CanLit Has a Sexual-Harassment Problem

Now, more than ever, we must create an environment in which young writers feel they can come forward

Cutouts of an Open Letter to UBC signed by Canadian authors
Illustration by The Walrus

As I watched this year’s Golden Globes, it became clear just how much the status quo has shifted around sexual harassment. Actresses in funereal couture use their precious acceptance-speech minutes to say enough is enough. The sexism my friends and I have been talking about since we pasted up riot grrrl zines in our bedrooms twenty years ago is now being discussed in the mainstream world. Not only that, in some cases, (some) men are even facing consequences.

Since 2016, I’ve been touring my latest book, The Best Kind of People, a novel about what it’s like to love someone accused of sexual assault. I’ve found myself facilitating many post-reading conversations about false accusations, though it’s never what I want to talk about. Of course, I’m honoured that the novel has provoked discussion, but it can be exhausting to constantly be asked to validate a present-day mythology about the ubiquity of false claims against innocent men. One woman said it bluntly: “I liked your book because it’s so true—teenage girls do lie.” While you can’t control how your book is read, this kind of interpretation felt entirely jaw dropping. It proved to me how much some readers want to have their world view confirmed, no matter how far their conclusions are from the actual facts of the book. Sometimes, it made me want to retire to my hotel room after readings and watch Friends reruns. (FYI, do you watch Friends reruns? should be on the form they give you to see if you have depression.) But escapism has its merits.

Before Time’s Up and the #MeToo movement, scrolling through Twitter and watching awards shows used to be excellent escapist fun from, oh, say, America’s unravelling democracy or the seemingly non-stop conversation about pervasive rape culture. Not so in 2018. Still, watching this year’s Golden Globes was entertaining in a way that’s also satisfying. The only time my friends and I felt anything beyond vindicated amusement is when Elisabeth Moss won best actress for her role in The Handmaid’s Tale and said, “Margaret Atwood, this is for you and all of the women who came before you and after you who were brave enough to speak out against intolerance and injustice and to fight for equality and freedom in this world.”

We exchanged raised eyebrows; one of us may have thrown some popcorn at the screen. Moss’s comments on Atwood stirred complicated feelings. We were, in part, delighted to see a Canadian feminist novel be feted this way, and it goes without saying that Atwood’s influence on feminism and literature is immense. But in that moment, we were also disappointed in a uniquely Canadian way. So many of us Canadian feminists are upset with her, but most Americans have no idea. It makes me think of a joke from Jon Stewart in the ’90s: “What do Americans really think about Canada?…We don’t.” During the commercial break, I texted with a writer I became friends with after we ended up on the same side of the latest divisive issue in CanLit—no, not the “is Anne Carson a witch out to end serious Man poetry?” debate or the “is the novel dead or just asleep?” debate—but an actual debate.

In November 2015, Steven Galloway was suspended from his job as a tenured professor and chair of the creative-writing program at the University of British Columbia “after serious allegations.” UBC commissioned an external investigation and then fired Galloway in June 2016, citing a “record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of trust.” The investigative report was never publicly released. In November 2016, more than eighty authors—including Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, and Michael Ondaatje—published an open letter to UBC calling for “Steven Galloway’s right to due process” and critiquing the university for the way it handled the novelist’s suspension and later dismissal. In it, the signatories stressed that “no criminal charges were laid against Professor Galloway at the time [of his suspension]. None has been laid since.” The university’s initial public response, the signatories argued, had “cast a cloud of suspicion over Professor Galloway and created the impression that he was in some way a danger to the university community.” They called on the university to “establish an independent investigation into how this matter has been handled.” (The letter lives on the website UBC Accountable.)

No matter what the letter has since come to represent, or what conversation has evolved around it, it’s worth noting what Joseph Boyden, who spearheaded its circulation, originally told signatories: “[the letter] does not draw conclusions about guilt or innocence, but focuses on a process that ill-served complainants and Mr. Galloway.” Even so, the open letter largely focused on Galloway and the ways in which the university’s actions have affected his personal, public, and professional life, and it made little mention of the complainants. Responses to the letter from activists and academics, including Galloway’s former students, classmates, and colleagues, as well as other writers, myself included, were swift. Many felt the letter writers gave their collective (and considerable) power to the side that already has the most power. As writer Flannery Dean put it in Flare, the letter “seemingly privileged the rights of one of their own” over those of complainants in an investigation into sexual harassment, sexual assault, and bullying.

