Globe and Mail

Rare moments when change happens

A small assault case in Toronto sparks a torrent of debate

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 17, 1999

Sometimes important social shifts percolate for a long time until a provocation emerges at the right time and the right place. Then change happens.

The case of Corinne Branigan appears to be such an issue. The 30-year-old Toronto woman has been charged with assaulting an 18-year-old man who hurled catcalls at her as she walked home from the laundromat. She is accused of kicking him in the groin after a confrontation, claiming she was fed up with verbal harassment from men.

The case has hit a nerve. Newspapers and radio shows in Toronto have been filled with commentary and interviews. Women are discussing the case, expressing sympathy, expressing their own frustrations. Many men are admitting amazement as female friends and relatives tell them that, yes, they have faced the same sort of comments as Ms. Branigan, that it is actually common.

Until now, women have generally accepted that verbal catcalls must be tolerated, that boys will be boys, that confronting such aggression will only loosen an uglier torrent of abuse and isn't worth the hassle. Most women look at their feet and ignore it, learning as they get older to be less afraid when men whistle or yell or shout lewd proposals.

We may now have crossed a line where such socially annoying behaviour is intolerable. Many people look back and see that such a shift occurred in 1991, when the issue of workplace sexual harassment hit the front pages as Anita Hill accused Judge Clarence Thomas of harassing her when she worked for him at two federal agencies. Such harassment was illegal before then, but the case was a watershed, sparking huge public discussion and debate and serving to make workplace harassment truly socially unacceptable.

Does the public debate sparked by a simple assault case in Toronto mean women and men are ready to take such a step with verbal harassment? Is society broadly ready to understand that hoots and hollers and sexual comments are not compliments; that they are scary, aggressive displays of unequal power, and they are unacceptable behaviour?

It's hard to know beforehand when longstanding frustrations will suddenly coalesce to cause change. But we will recognize it later, looking back. This may be the time for verbal harassment.

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