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Pretend it doesn’t exist

I was reading Raincoaster’s story about her experience with Robert Pickton (if you’re not from around Vancouver, the dude’s a serial killer) tonight with great interest. Strangely this is only one of several stories I’ve heard from people recently about their altercations (luckily with no result) with serial killers, which kind of contradicts my view of the Lower Mainland being a safe and wonderful place.

I remember seeing flyers up, sometime in the 90s, showing pictures of missing prostitutes and complaining that the police were turning a blind eye because they were prostitutes. I don’t remember exactly when that was, but it was many years between that and my first hearing about Pickton, so God knows what damage was incurred because nobody in authority wanted to pay attention at first.

If some prostitutes came forward with accusations of rape and torture, and the police ignored them, I don’t think it was just because of the women’s career path, but also because people of authority want to pretend that everything’s okay when it comes to sexual assault. Pretend it doesn’t exist, and it magically disappears, right?

When I was in high school, there was this dirty old man gym teacher. He was Czech or something like that, and had a thick accent, and was old but hard and wiry. And he had a reputation for touching the girls. I got him in Grade 10, and I had already been warned of him, though thankfully he seemed not to find me attractive enough.

I don’t know if it ever got beyond him “correcting our posture” and “demonstrating the exercise” in front of the class and with his hands on the girl’s torso. But it gave a lot of girls the creeps, to the point that I remember some of them hiding behind the group, keeping their distance from him, and refusing to do anything which put them within reach.

Time and time again, for who knows how many years, girls would go to the school counselors and complain that Mr. S. was giving them the No Feeling, because we were all taught in elementary school to go and report that sort of thing. And the counselors would go to Mr. S. and tell him to stop touching the girls, which would result in him continuing to touch the girls, but saying at the same time he was touching them that he was only doing so for the class demonstration. Because saying that makes it true, and makes it okay. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…

I remember at the time thinking the girls were overreacting a little, probably because I wasn’t one of them. It turned out I was oblivious to similar behaviour years later in Air Cadets. But I’ve carried this memory of that gym class the second half of my life, as a joke to tell during road trips. And it’s only dawned on me recently how utterly stupid and wrong it was that we girls were forced to have this guy as our teacher, and that his antics were considered a slight embarrassment but otherwise harmless. Then again, my high school was all about its reputation, so if they pretended it didn’t exist, it magically disappeared.

I don’t want to equate a dirty old gym teacher with a mass murderer, or the experiences between the women involved, but the situations have some basic similarities. The female goes to the person in charge and tells them she’s been hurt and she’s scared of some man; and the authority figure does nothing. So the female is taught that there’s no point in reporting anything, because nobody will take her seriously. Or worse, if young enough, she might believe the person telling her that she was overreacting, and from then on will question her own intuition when bad situations come along in the future.

And all this, after the female spent most of elementary school being taught via hand puppets and videotapes and ABC Afternoon Specials that you should always go to an adult you trust when anyone touches you where they shouldn’t. The teachers meant well, but they forgot to send the memo to the rest of society. Anyone for a glass of mixed message?

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, now that I’m at the end of it. I guess I have some latent anger about situations where “adults” promised to be there, and weren’t. And I worry about the damage such situations have put on the women, physically or emotionally, either directly from the trauma or from the message the authority figure gave them. I’m glad for my friends who escaped from “bad men”, and I’m glad that most of my childhood traumas were minor (and boring) in comparison. But maybe all of us were in some way damaged, in learning the futility in reporting such things to the authorities. And we pretend it doesn’t exist.


  1. raincoaster says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    Since I made that post yesterday, many people have shared their stories with me via comments, Twitter, in person, and with email. We are born with a great gift, the gift of intuition, and I learned then that it’s something I should listen to more than I did. If only one person were inspired to follow their instincts and protect themselves because of the stories, at least some good will have come of our experiences.

  2. Lynn Harrington says:

    This blog reminds me of the thousands of boys and girls who were abused by Priests, the kids often reported it but were downplayed or ignored. Some were even slapped by a parent for telling what had happened.
    A Doctor in my hometown sexually abused boys for decades, was charged a few times but never went to prison. Denial, denial denial, male-dominated institutions, men backing-up men, and so on.
    Girls should not have a male gym teacher anyway, that is bizarre.

  3. Garth says:

    Lynn, I have to disagree with you here and say the problem is not “male-dominated institutions” and “men backing up men.” Those kinds of claims are not accurate and only serve to polarize the debate into a useless men-vs-women argument.

    The fact is that the vast majority of men and women are perfectly respectable people who would be disgusted by actions such the ones we are describing. A small percentage of men and women are mentally ill in some way and pursue such experiences.

    There are a large number of factors that contribute to things like this happening. In the case of doctors it includes the level of respect given them, and the fact that much of their work is done 1-on-1. For teachers, union protection of deviant teachers is a big factor. For prostitutes in East Vancouver, the fact that so many of them are transient, and sick and dying of other causes makes it difficult to keep track of them. Denial and apathy also plays a role.

    And I ask ask you, why is it bizarre that girls can have a male gym teacher? Do you think that men are so fundamentally flawed that they are incapable of teaching gym without succumbing to some horrible urge? If so I am sorry.

  4. Gillian says:

    I had at least one other male gym teacher in high school, and this guy was the only problem. It’s horrid that we were forced to deal with him, but he definitely wasn’t representative of the others. It’s not like they had to follow us into the changerooms or anything.

    We had female counselors and a female vice-principle in our school, and the gym teacher still kept his job. It wasn’t for lack of women in charge.

    Part of the problem with the Pickton murders taking so long to come to life, I think, was the logical fallacy people make when those of “lesser” authority/morals make accusations and statements and their statements are judged on the speaker’s character alone. I.e. a stoned prostitute says X, so X must be false.

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