Few of us who have become entrenched in this issue know the full details of the Galloway situation. I certainly don’t. An October 2016 Globe and Mail investigation published allegations of harassment, bullying, and sexual misconduct. According to a statement by Galloway’s lawyers in November 2016, the retired justice who carried out the UBC investigation “found on a balance of probabilities that Mr Galloway had not committed sexual assault.…The sole complaint substantiated was that Mr Galloway engaged in inappropriate behavior with a student.” In this context, many people, including me, interpreted the letter, which was released the same month as Galloway’s lawyers’ statement, as an unnecessary emphasis on Galloway’s experiences. The symbolic effect of our country’s literary elite banding together without explicitly supporting the complainants felt wrong. (Not all of our nation’s big names signed. Lawrence Hill refused, writing in the Globe and Mail, “I refuse to join any social movement that silences and hurts women who have brought forward complaints related to harassment or assault.”)

Those of us who spoke out against the letter mostly did so on Twitter, but the signatories, some of whom were among the biggest names lining bookshelves across the country, had access to major newspapers and magazines. In the following months, the conversation expanded beyond Galloway and the UBC Accountable letter itself to discuss wider issues: how we publicly show support, who we give it to, and whether we’ve created an environment in which women feel comfortable sharing their experiences in the CanLit community. Then #MeToo happened, and the momentum shifted. Our culture of silence and skepticism was crumbling, and in its place, we began to build a culture that instead centred women’s voices and experiences. That night, I watched even the most seemingly apolitical Hollywood stars take a stand. If these conversations in the CanLit community had started in the fall of 2017 instead of in 2016, how might they have been received? Might we have worn Time’s Up pins to the Gillers?

If there’s anything I’ve learned while touring a book about rape it’s that most people, including our country’s literary elite, do not believe the data we’ve had for decades about sexual assault. They don’t believe it is not the bogeyman in the alley that we most have to worry about; the majority of sexual assaults are committed by people the victim knows. Nor do they want to believe that, like the main character in my book, someone can be a great friend, excellent teacher and mentor, and good husband or father and still be capable of sexual harassment or sexual assault. And is that really a shock, when we live in a world where most people don’t believe women who speak out?

As I walked home from my friend’s house the night of the Globes, I contemplated a November 2017 tweet by Kate Harding, author of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It. She wrote: “‘Believe women’ does not mean ‘abandon skepticism and rationality.’ It means ‘account for your bias against women.’ It means ‘trust, but verify’ as opposed to ‘doubt, minimize, humiliate.’” And I thought about the fact that it’s been several years since, two weeks after Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the CBC, Sean Michaels closed his 2014 Giller Prize acceptance speech with, “We must believe women, and the men, too, mostly.” The conversation has only grown since then, and CanLit still hasn’t followed his advice.

It really doesn’t seem like something that should be that difficult.

I know it’s a career risk to keep being outspoken against sexual harassment in CanLit. After all, it’s a small pond. Many of our efforts toward gender equality, such as the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts organization, or racial and cultural diversity, such as the Festival of Literary Diversity, exist because individual women came together to do the labour themselves, without the support of the power structures that hold up our publishing industry. There are a lot of individual women making a difference but very few organizational efforts. Beyond that, there are only so many people who can be on grants juries, review your books, and speak kindly of your work to someone who can help promote it. I’ve been through two book-promotion seasons of sitting beside signatories at book-signing tables, sharing wine in green rooms at book festivals, overhearing conversation after conversation about how the UBC Accountable blowback is irrational. It makes an already socially anxious and potentially competitive experience even more so.

And I did initially feel reticent to speak out: there are many friends and friendly colleagues who signed the letter, not to mention authors I’d admired since childhood. Plus, I’d just launched a book about sexual assault that I wanted the literary establishment to take seriously as a non-polemical social novel, a book I’d hoped people would see as a nuanced look at assault allegations. I was thrilled when The Best Kind of People was well-received, made the Giller Prize shortlist, and later sold internationally. But the timing was still awkward.

