Society

Am I Complicit in My Own #MeToo?

How I played the game of sexual harassment to get ahead—but lost myself in the process

Illustration by The Walrus/vivanity
The Walrus/vivanity

He was twenty-one, bearded, semi-famous, and had recorded albums. I was eleven and at a summer camp in Poland where the singer was visiting his cousin. When he asked me to sit on his lap, I felt special. He bounced me up and down, and while I knew that it was wrong for him to do that, I found him terribly exciting.

I had big brown eyes like a doll and tanned and bruised legs with fine down on them; I was a half-girl creature, like something that was pulled out from a hole in a tree. By then, I’d had a few questionable experiences: dicks pressed against me in lineups and on streetcars, flashers popping out of cars and from behind dumpsters. But nobody had ever sung a song about an egg and a tadpole while looking me straight in the eye. I didn’t look away when he sang, and then he finished singing and, like in a soap opera, said in teary voice that I had no idea what I was doing to him, no idea. But I did have an idea. The idea was that I was the one in power.

Of course, I was not the one in power. Many pedophiles groom children, often through coercion, by putting the onus on their victims—look what you made me do! Luckily for me, the singer didn’t molest me, but those moments with him are imprinted in me for a reason—those moments made me first aware of men wanting something from me and of my ability to grant them this something in exchange for something else. In the case of the singer, it was attention. It made me feel that I was more interesting than my many cute friends and that I was destined for a more interesting life.

And it was indeed a beginning of an interesting life in which men had more power but they also had things that I wanted. To get the things, I manipulated those men in power by various means, yet mainly by the means of being a woman. So when I slapped the #MeToo hashtag on my social media in the wake of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, I felt conflicted. Because, in a way, I also felt complicit.

The first man I had sex with was a possibly attractive, thirtysomething, trophy-winning show jumper and an owner of horse stables. One afternoon, while perched up on a horse, I noticed that all of the men at the stable were looking at me—six men in total: the owner; his younger brother, the very handsome twenty-year-old whose job was to take the wives of the Russian businessmen staying at the nearby five-star hotel for rides (the rumours swirled); my best friend’s dad, the military officer who trained the horses; and the old stableman who shovelled horseshit.

It was August. The sun was shining hard. I knew it reflected in my long burned-gold hair. I did not wear a helmet. I pushed out my small breasts. I wore a striped tank top that barely covered them, tight washed-out denim shorts, and Doc Martens. I wasn’t dressed properly to ride a horse—the round edges of the saddle would give my bare legs bruises, and were I to fall, nothing would protect my head. But in that moment, above all those men looking, I felt myself to be the quintessence of femininity, literally and figuratively.

I also wanted to ride horses for free. It was an expensive sport, and I was poor. I couldn’t pay for the lessons but rode in exchange for labour. I didn’t want to do labour anymore. I also wanted to maybe lose my virginity.

One evening, soon after my triumphant solo sun parade, I ran after the owner. A few days prior, we had slow danced at a local club. I had kissed him, my first French kiss ever. At the time of the dance, I was apprehensive and I turned him down—frankly, I had no idea what to even do during sex. He had told me some version of the camp singer’s you have no idea, and a part of me had enjoyed seeing him so tortured, having to restrain himself. So when I ran after him that evening, I was 100 percent sure I wanted him. (I also wanted to ride horses for free.)

The sex was okay, but it was mostly not okay. It hurt and I wanted to leave, but I didn’t leave, because I was embarrassed—after all, it was I who pursued him. In the end, I was happy about it for a while: I lost my virginity. I bragged about it to my friends, and I especially bragged about the sex-with-a-real-grownup part. To this day, I am not sure I’ve ever felt especially affected by it—I know that him sleeping with an underage girl was a crime, and I know that I didn’t entirely enjoy myself. And yet at the same time, not once has that experience occupied any nightmare territory in my mind. Yes, it was disturbing but not in a way that would make me want to walk around with a protest sign. It was wrong, but it did not traumatize me.

