Imagine you’re an architect in a private consultation with a client when suddenly he unzips his pants, starts masturbating in front of you, reaches climax, and then asks you for a tissue, acting like nothing happened. After you recover from the shock, imagine you report the incident to police and the police officer tries to dissuade you from filing a complaint, because “you have to be prepared to have weirdos” and happy endings are just “part of the business.”
Would you be livid? Flabbergasted? Disappointed? Worried about how many other people have been dismissed the same way? Would you, as a reader, react differently if the incident happened to a registered massage therapist rather than a doctor, an architect or a bartender? Would it matter? Should it matter?
I felt a combination of those emotions – and many more – while reading a CBC Montreal story about Claudia Cavaliere, a certified massage therapist who had a male client masturbate in front of her and then was discouraged from filing a report by a Montreal police officer who said “happy endings are part of the business” and she shouldn’t “be emotional” about such misunderstandings occasionally happening.
I’m not sure how the average, hardened, experienced city cop would react to someone pulling out their penis and masturbating in front of them while they’re trying to do their jobs, but I would venture a guess that the average person might get a little “emotional” about it.
Cavaliere, for the record, didn’t go weak-kneed, histrionically clutch at her pearls, or ask for fainting salts. There was nothing “emotional,” overdramatized, or exaggerated about her reaction. She didn’t shriek and swat at him, which she would have been perfectly justified in doing. She merely walked out of the room and straight to a police station to report the incident, in hopes the man would be nabbed and so prevented from doing it to another unsuspecting victim.
Instead of serving and protecting, the police officer decided to forego the basic requirements of their job and instead gave her unsolicited life and career advice about what she should expect to experience and learn to live with as a massage therapist.
Massage therapists do not provide "happy endings"
It is troubling that this police officer appeared to confuse massage therapy that so many of us rely on to cure physical ailments with legal, regulated massage parlours where sexual release is occasionally offered. While happy endings are legal in Montreal, they are not provided by certified and licensed massage therapists who are closer to physiotherapists in the services they provide and who usually work out of athletic therapy clinics, gyms, and spas. Cavaliere works at a spa offering legitimate massage sessions. That means this man confused the spa for a massage parlour, in which case the onus was on him to confirm while making the appointment and before whipping out his penis, or he knew exactly what he was doing and got off on the voyeurism and the absence of consent. In either case, it’s not ok, it qualifies as unwanted sexual behaviour, and she had every right to file a police report.
What’s deeply offensive and worrisome about the police officer’s reaction is how many layers of ordinary sexism, and dismissive, patronizing behaviour, not to mention utter laziness, can be found in this solitary incident. It may be telling about how women’s complaints about inappropriate sexual contact are routinely treated.
The case is innocuous enough that it doesn’t classify as sexual aggression (because the man didn’t attempt to touch her in any way), so many people will make the mistake of laughing it off as inconsequential. They shouldn’t.
The issue at the heart of this incident is consent. At a massage parlour, the client is not only paying for a massage, he’s paying for sexual release. It is a consensual transaction. That is most certainly not what happened here and police should not dismiss legitimate claims, nor attempt to dissuade a citizen from filing a report. They should simply do their jobs.
Cavaliere, I should add, is 20 years old and barely a few months out of massage school. She had the composure to challenge the police officer's attempt to dismiss her complaint and, when she realized he was patronizing her and minimizing the incident as unworthy of attention, she was smart enough to start recording their interaction. She then went back, filed a report and now is also bringing his behaviour to light. Doing so requires energy, time, and strength of character and I commend her for it.
The ordinary sexism of dismissing women's experiences of assault
You might ask what if the police officer was trying to do her a favour by advising against pursuit of a a case that probably wouldn’t go anywhere. First, this wasn’t the police officer’s call to make. He had no job minimizing the incident and treating her as a child. The tone in the recording aggravated me because I recognized it. I, too, heard the exact same dismissive tone when I attempted to file a complaint against a Twitter user a few years ago for sending me violent rape threats. When I called the Montreal police department to report the incident and ask what I could do to ensure that there was at least a police file in case it escalated further, the “advice” I received was, “It’s social media and this stuff is hard to monitor. Just block him.” It was only after I told the police officer that I worked in media that the police officer backtracked and told me I should come in to report it, but once again, said that little could be done and it would not be treated as any kind of priority.
In many cases it’s indeed true that a case will go nowhere. It is, however, how Cavaliere, and many other victims, are treated and how the police respond to them that is under scrutiny here.
Ultimately, what this incident reveals, is how ordinary sexism continues to prevail in women’s lives and how sexual harassment and sexual violence are too often treated as “necessary evils” that should be tolerated by women for the sake of social peace. The waitress or bartender who’s told “it’s part of the job” and what else can you do but tolerate the paying “weirdos.” The female journalist who awkwardly laughs off someone yelling “FHITP” while she’s on camera so she doesn't appear too sensitive. The young female student who’s groped on a packed bus, the worker whose boss is too handsy, the intern who can’t keep far enough from her supervisor, the rape victim who is asked by the cops, "Are you sure it was rape?" Why is sexual harassment such a right of passage for so many women and why are errant and unwanted penises something we need to unemotionally shrug off as part of the landscape? It’s not ok.
Montreal Inspector Ian Lafrenière said interactions like these do not look good for the force and readily acknowledged that it’s wrong.
"When I hear stories like that, it makes me very sad," he was quoted as saying, CBC News reported on May 6.
I would encourage sad Inspector Lafrenière not to get too emotional about this and to, instead, find solutions. Not all front-line officers receive specialized training in sexual assault cases. Perhaps that’s a good starting point. Being able to empathize with a victim when they have the courage to come forward is a first step.
Ultimately, there’s nothing innocuous about police reactions like these. The officer’s dismissal of her complaint is indicative of a much larger systemic problem when it comes to taking women’s experiences and sexual assault seriously. Robyn Doolittle’s extensive Globe & Mail report revealed how complicity and minimization of the harms of sexual violence infect every aspect of our system, and how, even when women do work up the courage to report sexual assault, on average, police dismiss one in five complaints as unfounded. It's not difficult to figure out that women's complaints of harassment and sexual abuse in the sex industry are dismissed even more frequently, since the abuse is often seen by many as the inevitable "consequences" of working in that field.
Inappropriate sexual behaviour should not be part of anyone’s job. Even sex workers must consent to sexual contact and no one signs up for assault when they walk into work. Having a police officer attempt to normalize abusive behaviour, justify it as an unfortunate misunderstanding, or lazily dissuade the victim from pursuing a complaint is not only disrespectful, but ultimately extremely harmful to both current and future victims. People who find the courage to come forward with a complaint deserve better.