I found myself onstage with Madeleine Thien, who, weeks earlier, had written an open letter criticizing UBC’s handling of Galloway’s case, saying, “I believe you have failed everyone involved….The university has taken a tragedy and turned into a[n] ugly, blame-filled, toxic mess, destroying lives in the process.” I didn’t want to have any tension with Thien, who had close ties to the UBC writing community. (When the UBC Accountable letter came out one week later, Thien also signed it; she was one of a dozen people who then removed their names this January.) At the same time, a lot of the themes I grappled with in my book seemed to be mirrored in real-life conversations. In times of uncertainty, I wanted to lend my public support to survivors of sexual assault and to the emerging writers at UBC and in the wider CanLit community who weren’t getting a chance to speak. It wasn’t lost on me that nobody had published an open letter specifically in support of the complainants.

It wasn’t until I was a guest of the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2016, where I had to meet author friends outside the festival because they didn’t feel comfortable on the festival grounds, that I realized the Vancouver literary scene had splintered in the wake of Galloway’s dismissal. I decided to speak out more, beyond liking others’ tweets or sending private messages of thanks to other writers for speaking out. More than a year later, I keep speaking out—even though it might make me look a bit obsessed. And as #MeToo continues to gain momentum, more and more writers are now also speaking out within the community, and they’re increasingly being acknowledged. In 2014, writer Emma Healey wrote an essay for Hairpin about sexual harassment and abuse of power in CanLit; last month, after the essay was quoted in writer Mike Spry’s blog post about the same topic, Healey tweeted: “I published that Hairpin piece [four] years ago. This is the first time a man this close to the situation has acknowledged it publicly and unequivocally for what it was.”

It’s a long-held belief—by now a cliché—that CanLit is behind the times thematically. I don’t think that’s actually true. But it’s not hard to see, especially these last few months, that we are profoundly lagging on issues of gender equality. At this point, all of the biggest players in the written arts—Hollywood film/TV, journalism, and, now, Canadian theatre—have stood up as an industry and said they will address sexual harassment. Why can’t Canadian literature, and why is it up to the writers without power and clout to keep pushing for it?

When I was touring The Best Kind of People, the topic of due process inevitably came up during the question-and-answer period, and it quickly became clear to me that different people understand the concept in different ways. Some of the arguments I heard during these sessions are reasonable: of course an accused person should be allowed to defend themselves. And of course women are capable of “the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours,” as Margaret Atwood wrote in a Globe and Mail article last month. But often, the definition of due process was distorted to encompass other assumptions—it became a smokescreen for not believing women. People working on the front lines have seen this, too. As Natalee Caple, a professor who works in universities to develop policies for managing complaints of sexual violence, wrote in The Walrus:

Due process arguments, however, pretend that we will find out the truth if we “wait and see”—in other words, if we hold off offering support to [alleged] victims, we become an extension of the courts, which presume innocence, and thus support justice. But in a culture where we know the likely outcomes of that justice—the least powerful will be punished out of sight, and there will be no legal consequences for the most powerful—due process becomes a commitment to changing nothing in our communities. When we stake our social and cultural capital on “wait and see”—which often involves framing complainants as lying or misguided—victims become isolated, and other victims see that. Everyone becomes less likely to speak out.

Many of the people behind UBC Accountable have stressed that it doesn’t matter what Galloway did or did not do; several have published their own individual statements explaining their motivations, and the majority of them make reference to due process. In a January 23 Facebook post, poet Nyla Matuk wrote that she thinks it’s naive to call for fairness when “their collective weight as signatories actually entrenches these power structures.” She also critiqued Robert Bringhurst’s individual statement and said that while reading it, she realized “how politically problematic, context-independent, and deluded the constant ‘due process’ refrains are. This is not a trial.”

People assume that a fair, unbiased system set up to hold powerful people accountable actually exists. And it does not. Not at a university. Not in a courthouse. Not in Canada.

