My mother is courageous, but faced with a man in her change room at Ottawa’s Nepean Sportsplex she went silent

For the past 40 years, my mother, Lynne Cohen,* has gone swimming several times a week at her local pool in Ottawa. Beginning in her teens and continuing off and on throughout her life, she swam competitively on teams and in triathlons. Her local pool has served both as her training ground and as her go-to for regular exercise. After decades, she knows most of the other regular swimmers, some of whom have become good friends. The pool has been a central part of her life for years now, but last month her once innocuous activity became unsafe.

Last week, as always, my mother finished her swim and went to the changerooms to shower. She and the other ladies — also regulars at the Nepean Sportsplex — chatted in the showers, catching up on news as they always do. My mother wrapped herself in a towel as she stepped out of the shower. There, facing away from her, was a naked man. Shocked, my mother hurried over to a corner of the changeroom to get dressed. The man, now standing across the changeroom, was over six feet tall, with a combover. He got dressed, turned around and leered at her, then left the changeroom.

Shaken, my mother rushed over to her friend, asking if she had seen “the man in the women’s changeroom.” The other woman nervously confirmed that yes, she had. They continued their conversation in hushed voices, afraid and feeling violated, yet did not mention a thing to community centre staff.

My mother is 66 years old and no shrinking violet. A longtime journalist in Ottawa, her writing reflects her heterodox views and tenacity for challenging dominant narratives. I have never known her in any circumstance to shy away from confrontation. In the decades she has been swimming at this pool, she has had several run-ins with the lifeguards, management, and other swimmers. From too-slow swimmers clogging up the fast lane to the Covid-related mask mandates, my mother has always fearlessly spoken her mind. During Covid, she fought back so relentlessly against having to wear a mask on the pool deck for the few minutes before entering the water that we worried she might end up in handcuffs. She wasn’t charged, but she did face a short-term suspension from all City of Ottawa pools as a result of her protests.

Yet when a man walked naked through the changeroom while she was in her most vulnerable state, my mother went silent.

Ten years ago, this incident would have been viewed unequivocally as a crime. Someone would have called the police, and the man would have been arrested. He would have been labelled a sexual predator and likely charged with voyeurism. But today, not one woman in the changeroom dared speak up, complain, or request help from staff in dealing with the issue.

These women would have very recently been considered the vulnerable population in this situation, and had the power of both social norms and the law on their side, yet now were self-silencing. Why?

We all know why: with four magic words — “I am a woman” — the intruder and potential predator becomes the vulnerable one, thereby protected from criticism, punishment, or accountability. Today’s political climate demands he be welcomed with open and loving arms into the female-only spaces, and that anyone who says different is labelled not only insensitive, but hateful.

The most astounding part of this story is that no one in the changeroom even asked if he identified as a man or a woman. For all anyone knows, this anatomically male individual may have been totally unaware that he had access to a convenient loophole. For all we know he might have answered, “Of course I’m a man, but I wanted to undress in the women’s changeroom.” Why then, did not a single woman say anything?

After my mother told me what happened to her, my initial reaction, like that of my father’s, was outrage. I was furious. To my mind, she was the victim of a crime. I kept asking her, “Why didn’t you say something?” Her answer was, “What’s the point?”

For the rest of the day, I was disturbed and shaken. I had to force the incident out of my mind just to function, to take care of my kids, to act normal. I was afraid not only for my mother, for myself, and for my daughter (how could I ever safely take her to the pool or any other place where she would have to undress, knowing at any moment she could be exposed to a naked man?), but for the entire world.

There is a saying, “Where there is no God, there is absurdity.” I am a religious person and believe this statement in a literal sense. I believe that human beings are not only physical beings, but deeply spiritual ones. Once our food and shelter are managed, we search for meaning. Humans have souls that require sustenance just as our stomachs do. A Higher Power and religion meet the needs of our spiritual longing and free our minds to deal with this physical world and all of its infinite challenges.

But I also believe that in this quote “God” can be interpreted to mean “objective and universal truths” — transcendent truths, immune to the whims of man. Where there is no truth, there is absurdity.

Postmodernism and gender ideology have helped society cast off the chains of objective, universal and verifiable truths. Mercurial self-identification is now the North Star that guides us. We left God and are now knee-deep in absurdity.

I won’t even address the massive issue that is decades of hard fought for women’s rights eroded within just a handful of years on account of gender ideology and the belief that “trans women are women.” Many more intelligent and stronger women have taken this issue head on.

I’m just a little person: a stay-at-home mom trying to launch each one of my children into this world. But what is a world or society where a woman is violated and can’t speak up because everyone will turn on her and call her a bigot? Where a person cannot name a crime and perpetrator? Where a person cannot speak the truth about the reality before her eyes?

We’ve become two different peoples speaking two very different languages and believing in two modes of living. One camp believes in some form of objective truth and labels humans as either male or female. There are endless variations in the ways that humans express themselves, but there are only two sexes. The other camp believes in a post-modernist version of constructed truth and that there are dozens of “fluid” genders that negate sex and biology. They also believe that anyone who does not subscribe to this belief is a heretic and as evil as a Nazi.

How do these two camps speak to one another? The two belief systems require very different laws and social norms. If there are only two sexes, the man in my mother’s story is not allowed in the women’s changeroom. If sex is a social construct and can change through self-declaration or self-perception, that man can be a woman and is therefore allowed in the women’s changeroom. Today, it seems the latter camp has won, and we no longer share a common understanding of basic truths or even of language. Words like  “man” or “woman” that were once universal are no longer.

A society that does not have a shared language cannot share thoughts. A society that is divided on whether or not there is an objective truth, outside of our own feelings and emotions, cannot set laws or policies that work for the broadest range of people.

A society where women and girls are cowed into silence when a crime is perpetrated against them for fear of being labelled the enemy is a shaky society indeed.

*Editor’s note: Lynne Cohen, the author’s mother, gave permission to publish her full name in this piece on June 11, 2023, after original publication.

Lindsy Danzinger is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her three children. She lives with her husband and children in Toronto, Ontario.

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