Harassed in Brussels (by a Canadian representative for NATO) and why it’s not OK

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about rape culture and gender inequality, sometimes about progress and more often about ideas, places and (sometimes nonexistent) policies which desperately need to change. This morning as I worked, I listened to a few TED talks by men calling out that change is desperately needed: Why I’m done trying to be “man enough” by Justin Baldoni and A call to men by Tony Porter – both brilliant talks, by the way. Hearing these two mean speak seemed to open the floodgates of my memory, and I quickly grabbed my journal and wrote down countless examples of my own experiences.

The first item on the page was of my very first trip to Brussels.

I’ve been to Brussels many times. It’s a fun and quirky city. I usually come home with memories of good beer, good frites/waffles/chocolate, friendly easygoing people and beautiful buildings.

During my first visit to Brussels, when I was just 23 or 24, I went on a trip with friends – my two flatmates. The three of us were living or working in Barcelona at the same, had a week off for Semana Santa (Easter week or Spring break) and booked a host of cheap random Ryanair flights across the continent. Our first stop was Brussels.

We went out each night, as you do. One night we ended up at a karaoke bar. It was full of international young people and the music was good, so we stayed. We met lots of people from all over the world who were working or studying in Brussels, and a few tourists like ourselves.

A pale friendly guy named Brandon was being very friendly with me and I didn’t pay much attention to his behaviour. He told me he was Canadian and working in Brussels as a representative for his government at NATO. I assumed this meant he was a respectable guy. I was wrong.

We had drinks all together, sang along (very poorly) to the karaoke songs being played, and it started off as a pretty fun night. At one point Brandon asked me to come with him to another place in the bar. I didn’t see the harm in it and went along.

Big mistake.

He ended up pushing me into the men’s bathrooms and into a stall. He then locked the door and stood in front of it. He then poured his drunken heart out and told me he fancied me and really wanted to show me his genitals. I laughed at first, in total disbelief. But he was serious. I tried to get out but he wouldn’t let me leave. He kept insisting I needed to see.

I repeatedly told him no in just about every way I could think of: No. I don’t want to see. I am engaged. I’m in a relationship. I have no desire to see anything. Let me out. I don’t want to be in here…

He wouldn’t let down and he wouldn’t let me out.

After what seemed like an eternity, one of my flatmates (a beautiful Swedish guy who I ended up marrying :-)) came to my rescue. He was looking for me all over the bar and couldn’t find me. He came into the bathroom and called my name to see if I was there. I responded, so incredibly relieved. And of course, when faced with another person in the room, the drunken Canadian representative for NATO had no choice but to let me out.

Luckily nothing happened but I was terrified. And so eternally grateful to my flatmate for rescuing me. There’s no telling what would have happened if he hadn’t been such a gentleman and come looking for me.

Afterwards, we continued our night, but oddly enough the Canadian still persisted. I don’t know whether it was machismo, drunken stupidity, or a combination, but he kept coming up to me, offering to buy me drinks, and trying to chat with me as if nothing had happened. I was furious and was admittedly very rude to him thereafter.

I was fuming afterwards but I didn’t know what else could be done. Should I have reported him to the bar or to the authorities? Probably.

I was lucky in my experience, but that doesn’t mean everyone who encounters this man has been or will be. This type of aggressive controlling and misogynistic behaviour isn’t OK. It isn’t right for a man to think it’s completely acceptable to show his genitals to whomever he pleases in public. It’s not OK for a man to think he’s within his rights to force a woman to do things she doesn’t want to do.

We need to teach our sons to respect women, respect their choices, and that no means no. Persistence isn’t cute or charming. It’s disrespectful and it needs to stop.

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