Soon after the January 2018 Golden Globes, allegations surfaced of sexual harassment at my alma mater, Concordia. They go back to when I was a student. It’s the lead story on CBC Radio. I’m not necessarily shocked about the allegations—I vaguely knew about them for two decades. But I was shocked that it was news, that Concordia itself thought it serious enough to make a statement, and later that two professors had their classes reassigned. For a long while, these accusations had seemed like public knowledge, and for an equally long while, Concordia had appeared unconcerned. At the time of writing, according to the Montreal Gazette, four professors have been accused of misconduct on social media and three of them are under investigation.

Back in 1996, when I dragged my ass to prose workshop, I got the sense there were very few rules about professorial conduct. It’s the arts, after all! And it’s Montreal. To get into the program, you practically had to prove you could smoke half a pack of Gauloises without throwing up while reciting a passage from Beautiful Losers. I skipped a lot of classes, because I kept getting feedback that my gay stories were too gay. (Admittedly, they were perhaps badly written too.) Still, at nineteen, I would have rolled my eyes very high at the idea of students not being able to sleep with professors. The sex-positive feminism of the day made it difficult to try to make rules about anything, which was the point. It is only now, in retrospect, that I understand how rules of conduct for university professors can protect students whose boundaries frequently aren’t respected in that kind of but-art-has-no-rules environment.

It’s sticky territory. Attraction and desire are complicated; the last thing I want to see is a sex panic. But these issues become even more complicated when one party says an encounter or relationship was consensual and another says it was not. In many ways, the conversation that has emerged after Galloway, and now Concordia, is about power dynamics. Even before Galloway was fired, UBC had started assessing whether professors should be allowed to have relationships with students, and in general, much discussion has centred on whether those relationships, if they happen, can ever be consensual. After all, in such a dynamic, a professor has control over a student’s grades, reference letters, publishing referrals, and internships. In reference to her time as a student at Concordia, author Heather O’Neill told the Montreal Gazette last month that “I was harassed by a particular professor there, who…groped me in ways that to this day make me cringe”—and also offered to edit a book of her poetry that was forthcoming at a publishing house where he was an editor.

As more women come forward in the wake of #MeToo, a discussion has emerged on whether we’re erroneously targeting consensual relationships between adults. It leaves those accused off the hook, able to distract us with claims that we’re all prudish moralists. And it works. At its heart, though, this is more often about one issue: those who don’t have professional boundaries—and, as a result, create unsafe working cultures for women. In the case of professors, a specific rule against students dating profs could help young women say no to unwanted advances, to those who won’t take no, and to those who habitually prey on those who are less powerful than them.

Plus, how long is a semester—three months? If you’re that attracted to someone, it’s not a big deal to wait until you don’t have power over them to date them. And if you only want to date someone when they’re a student, well, it’s about time we recognize these stories are tired: writers who are unsatisfied with their career and decide to chase their students is a plot device you’d underline in a first-year story and write “cliché!” in the margins. It’s as tired as watching sixty-year-old authors trying to bang twenty-five-year-old publicists as bartenders shout “last call” in the literary-festival green room. It’s as tired as an audience member asking me to confirm that it’s true how much teenage girls lie and another asking how scary it is for male teachers these days.

As I watch the Aziz Ansari story unfurl online, I’m acutely aware that I am between two generations in many #MeToo discussions and that there aren’t many opportunities for intergenerational dialogue. People are, understandably, reluctant to talk about generational differences in feminist action—and response. These divides throw older women under the bus, particularly those who have been outspoken against UBC Accountable or pro-#MeToo. And they allow us to condescend to younger women, something of which I’ve definitely been guilty (see terrible, insensitive joke below).

The generational differences in #MeToo conversations often mean I feel trapped between women twenty years older than me who say things like, “In my day, if you didn’t pierce a few ball sacks with your stilettos to stop a teacher from groping you, you weren’t really living!” and women twenty years my junior who say, “He tried to kiss me, so now he’s an abuser!” (Both of these examples are jokes; don’t unfollow me on Twitter!) But between the second-wave feminists—who we have to thank for things such as abortions, birth control, and Take Back the Night marches—and whatever the wave is now are us semi-retired third wavers—who you can thank for feminist porn, terrible spoken-word poetry about bisexuality, and, more seriously, bringing to light concepts such as intersectionality, which legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined to critique the centering of white, middle-class women in all waves of the feminist movement.

