40 Minutes that Changed My Life
Artwork by Erin McPhee
During the fall of 2014 a large scandal broke around Jian Gomeshi’s assault of multiple women. There was talk of consent and abuse everywhere I went, from class to dinner and radios to social media - the subject was unavoidable. It was during the week this scandal broke that I ended up in an isolated part of High Park alone with a guy I thought was trustworthy - he wasn’t.
We’d gone to school together until halfway through sophomore year when he switched schools due to an unknown reason. He’d dated a girl I knew and we’d run in similar circles, although never interacting much ourselves. If there was one thing I knew for certain it was how nice he was - I probably heard it a thousand times from every person I knew.
We talked on Facebook for a few months – starting in the summer - but never met up in person. He was nice, funny and we seemed to get along well. The lines were always blurred though, at least for me; was this simply friendship or something more? It was inevitable that we would eventually have to meet up to see what was there and after nearly three months of talking I figured now was as good a time as any.
One day, we made plans to hang out after school. I was excited, but most of all I was nervous because I wasn’t sure what to think about the whole event. I asked him what he wanted to do, expecting something like “coffee” or “lets go for a nice walk through the park”; instead he wanted me to smoke with him. Of course I had reservations, but as usual I didn’t act on them. Smoking weed with friends on the weekend or during a party made sense but just for kicks on a school night? It wasn’t exactly my idea of fun; yet, I went along with it anyway.
I figured us going out was more than just a casual hangout and I was okay with that. I mean, after three months of flirting online I wasn’t opposed to the idea of something happening. Seeing as we didn’t know each other that well, I expected us to simply hang out, chat, and at most make out. Then I’d go home and gush to my friends about it, hoping for another date.
The day of the much-anticipated meet up went much like any another - despite my extra nerves about what would happen after the 2:40 bell. When it was finally time to meet him I walked up towards the subway with my friends - struggling to hide my nerves. To start he showed up late - not only late but rude as well, which was a shock considering how nice he’d been the previous times I’d met him. He ignored my friends who’d waited with me so nicely, whom he’d known when they tried to say hello. When we’d started walking down the street towards the park he ignored almost everything I tried to stay to him - only wanting to discuss how he’d gotten “so high” before meeting up with me. This was not the making of a great day in my opinion.
“Did you smoke?” I asked nervously. I hadn’t really expected him to be the type of person to show up to hangout high out of his mind - I’d been wrong.
“I did poppers.” This is a mixture of weed and tobacco and its sole purpose is to get an intense head rush. My stomach clenched nervously and suddenly I had no idea what had I gotten myself into. Here I was, thinking there’d just be some small joint I could take two puffs from and head home in a few hours - sober enough to finish my evening’s homework. I’d been mistaken. The walk down to the High Park was awkward, tense, and horribly uncomfortable. In its duration he was rude, unresponsive, and in a span of only ten minutes he had managed to belittle me for not showing up to school under the influence. It was at this point when I felt that something was off and immediately texted my friend, “This is so uncomfortable, it is awful.” Little did I know, how awful things were really going to get.
He tried to force me to smoke some of his poppers and I refused relentlessly until it seemed easier to just say yes than no again. Clearly, the word “No” didn’t seem to mean anything to him. What followed were forty minutes of uncomfortable laughter, unwanted advances, and disgust, which would change my life forever. When he made it clear he wanted me to kiss him I was no longer as willing as I’d felt before the date. I expected to find a happy, friendly, kind guy at the subway station and instead found a removed and rude jerk. Making out with him wasn’t appealing, but I did it anyway. Despite feeling uncomfortable, I put him ahead of myself and thought it’d be rude to say no. I mean, I’d led him on to believe I was in on the whole thing, didn’t I?
Afterwards I thought, “Okay, making out is not so bad, I’m fine. I can just kiss him a few more times and then go home and never see this guy again.” Before I knew it, he got me on his lap and unexpectedly stuck his hand up my shirt. No one had ever done that to me before. My heart was pounding and I was trying everything from rambling on so he wouldn’t try to kiss me again to shifting my position so he might take his hands out from under my shirt - nothing worked, all of the signals I sent appeared to be completely off his radar. He continued whispering in my ear, coaxing me to tell him I was having a good time.
“You’re having fun aren’t you?” When I remained silent, not wanting to tell him the truth, he continued asking the question until I finally gave him a half-hearted, “Yes.” I even tried pointing out that what he was doing was uncomfortable – seeing as we were in the middle of a public park - but of course, he disregarded everything I was saying.
“I have to leave,” I finally said, unable to bear anymore after fifteen minutes of me staring over his shoulder with a horrified expression, wanting desperately for someone to come and save me. Even in my escape I played nice, I thought anything else might be rude or prudish. I repeated to him over and over that I had to leave but it was no use. When I finally moved to stand up he pulled me back and insisted I stay for “two more minutes” with him. “No,” I repeated. I had to leave - I didn’t have two minutes, I was nauseous and the longer I spent the worse I felt. Sadly he still didn’t budge. I wanted the hell out of there and so I did what I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to; I kissed him once more. I gagged as we pulled away; I wanted to puke. I gathered my things and let him walk me back to the subway – despite wanting to run far, far away from him, I still didn’t have the stomach to leave a bad impression. It was wrong to be rude to someone, wasn’t it?
I had never felt so disgusting in my life. I spent the ten-minute bus ride home fighting back tears. I could still taste him in my mouth. My friends all texted me excitedly, “How did it go!?” It felt painful to even think about explaining it to them. How could I? I felt like a horrible cliché, another girl doesn’t have the courage to say no kind of story.
