I’m in a student lounge on Toronto’s Ryerson University campus, surrounded by women and girls whose strength leaves me somewhere between tears and bursts of joy. I do my best to keep both responses at bay for the duration of the event.
To top off Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Grrrl Justice, Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multiracial Women Against Rape (TRCC/MWAR) and Empowering Ourselves TO teamed up to mob Yonge & Dundas with some TLC-fuelled flash.
Fifteen minutes before the planned exodus, those dancing do a quick refresher of the routine to the 1999 classic ‘No Scrubs.’ At the head of the room leading choreography is Eli Adhloch-Shewell, age 17 and one of the founding members of Grrrl Justice. Borne of a high school course in social justice and equity in 2016 for the purpose of putting theory into practice, Grrrl Justice makes up a good portion of this second annual flashmob.
I meet with some of the younger members of the larger ensemble.
Emerson, 7, tells me about how she’s learning about trusting herself and her body.
Paulina, 8, has learned the importance of believing and supporting survivors in our communities, that ‘no’ means ‘no’ and that she has the right to decide to whom she gives permission to touch her.
The lessons these kids are already learning are vastly different from the ‘stranger danger’ narrative of childhoods past – something which will go a long way to combat the oversold trope of the rapist in the alley.
deb singh is a counsellor, advocate and activist at TRCC/MWAR. She’s happy to be part of an event that combines play with a difficult topic that remains taboo in 2017.
“Here’s an opportunity for us to play and be playful, dance and create awareness and do something that actually creates endorphins all at the same time,” deb says.
“I’m kind of scared.”
“Me too,” I overhear teenaged voices behind me as we begin the walk from Gould St. to the square.
My heart slams into worst case scenarios. I feel a Mama Bear response that is definitely not in my wheelhouse.
Please don’t catcall them. Please don’t catcall them. Not today. Not these sweet baby angels. Don’t rear your ugly face, Toronto.
I try to remember how old I was when I first felt the sting of being objectified.
When did I first realize what it meant to move around this world in a female-read body?
I sift through memories, but they bleed together into an amorphous blob of gender-based sexualized violence.
I remember the rough stats on rape in Canada. I do the math in my head. Already more than one of them has learned this lesson the really, really hard way.
As the group nears the intersection, I panic again.
No no no not the yelly preacher man with the headset.
Praise that guy’s Lord, he’s not in attendance.
In the end, there are only a few glitches with guys not quite understanding general personal space. The dance and march, accompanied by badass samba band, go off without a hitch. I melt into the comforting sounds of the whistles and chants.
My heart fills.
Intersectionality is growing roots.
It would be easy to dismiss the message after a superficial glance at these marchers. The group is peppered with pink wigs and some tutus and some sport glitter paint, others don flower crowns. Others opt for no accoutrements whatsoever. But the throwback to third wave feminist imagery does not do justice to the nuanced feminism this younger bunch embraces. Despite a uniform of matching tees, there’s no real ‘typical’ member here.
The band’s drums are emblazoned with construction paper commentary: “No Pride In Policing” and “Black Lives Matter.” Wary of the potential of people seeing her group as coming from a place of privilege, Eli stresses to me the openness of the group. “We need a diverse set of voices to be able to run.”
When she tells me matter-of-factly that transwomen are women, I find myself internally yelling “Fuck yes they are!” To her, this is a basic non-negotiable tenet. To me, this is something that didn’t enter the consciousness of enough feminist movements 10 years ago and is still fought tooth and nail for when dealing with the ever-present trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs).
There are a lot of moving parts to eliminate sexual violence.
With lovely son Adli in her lap, deb tells me of her hopes for a sexual violence-free society when he grows up. “I hope things shift from a rape culture to a consent culture.” She points out that a lot of change will come from the dismantling of the structures of patriarchy, misogyny, transphobia and other forms of oppression that uphold rape culture and allow it to thrive and persist.
Karen, who jokes that she is a fixture at TRCC gives me her reflections on twenty years of sexual assault advocacy. She outlines a three-pronged approach to change in this field — direct action and education to change culture on a grander scale, legislative changes, and judicial reform.
“I think judges have to be better educated on the issue of sexual assault. I think that legislative changes have to happen,” Karen says.
She emphasizes the importance of legislative changes — including clearer guidelines for defense counsel, and revised definitions that “incorporate the experience of sexual assaults and what they call domestic violence.”
Things are changing, albeit slowly.
I have to wonder if Karen isn’t a tad clairvoyant, as just this week the Justice Minister announced forthcoming changes to the Criminal Code and “rape shield” laws that will change what can be brought in as evidence. It also redefines ‘consent’ for the purpose of sexual assault offences and adds the fact that unconscious people cannot consent – I’m unable to gauge how surprised I am that it wasn’t there before.
Before these changes were announced, Karen tells me one thing she has noticed changing within the court system — namely that Crown counsel have started to be receptive to incorporating survivors’ experiences. For context, it’s worth noting that within our Criminal Code, survivors of assault are considered witnesses. “[Crown attorneys] are more open to taking the experience of assaulted women and giving them a space of to speak…
“Years ago, it was unheard for a Crown to talk to a witness, because you are only a witness. They didn’t usually talk to them. And then it was a two-second, ‘Glad you’re here.’ Crowns are taking more opportunity to speak to witnesses, to give them a more responsive approach to the criminal justice system,” Karen says and highlights the growth of victim services programs as a source of improved circumstances.
deb adds that university-based rape centres are doing well with education programs that deal with bystander inaction in places that have previously not been the focus: university classes, bars, parties.
“That was awesome!” The youthful voices are back in earshot.
Yes, it damn sure was.
For days after, I felt a sense of renewed energy and inspiration, with my new favourite chant on repeat in my head.
Who’s the boss of my body? I am!
Who’s the boss of my body? I am!
My body, My business!
I think of a few of my friends in their varied branches of activism, mostly burnt out and weighed down with a heavy dose of well-justified cynicism. But if Eli and her cohort are indicative of the future of feminism, we’re all going to be just fine.
Faryn Quinn likes a nice smooth cocktail, bulldogs, mid-20th century flashback dramas — oh, that’s not what we’re doing? Well then. Faryn was destined to be NASTY from a young age, with such ominous report card comments as ‘Faryn is our resident feminist’ in senior kindergarten and later on ‘Faryn is an ÜBER-FEMINIST’ (underlined and all caps verbatim) in grade nine. She now lives in downtown Toronto with her main squeeze, a fat little Frenchie named Sgt. Pepper, and a teeny herb garden where she’s figuring out the ins and outs of being a newly-minted cripple.