But was that experience something I could now call a #MeToo? It could be, if I say it is. But if I continue to say that it isn’t, am I perpetuating “internalized misogyny” by trying to be all cool about it, telling myself—and you—that it was really not a big deal? I had to look up “internalized misogyny” after someone accused me of it, when I mentioned feeling complicit in a few instances of having been harassed. The conclusion I’ve come to is that one term is too small to describe all the feelings that happen in these complex instances.

Still, I wonder if I have been “asking for it”—my #MeToos—because of how cute I felt as an eleven-year-old or because later I wore my hair long, my skirts short. Or because sometimes I wrote about sex for living, because I had zero qualms about parading at fetish parties in nothing but a collar and heels, or because I revelled in being nine-months pregnant and naked underneath a see-through lacy slip at a ballet.

I have dressed, undressed, talked, and walked with the intention of getting men I wanted something from. Was I asking for it? Yes. Maybe not so consciously as a child, but I was definitely manipulative with men as a teenager and as an adult. I have an encyclopedia of potential #MeToos, but in so many of those instances, I truly didn’t feel victimized—sometimes just the opposite.

For example, for a short while in my twenties, I was with a man I didn’t like who treated me like a rare pink diamond. He made my life easier—he set me up with a lucrative writing gig at some point—and he made my life more sophisticated. That’s precisely what I wanted then as a student living in near poverty. I loved hanging out with my peers and slamming down pitchers of shitty beer in the Green Room or dancing in the Dance Cave. But I also wanted to sleep in the five-star rooms at the Soho or the Windsor Arms and drink extravagant $20 cocktails and take fun trips and do cocaine. It beat ramen and student-loan collectors screaming in my ear on the phone.

I ditched that man when I got back together with my previous boyfriend. The man was upset—I had even told him I loved him, although I had said it out of guilt—so I blocked his number and that was it. He had groped me, he had made lewd comments, he had told me where to shave, he had loved when I wore pink (I’ve always been a bit of a goth, but a pink Gucci purse is worth more than a black leather collar from Northbound). I cringed at his advances and his misogyny, but I was a sugar baby whose job was to look pretty and put up with it. So: #MeToo? I don’t know.

And yet there are a few definitive, but trivial, #MeToo situations that still make me upset to think about. As a kid in Poland, there were older boys who always harassed me on my way to school. Eventually, I changed my route, so instead of walking straight to school, I went around the communist, Brutalist icebergs of apartment buildings where I lived and where everybody else lived. Almost every day, till later grades, that morning walk was just one big palpitating heart.

From those moments on, I practiced and perfected the art of walking, not tripping, with my eyes glued to my feet. Occasionally while walking, a #MeToo would manifest itself if a perpetrator was particularly persistent, such as the man who followed me and grabbed my hand, or the man who blocked my way at the intersection, or—well, there were a lot. There were a lot. Some of the #MeToos on social media that I’ve read contain more detail, some list dozens of instances of harassment, and some instances of harassment seem more serious than others. (But even as I write that, I know: How do you judge for others what is more serious?)

As a woman in this world, I don’t know any other life than the one that is familiar to many women who have volunteered their #MeToos. But I am also aware, and a little disturbed now, by how I orchestrated (manipulated, mastered) so many of the encounters that were questionable. I’ve dressed sexily for job interviews with men. I went for drinks with sleazebags because they had job connections. I modelled nude. I picked an author photo for both my books that was flattering, and men sent me copies of it to sign. Most recently, I flirted with a potential landlord who asked for a hug, which I didn’t give, because my son was there, but which I would possibly have given him had my son not been there. I really wanted the apartment.

I have joked with men about awful things that men do/ have done to women, more specifically, to me. I used myself as an example like it was nothing. And I did it again and again. I am not traumatized over it. I’m not traumatized over any of it. I don’t really feel badly about the eleven-year-old me, the fifteen-year-old me, the sugar baby me. Perhaps this is because there were different traumas—immigrating, alcoholism—that affected me more. Or perhaps it’s because some very serious sexual traumas I’ve experienced that I didn’t ask for would seem trivialized, to me, by a hashtag. The fact remains that I am ambivalent about it, conflicted. I have separated and prioritized traumas, and I have pushed some instances, even those that might warrant a #MeToo, to the bottom of the list. How I feel is how I feel; I cannot force myself to feel badly.

