National Speak Up for Victims of Sexual Abuse Day: An Excerpt from Shop Class Hall Pass

Content warning: This post mentions instances of sexual assault. If you need help, visit Ending Violence for a list of resources.

For National Speak Up for Victims of Sexual Abuse Day, we’re highlighting a passage from Karin Martel’s Shop Class Hall Pass (Signature Editions), a survivor memoir that delves into the author’s difficult eighteen months of therapy to unravel the consequences of her sexual assault.


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Excerpt from Shop Class Hall Pass

Still in my pyjamas, I sit cross-legged on my bed with a pillow on my lap and my journal and pen beside me. I pick up the pages and begin reading. The introduction explains how people who have been sexually abused often develop coping mechanisms to deal with the resulting trauma.

I frown at the words sexual abuse and trauma and wonder if Val has given me the wrong pages. I have never considered what happened to me as traumatic or abusive, much less sexually abusive. But to be fair, I never considered what happened as being anything. I think about what the word trauma means, or at least what I think it means. In my mind, trauma is reserved for people who experience significantly disturbing events—rape victims, molested children, physically abused children and partners, soldiers, police officers, victims of war—not for someone pestered by a teenage boy.

I reread the first sentence again. I can’t see how the phrase sexual abuse applies to me. To me sexual abuse is when someone older molests someone younger: the creepy uncle and his niece, the perverted priest and his altar boy, the degenerate coach and their athlete. Not a classmate with feathered brown hair who laughed and smiled. Besides, there wasn’t anything sexual about it. The boy didn’t get any sexual gratification. At least I don’t think he did. I don’t remember him rubbing his groin against me. But he must have received some type of gratification, because he always grinned and giggled when he did it. And even though it didn’t feel sexual, he did touch my sex parts. I don’t know what to think, which frustrates me because I like labels, I like certainty, I want to be able to define what happened.

I want to get through these pages and move on with my life, but I can’t even get through the first paragraph.

I can’t accept that what happened was sexual abuse. So, if it wasn’t that, then what was it? How do I define it? I need to look at it from a different perspective. I ask myself, “If a fourteen-year-old called me at the police station and told me the same thing happened to them, what would I call it?” My heart seems to stop and I take a sharp breath.

I know exactly what I’d call it—sexual assault.

I wouldn’t hesitate, I wouldn’t downplay it or dismiss it. I would tell them that it was one hundred percent, unequivocally, sexual assault. I would do everything in my power to make sure we got a statement from them, so it could be investigated, and I would assure them that the investigating officer would take it seriously and investigate it thoroughly. I know I would tell them this because I have told this to people in similar circumstances. And I know it would be investigated because I’ve seen it happen.

I once took a call from a woman whose buttocks were groped while on a bus. I didn’t roll my eyes when she told me the story. I didn’t think she was wasting police time and resources. I didn’t think she should just forget about it. I took it seriously, put in a call and the officer assigned to the file pulled the video from the bus and sent it out to everyone in the station in an attempt to identify the suspect. I don’t know how it turned out, if the suspect was identified and charged, but I know the officer tried.

Before I became a Special Constable in Communications, I didn’t know such an incident constituted sexual assault, and was surprised when my trainer explained it to me. I thought sexual assault only applied to rape. I’ve been working at the police station, answering calls and questions regarding sexual assault for ten years. How could I have not recognized that what happened to me was sexual assault and why does it still seem like a term that doesn’t fit?

It was the early 1980s when I started ninth grade. I wonder what an officer would have said if I told them about what happened. I wonder what the laws were at the time. I think about what the conversation surrounding sexual assault was at the time. I laugh because I know the answer. There was no conversation. There was no How to Tell if You’ve Been Sexually Assaulted quiz in Teen Magazine. I think I knew about rape and molestation, but in my mind rape and molestation happened in back alleys and white vans in cities. Rapists and molesters were evil, ugly strangers lurking in the shadows. Stuff like that didn’t happen in a small-town school classroom with a nice teacher and surrounded by childhood friends. If I didn’t think what happened at the time was wrong, maybe that’s why I never viewed what happened as a sexual assault, even after I had learned what sexual assault actually was.

I also begin to wonder if the reason I never thought what happened to me was wrong was because I didn’t have the language for it. I remember what I said to the teacher when I begged him to do something, “Please make him stop bothering me.”

Bothering me.

That’s how I described it. Like he had been playing Keep Away with my pencil case. If the teacher hadn’t seen what the boy did and asked me to describe it, what would I have said? I would have been too embarrassed to say breast, butt or genitals. I would have been too embarrassed to point to the places he grabbed. Even if I’d told someone else who hadn’t witnessed it, another teacher, my parents, or my older brothers, who might have gone down to the school to teach him a lesson, what could I have said? How could I have described it, if I couldn’t bring myself to show or say? What words did I have? Even if I did manage to say he grabbed my breasts, genitals and buttocks, would they have thought it was wrong? A violation? A crime? Would they have helped me? I think about the teacher who repeatedly witnessed it, who saw me struggle to get away. Who I begged for help.

I remember his reaction: a blank look.

Bothering me.

My co-worker Jenn once told me a story about her friend who is a sheriff and works in the courthouse of a small Saskatchewan town. One of this sheriff ’s duties is guarding during court and she has worked during numerous sexual assault cases. She noticed that when the victims from the town testified, they all used the same term to describe the sexual assault. They called it a bothering. It doesn’t sound so bad when it’s described like that.

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Photo of Karin Martel

A Canadian transplant from the American Midwest, Karin Martel makes her home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with her partner, Jeff. While homeschooling their children, Maddie and Max she worked part time writing for the documentary series Legend Hunters, Injustice and 100 Saskatchewan Stories. Her non-fiction has been published in Spring Magazine. After being fired from her teaching position by her children, Karin changed gears and became a Special Constable with the Saskatoon Police Service where she worked for thirteen years as a 911 operator, police call taker and police dispatcher. She is currently serving as the SPS ViCLAS Coordinator, a position which requires her to read and document every sexual assault reported to the Saskatoon Police. Karin currently writes non-fiction related to her memoir Shop Class Hall Pass. When she runs out of things to say about that, she’ll move on to fiction.