Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
When we speak of social change, we often describe it as coming in waves, an image that is both vivid and apt. To someone watching from the shore, it’s sometimes hard to tell where one wave ends and the next one begins: they move in swells, one after the other, breaking and falling back into the surge of the next.
But over a very long time, over the course of many generations, waves are immensely powerful. They can wash away entire cliffs, push back the edge of the shore. They recreate the world through the tirelessness of their motion, never ceasing, always pushing forward, doing more together than any one wave will alone.
Look around at the world, and you can see a multitude of waves cresting, following their own ebb and flow.
You could see one this week in Edmonton, where the sentencing hearing began for Matthew McKnight, a convicted serial rapist who once trolled bars and parties looking for victims; for years, he got away with it, until those survivors began to speak up, leading to his arrest and, at long last, his being held to account.
And you saw one in Winnipeg, where people spoke up online about abuse they’d suffered at the hands of St. Paul’s High School students, including an incident where students gathered intimate photos of teen girls and distributed them without consent; what disciplinary measures were taken in that case remains unclear.
Free Press journalist Maggie Macintosh has covered that story. Though there are still many questions to be answered, the Catholic private school has vowed to implement "transformative change" in its sex education, and plans to make an action plan with input from the community, including the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
As that wave continues on its journey, another one is rising. On Instagram, the account @safespacewpg emerged, with a vision to become a place for survivors of sexual assault or abuse in Manitoba to share their stories; and the stories that have already come forward show just how deep the ocean of hurt in this province can go.
The account made its first post on June 28, with its statement of values: "We deserve to have those guilty be held accountable. We deserve to no longer be silenced."
By Wednesday morning, only 10 days later, it had posted 92 accounts of harm, with more submissions soon to be shared.
The submissions are posted anonymously. Comments are turned off. In most stories, though not all, the victim is female; the account has spoken up in support of male survivors. Included in the account’s highlights are contact numbers for local crisis-support hotlines and resources on how to report sexual assault.
Taken individually, one by one, the stories march out a grim drumbeat of harm. They differ in details, in ways that show the vast geography of abuse. In some, the person accused of doing harm is named. In others, they’re not. In some, they are a spouse or a partner. In others, they’d only just met their victim.
It is in the common threads between them where the patterns of cruelty show through most clearly. In most stories, the victim is young when the assault happened, often in their teens. Many describe being isolated, unable to leave; some describe feeling frozen, too scared or too unprepared to say "no."
This is a normal experience, too. Sometimes, it is the best thing a survivor can do just to get through it.
There are other commonalities. In many, the abuser used alcohol to gain power over victims. And in nearly all the stories, they relied on the silence of others, including the person they harmed, believing that what they meted out behind closed doors would never emerge to find them in the light of the world beyond.
That’s one of the most chilling things about sexual assault and abuse: often, someone else knew.
For so long, that was usually true. That’s one of the most chilling things about sexual assault and abuse: often, someone else knew. Someone who saw that something was wrong, but did nothing. Someone who heard what happened but chose to defend the abuser, or simply to look away and not get involved.
And the submissions to @safespacewpg often have this in common, too: they talk about the pain that followed them from the moment it happened, the nightmares that persisted, the challenges they faced learning to feel safe in future relationships. They talk about living in fear of the person who harmed them, sometimes for years.
Often, the most vicious and damaging trick abusers pull is the way they push their shame onto their victims. How survivors are made to carry the weight of the wrong, instead of the one who delivered it. And shame is one of the most powerful feelings we know; it can make us feel small, or make us take it out on ourselves. It can silence.
That, too, is familiar, that overarching dynamic of shame, power and silence. It is the same combination of raw forces that allowed abuse to persist in sports, in Hollywood, in churches. The specifics change, but those elements remain nearly constant: abusers get away with it when they have the power to press victims to silence.
We seek a world in which, from the moment they are harmed, survivors of abuse can feel the power is still in their grasp, not able to be torn away from them.
But there are other ways. If we close our eyes and imagine what healthy communities look like, they are invariably ones in which social bonds are strong enough that those who have suffered harm can be heard, and those who do harm can be called to account, and to make amends for what they have done.
Because many of the stories on the @safespacewpg account share something else in common, too. In some of them, the writers speak of their relief at putting their story out in the world. They speak of a feeling of reclaiming power, of taking back what was taken from them when their abuse first occurred.
That is the light in the darkness, the beacon. It tells us how we can move towards a safer world both for ourselves, and for our children. We seek a world in which, from the moment they are harmed, survivors of abuse can feel the power is still in their grasp, not able to be torn away from them.
In magazines, in newspapers, we write about the "post-Me Too world," as if what happened three years ago, in the thickest part of the groundswell under that name, could be understood as having a beginning and an end, a before and an after.
In truth, those borders are porous. The movement is both very old, and very young.
Rather, the waves just keep rolling on, one after the other, each one changing the world a little bit more.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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