to "all women" who have been transgressed upon. We can't keep believing we are innocent or uninvolved when this affects every woman around us.

To find assistance in your area, visit Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan (https://sassk.ca/resources/) for a list of support services throughout the province.

In Saskatoon, SSAIC operates a 24/7 crisis line in partnership with Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service at 306-244-2224. In Regina, the Regina Sexual Assault Centre operates a crisis and information line 306-352-0434 or toll free: 1-844-952-0434.

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