Fifteen years ago, in the beginning of my career as a writer, at twenty-four, I spent some time with a powerful person in the publishing industry who I knew didn’t like me for my writing. But he called me “a genius writer,” and he would introduce me as such to his many famous and fabulous friends, and he groped and kissed me and I kissed him back, and some of the time, I’m sure (I was really drunk back then), I probably initiated the kissing. He introduced me to very important people, among them my literary agent and my future editor—both of whom have been nothing but appropriate with me. In fact, most people I’ve worked with as a writer have been male and, with the exception of the Powerful Person I’m telling you about, none have ever caused a #MeToo.

I was not sexually traumatized by the Powerful Person. I knew what I was selling—beauty, youth—and I knew what he had to offer—open doors. But there was damage. And it was with this guy that all those not #MeToos (and the #MeToos) finally accumulated into something worse (to me) than reeling from sexual trauma: I realized I’d lost my identity—or worse, I didn’t know what my identity even was. A beautiful woman? Yes, because I loved being admired for my exterior.

Though perhaps just a beautiful woman? Yes, because I also relied on my long hair, my short skirts, my manipulations to get what I wanted from men—but as result, I could never be sure if I was just long hair and a short skirt. I could never be sure if I had more to offer: if my sense of humour, my wit, my talent was really there. My women friends supported me, approved of me, and I trusted them, but it wasn’t enough—there was that other murky territory of male approval. And the way I saw it, men were the ones in power; they were the ones who bestowed praise on you for both your looks and your intellect. It was possible that I was both smart and beautiful, but I couldn’t know for sure anymore.

From a very young age, I wanted to be a writer. It took me years to communicate fluently in English, so I already had a lot of doubt about my writing before I ventured into trying to get published. There was a tiny feeling inside me that told me I was talented, but it was tiny and it needed nurturing. So when I met the Powerful Person who called me a “genius writer,” I felt like he confirmed I was a writer (even as I was embarrassed by the word “genius”). But I was also making out with that guy. I also dressed in short skirts for him. I let him walk me around like I was a fancy poodle. I wrote, and he read what I wrote and said it was good, but his praise sounded empty to me. Even if it was genuine, I’d been relying on my looks more than my words for so long, I didn’t believe him. And I stopped believing me. I stopped believing in myself.

So that was a #MeToo.

As time went on, I reclaimed my writing. First, a supportive ex-boyfriend helped me build confidence. Journalism school helped me build it up even more. I published my first short story (under a pseudonym, as a gay man, in a queer magazine—I could be him before I could be me). I published features in magazines. I published many essays with a literary magazine (male publisher, male editor). I published a book (male literary agent, male editor, male publisher). I published another book (male literary agent, male editor). This year, I’m publishing a story in the Best Canadian Stories 2017 (male editor, male editor, male publisher).

It’s taken fifteen years since meeting the Powerful Person, but I can finally, confidently, say I am proud of my writing and I think I deserve the accolades I sometimes get for it. The men in publishing I have worked with have never caused a #MeToo; they’ve built me up and, unbeknownst to them, repaired the harm that was caused to me and that I caused to myself. The worst that came out of my #MeToos was that my feelings of complicity eventually bit me in the ass. They erased my self-esteem as a writer, because I felt like—and believe I was—a perpetrator of my misfortunes. I doubted myself because, as a non-native speaker of the English language, I started off from a position of insecurity. I often felt like a fraud.

Now that I’m forty and I’m perhaps wiser, I’m somehow cured from being validated by the world. I no longer feel like a fraud, but, yes, I still believe that I have contributed to my #MeToos—not because I didn’t call those men on it but perhaps because I didn’t call myself out on it. So I would like to report myself for a #MeToo. And I am sorry for the damage I caused to me.

Jowita Bydlowska is the author of the novel Guy and Drunk Mom, a memoir. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies and she also makes her living as a journalist, working for a number or national and international publications.

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