Sexual harassment has never had as much attention as it has gotten in the past few weeks in the midst of the Hollywood Weinstein scandals. When you have names like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow speaking up about their own experiences, the world goes in shock and then it listens. How on earth could powerful, beautiful, well-connected and wealthy women have ever been victims? Well, that’s just the thing, we (the audience) only know of people we see on the screens and are seldom aware of the people behind the screens. As impressed as we may be when an article comes out telling us about how much Julia Roberts earned for a screen appearance, we may forget that there is someone who signs that impressive cheque. That same someone might have a say when Julia Roberts gets the next job, in other words, that someone has much more power than she would ever have. That someone has a choice as to what he does with that power and this is where this issue unfolds. Predators are people who are more powerful than their victims, be it physical strength, wealth or connection. They exist in Hollywood and pretty much everywhere else. I crossed path with a predator once, and here’s my story; some of it anyway.
People who know me intimately know that my first kiss was at the age of 16 (yes, and now everyone reading this will know). His name was Marco and the kiss was pretty unforgettable, in a very good way. I’ll leave it at that. First kiss conversations rarely come up these days but when they did way back when, I would often be taken back to that night and revisit all the sweetness that came with it. I say often because sometimes I would go to a different place. A dark place where sweetness was not even on the radar. That place was the truth, an ugly truth, that for many years I never thought I would ever share with anyone, yet alone one day, the freaking internet. So let’s start again.
My name is Marie-France and I had my first kiss at 10 with a man who was three decades older than me in a place my parents would have never imagined any harm could have come my way. I would never forget that afternoon. It was after lunch and I was watching TV. That 80’s classroom comedy with the different nationalities was on. He came into the room and sat with me for a while. There was nothing unusual about that. It was something that had happened hundreds of times before. See, I used to go and play with his nephews during the holidays and he was more than a familiar face. He was like family. His mother was in her room and he asked me to go and check if her door was closed. Being the obedient child that I was, I did. I came back informing him that it was when he asked me to come and sit on his lap. The chair (it was one of those folding chairs) was too small and flimsy to allow that to happen so I stood infront of him, leaning into him with my back against him. I remember knowing at that moment that I had officially entered a very dangerous and frightening situation. He asked me if I had ever kissed a boy before. What a stupid question that was. At that time, I wasn’t even allowed to watch people kissing on the television! ‘No’, I told him, thinking that somehow that was going to free me from whatever was going to happen. Yes, shockingly enough, after 27 years I remember all of that. I was wrong about what I thought the effect my ‘no’ was going to have on the situation. So he informed me, almost with the kind of authority that a teacher would have, that he was going to teach me how to kiss. To this day, I have never ever managed to leave behind the feeling of that man’s tongue in my mouth. It was disgusting. He kissed me several times, asking me in between if I was OK and if I liked it. I would nod, frightened at the prospect that I had gotten myself into so much trouble. After a while, he took my hand and led me to his room. But before he did that, he sent me to check up on his mother again. I still experience a certain amount of disbelief when I remember this. What kind of nerve did he have? How could he have been so secure in himself that I wouldn’t have screamed or woken his mother up? I understand now that he understood the power he had over me.
In his room, he sat me down on his bed and he started to unbuckle his belt. That sound is what turned things around for me on that day. The sound of a belt unbuckling horrified me beyond my own fear – if that makes any sense. I stood up and said ‘no, I have to go’. He took my hand and I pulled away – this may have dragged on for a few seconds or minutes, that much I don’t recall. But I was in panic mode and honestly, I think he let me go because he didn’t trust me at this point. If I had screamed and the events of those past 20 minutes had come to light, he would have been in a lot of trouble. I didn’t know that at the time. I understood just enough to know I was in both danger and trouble. I made it to the door and walked out.
I was never the same child for a while after that. I lived in fear that what had happened would come to light and I would be in trouble. I don’t remember when I stopped being scared. I can only guess it was around the same time I successfully managed to bury these events. I actually did a pretty impressive job at that. For some years I never visited that ‘place’. There was too much going on in my late teenage years and early twenties for me to have time to have space for darkness. But then I became a mother and since then, the thoughts from that afternoon have never really truly escaped me.
The closest I came to confronting him was 2014, a year after giving birth to my second child. I drove to his office and sat outside in the carpark crying. I remember being so livid. The thing is I couldn’t do it because of what was at stake. With two phone calls this man could have shut down POTPOURRI magazine and I had to think about my colleagues and would happen to them. Of course there’s the other issue – where’s my proof? Exposing him would be a huge issue for reasons I cannot go into. Often, I thought to myself since he never sexually assaulted me and it only happened once, maybe it wasn’t that bad.
But I know it was that bad. And this is why I wrote this today. When I think of other young girls and boys who have had to shut their mouths and endure such pain because no one would believe them I feel such anger. While we cannot wrap our kids in cotton wool and keep them away from all that is not great in the world, we need to talk to them and always be the safe place for them. If as a parent, you have not been raised that way, find someone close to you, who you trust, to be that person for your child.
Sexual abuse cannot remain a taboo. As long as it is, our children will suffer and the cycle will keep on repeating itself.