What the hell had happened? My fingers shook, my head was spinning, and my stomach unsettled, I felt ready to be sick at any moment. I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. Was that a date? Was that just me being uninterested? Was that normal? The words sexual assault did not even come into my mind. I got off the bus and walked up the street towards my house, calling my best friend. She would understand, I decided, she’d be able to make sense of what I couldn’t.
“That is sexual assault,” she told me sternly after a long explanation of the day. “He sexually assaulted you, Natalya.” I sat in the alleyway behind my house in the cold November evening and sobbed to her on the phone for thirty minutes because I couldn’t go inside and look my parents in the eyes. Heck, I could barely move, my every bone was frozen with disgust and self-pity - I felt pathetic. I was just another number, added to the pile of the thousands of women who had been assaulted before me. There was nothing unique to my case.
I came to school the next morning feeling like a shadow of the person I’d been, after a long night of tears. I walked down the hallway to my locker, my eyes dead and my shoulders slack. Gone were the days I held my head high. My friend was standing at my locker, she wrapped her arms around me without any encouragement and I broke down. I cried all the way to our second period class. Then my teacher passed around a newspaper article we’d be talking about that day, “Why Sexual Assault Victims Don’t Come Forward.” I sat in the second last row, staring down at the paper with tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t say a word despite having my friends try to get me out of my seat and into the hall. I couldn’t get myself to move, I didn’t want to breath, I just wanted to lay right there and never stand up again.
I was one of those women now. I’d joined the throngs of them, one of the many too afraid to come forward and call out their abuser. I didn’t even blame him yet. I just sat there feeling guilty. It was my fault I never said no, it was my fault I’d led him on, It was my fault I was stuck in the middle of my law class crying. Finally they got me out of the chair and outside where I stayed for the rest of class.
I was lucky to have a good teacher. She was warm, kind and always open to listening when one of us was upset. I began to explain to her what had happened, not realizing teachers were obligated to report these events. She stopped me before I could tell her too much - I’d barely gotten a sentence out. She called the Vice-Principal to try and clarify the protocol for this type of situation - how much could I tell her before she had to notify police? Sadly with just the slightest hint that there had been some type of sexual assault the Vice Principal called the police anyway. My life had become a nightmare. In less than twenty-four hours I’d been sexually assaulted, cried more than I ever thought possible and the police were now involved.
They sat me alone in a cramped room with a cold, unsympathetic middle-aged sergeant and a social worker I’d never seen before. It was like something you read about but never imagined happening in your own life. He forced me to tell him what had happened after I explained multiple times I didn’t want to. The social worker, meant to be there to help me, sat quietly the whole time allowing the exchange to continue at my expense. They treated me like an idiot, made me feel smaller than I already did, and took away what little power remained with me. The sergeant was sure to tell me if I wasn’t going to give him the guy’s name it was my fault should anyone else be hurt by him as I cried recounting the events which had shook me.
Then they sent a female officer in to write the report - after I told them once again I really didn’t want to give them one. After sharing my story she told me sometimes when girls like boys they say no when they try to kiss them but they really mean yes. She told me I’d never win if I charged him. She told me she wasn’t sure if I actually was assaulted. Here the police were - in the middle of the Jian Gomeshi scandal - a scandal in which it was made clear women felt uncomfortable coming forward, and they were victim blaming me. “Oh he was high he might not have known what he was doing.” There I sat afraid and filled with fear. But it’s okay he hadn’t known what he was doing.
My story is not unique. It’s happens to thousands of women some older some younger than me. I don’t think my story is important because it’s special I think it’s important because it’s not. Too many women and girls face exactly what I did – many far worse. So often we just look at sexual assault as this horrible thing that many women will face in their lifetime but what about looking at how we can stop it? Women are taught to be quiet, polite, and sweet. We are not always taught that our bodies are our own or that when we feel the slightest bit uncomfortable we should hold no reservations in screaming, “Hey! Get the hell off of me!” I grew up being taught that I should always be polite and never cause a scene, maybe this, in some subconscious way, was why it was so hard for me to say no, or tell my abuser that what he was doing made me uncomfortable and I wanted to leave.
Instead of being angry with the guy who’d made me feel so small and powerless I was instead found feeling sorry for him and responsible for the whole situation that had taken place. Was it really all my fault just because I’d never had the courage to say no? Couldn’t he see from my constant attempts to pull away from him, clear uncomfortable mannerisms, and desperation to leave, that I was not having fun? This guilt was made no better by my encounters with the police. I was a sixteen-year-old girl and there sat an abusive sergeant treating me like I had committed the sexual assault myself. My abuser was someone I knew so I refused to give his name because I felt partially responsible and because I feared what would happen to me. I don’t feel responsible anymore, with time I realized what a ridiculous notion that was, but the fear of the aftermath of giving someone’s name is no light matter. I wasn’t sexually assaulted by a famous person who could hire a good lawyer and beat me in court or with fans to degrade and tear me apart online. I was just assaulted by someone with the power to slut shame and have others around me attack me for speaking up.
I don’t want to be just another number. I don’t want this one bad experience to define me for the rest of my life like I feared it would. I want my voice to join the likes of all the other strong women who have spoken up and to help speak for and uplift those who haven’t.
Sexual assault cannot be kept quiet any longer. Police cannot treat victims the way I was treated anymore; a stop needs to be put to this. The statistic that one in four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime should not be one we just continue to live with; it should be one we change. If you are a victim of sexual assault and read this I want you to know I am proud of you, despite what anyone has told you or made you feel, you wake up every morning and despite this horrible thing which has happened to you continue on despite it. If that’s not strength I don’t know what is.