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Leah McLaren
Leah McLaren

Women shouldn’t have to wait years for sexual offenders to apologize Add to ...

When I was in my early twenties and a contract employee at The Globe, I went to a staff Christmas party hosted by my boss. I was standing in the crowded kitchen, chatting with a bunch of jolly, drink-flushed senior journalists, when I felt a hand slip up the back of my skirt and fondle my bottom. I moved away but the hand followed. At first I assumed it was my boyfriend, but then I realized it wasn’t and the blood drained from head. I turned around to face a colleague. He was swaying, obviously drunk, but managed to meet my eye. His face was utterly blank. Back in the office on Monday, it was as if nothing had happened. We never spoke of it.

For years, as most women do, I’ve racked my brain to figure out why I failed to react in that moment. Why didn’t I shout or hiss or just wind up and smack him? Why did I stand there like a frozen idiot, listening to the senior journalists joking while my colleague, unbeknownst to everyone but the two of us, brought new meaning to the word “handling editor”?

The answer is easy; I didn’t want to make a fuss. I didn’t want to become that girl, the one people gossip about in the cafeteria line, which I undoubtedly would have been if I’d filed an official complaint. But looking back on it now, I can’t help but marvel at the misery of those two choices: Either stay silent or point a finger and accept a starring role in the newsroom scandal of the year. The system seemed broken somehow. What did I stand to gain?

He was a respected editor who was older and more experienced than me. Managers at the paper admired his skill and story sense and I had been explicitly instructed to let him take me “under his wing.” For the most part, he was a thoughtful and thorough editor.

I, on the other hand, was a contract employee, anxious to prove myself and desperate for a full-time job. I felt I needed my editor’s approval for both. The thought of getting bogged down in some sort of drawn-out complaints process before I’d even been offered a real job was unattractive. I’d seen what happened to women who went down that road and I wasn’t prepared to be one of them. It was, now that I look back on it, a depressingly familiar story.

I wasn’t traumatized, but the whole thing bugged me. It bugged me that I’d said nothing. It bugged me that he got away with it. It bugged me that he had lots of interesting, liberal female friends who clearly thought he was a sensitive, thoughtful guy. And in many ways he was – just not in every context. It bugged me, but did I think he deserved to be frog-marched out of the building with his belongings in a cardboard box? That seemed a bit extreme. And so I kept my mouth shut.

And I would have stayed that way, except last week something happened that made me change my mind.

Since the Jian Ghomeshi scandal erupted, there’s been a great deal of talk about the explosive “cultural conversation” that’s taking place across the country on the subject of sexual harassment and abuse. It’s been a great catharsis in many ways – and I am impressed by the women who’ve come forward in that case. I’m astonished at the courage it must have taken for those women to stand up and accuse an adored cultural hero of sexual assault. And let me be very clear: I am not comparing the nature of my experience to theirs. There is world of difference between an unwanted fondle and a closed-fist punch to the head.

At the same time, there was – and is -- something about the “conversation” that bothered me. Something hypocritical and queasy-making. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I read an essay about the Toronto media community’s moral complicity in the Ghomeshi scandal and the culture of sexism and abuse it exposed. The essay – which many friends were passing around admiringly on social media -- was written by the man who’d groped me.

The sheer hypocrisy of that fact took my breath away. Reading the piece also made me understand what had been bothering me about the so-called “cultural catharsis” all along. There were so many victims, so much righteous moral outrage and hyperbole, but apart from Ghomeshi, where were all the perpetrators? I suddenly knew what we were missing here and that was an honest admission of guilt.

If we are going to have this conversation, I thought, let’s at least have it honestly.

So I sent my former editor a message, reminding him of the incident and telling him how it had made me feel and why I’d kept quiet for as long as I had.

And you know what he did?

He did not deny it or even contradict my version of events. He didn’t lash out or try to discredit me. He said that during that period 15 years ago he had been drinking heavily and had been prone to blackouts. He did not offer this up as an excuse but as an explanation for why he has no memory of the event. He said he felt terribly ashamed.

And then he apologized – abjectly and sincerely – several times.

As soon as I heard his apology I was overwhelmed. All the anger evaporated from me instantly. The incident, which had bugged me for so long, was finally over and done with – poof! – just like that. Why on earth had I waited 15 years to ask for a simple and well-deserved apology?

Afterward, I spoke to The Globe and Mail’s HR department which was helpful. I didn’t make an official complaint because for me the matter was over. Once they’d spoken to the parties involved and were satisfied, the case was effectively closed.

And then, to my immense surprise, I felt remarkably better – like anvil-off-my-chest better. The whole process of just talking about it made me want to run into every newsroom in the country and stand up on a desk and shout out a memo to my juniors: “Hey younger, hipper versions of me: If you have been harassed or hassled or groped – stand up and be counted! Confront your colleagues and talk to your boss. Just don’t stay silent like I did because in retrospect, my silence didn’t help anyone. Not him or me or the culture of my newsroom. Silence, when it comes to stuff like this, just sucks.”

Yes, I was groped by my editor at Christmas party 15 years ago, and for a long time it bugged me. But now I have spoken up. And he has apologized. And the whole office knows. Because of this column, the whole country knows. But the funny thing is, even despite all that, I feel much better. And I don’t think less of him. In fact, in a strange way, he has gained back my respect.

Over the course of this grand “cultural conversation” we’ve been having about sexual abuse and harassment I’ve heard countless victims stand up and tell the story of what happened to them. But how many abusers have admitted to their part – no matter how minor -- in this culture of abuse? How many have stood up and apologized?

Most women never even get that satisfaction.

No court has yet told Jian Ghomeshi to apologize. But that doesn’t mean abusers shouldn’t do so on their own.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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