Many younger women are speaking out and pushing for clearer boundaries about what is acceptable behaviour, in the workplace, in school, on the streets, and in our homes. And if I had to characterize this new generation of feminists, after a year of touring a novel about sexual assault, I’d say they are brave, take no shit, and have taught me to examine issues of consent more closely. I admire them, even if I don’t always get it right away. What’s important is that we all hate Camille Paglia.

In the green room of a Yorkville lecture hall, I scanned Twitter for some hostile responses to an earlier tweet I’d composed in utter frustration: that the only way #MeToo would truly happen in CanLit is if Margaret Atwood apologizes for signing the UBC Accountable letter and for continuing to unequivocally defend it. As Atwood later put it herself in her oft-cited article “Am I a Bad Feminist?” she feels those who disagree with the letter, and what it’s come to represent to us, see her as “conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am.” I’d been thinking about how the only reason the #MeToo reckoning was so effective in the United States was because the accusers are as famous and as powerful as the accused. In Canada, our famous and powerful literary elite are focusing on due process. Elsewhere in the Canadian creative community, nearly 300 artists signed an open letter supporting the women who raised allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Albert Schutz, the former artistic director and cofounder of Soulpepper Theatre, saying, “We also believe that there are more stories like theirs that have not been told.”

After the tweet, I got on stage and talk about The Best Kind of People. The talk devolved, as I mentioned it often does, into a discussion about false rape accusations. I’ve never had a book be this commercially successful, and I feel lucky every time I get to meet readers. But I am tired of this particular discussion and leave wondering why this often happens. There is always a point during these question periods (and let’s get real, with many people, they’re usually comments) when I want to crawl into the lectern and take a nap. At every event in my book tour, there are at least a few people who want to repeat their fictional belief about how prevalent false accusations are, and today’s lecture is no exception. These discussions emphasize that people actually believe women everywhere are suddenly lying about assault—but, to me, the real hysteria is that people think that suddenly women everywhere are lying about assault.

It’s deeply human to not want to believe. And, as Kate Harding emphasizes in her book, sexual assault is the only crime where we are socialized to relate more to the criminal than the victim. My novel is described often as being “about rape culture” but is more specifically about what we do when someone we love is accused of sexual assault. What is that emotional process, and why do so many of us, myself included, want to automatically disbelieve the one who is making the accusations? Part of the reason I wrote my book was to explore the emotional aftermath of an accusation. I understand why some friends and allies of Galloway debated the way that they did.

I am home sick the day Margaret Atwood publishes “Am I a Bad Feminist” in the Globe and Mail. I can barely get through it, and instead of relaxing in bed, I spend the day reading responses to it on social media. I am shocked by her stubborn unwillingness to listen to others, but I also wonder what it might feel like to be heralded worldwide as a feminist and then to be criticized. Would you be unable to process those criticisms? Over the next couple of days, I retweet responses far more eloquent than mine would be. I’m not the only one who felt ill at Atwood’s defense. Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, responded to it thusly on Twitter: “Actually, Margaret…. with all due respect, this isn’t what I meant by Bad Feminist.” Atwood’s editorial has been criticized wonderfully in Flare, on TVO’s website, and at The Root.

When PEN released a statement on January 16, shortly after Atwood’s widely criticized op-ed, that called for the UBC Accountable website to remain online after several people on both sides called for its removal, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony, that an organization dedicated to freedom of expression couldn’t see which side of this debate is continually being silenced. I don’t necessarily agree with the calls to the take the website down, mostly because I think it would be good to remind future writers about how little support female students once got from the generations ahead of them. This is where CanLit is at in 2018, an endless cry for due process, when the rest of the arts world is finally reckoning seriously with sexual harassment and power.

Earlier this week, The Walrus published a version of this story that had not been fact-checked. When factual errors were detected, the piece was removed—of our own volition—and put through our fact-checking process. We regret this order of events, take full responsibility for our misstep, and have taken steps to create a better process.

Zoe Whittall
Zoe Whittall's third and latest novel is The Best Kind of People, shortlisted for the Giller and soon to be a feature film by Sarah Polley.