Back in the 80s, I was in a Women’s Studies class when I had a revelation. The professor announced that a well-known feminist had uttered treacherous words, asserting women could “get over” rape. Pandemonium, complete with shrieking and wailing, made its way around the lecture hall like a stadium wave. I remember sitting quietly and thinking, but isn’t getting over rape a good thing?
It was yet another experience nudging me away from participating and toward observing, largely because the outsized drama added to my growing unease. I’d worked as a flight attendant in the Middle East before attending university. I’d heard harrowing stories from young Iranian women who had escaped that country’s revolution in 1979. I saw local women traveling, frequently, to European cities where they could shed their modesty clothing and live free of their culture’s expectations. On flights home, the confinement some felt became poignantly apparent.
When it came to Women Studies, my overseas adventure meant I had a larger, more complex scale with which to evaluate information. Eventually, I came to see that course not as a course but as a recruitment drive animated by contrived spectacles, all meant to tip students into frenzies that would in turn tip them into action. The problem was that traditional discourses about safety and self-preservation were collapsing at the same time. That collapse was a reaction to the victim-blaming presumed by those discourses, presumptions that had indeed been troubling and did need to go.
However, swinging too far in the other direction meant young women were out in the world challenging expectations without understanding the risks. They were also hearing that real power lay outside themselves (rather than within) and disrupting gender norms, by any means necessary, was the way to claim it. Combining those messages–disregard your safety and fight like mad–turned many young women into obedient foot soldiers who of course suffered. That’s not to say their activism wasn’t productive, but they’ve given birth to a younger generation of feminists whose frame of reference is still stuck in the 80s. It’s that inattention to changed realities that’s made an unexpected menace possible: the razing sweep of the #MeToo movement.
In her recent Harper’s article, “The Other Whisper Network,” Katie Roiphe recounted a conversation she had with a friend about disgraced Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. She describes the conversation as a detour into a private, factually fluid world, one fed by rumours that would normally be considered puerile were it not for their apparent, edifying intent: Here are the horrors Lorin Stein inflicted on X, Y and Z–pass it on. It’s stirring information that trips the hard-wired misandry buried in most women’s psyches, and Roiphe was honest enough to admit she indulged in it before returning to the more rational process of examining the facts: despite Stein’s admissions of bad behaviour, he had been a gifted editor and solid supporter of women writers, many of whom she could name. In the end, she whittled down Stein’s comme ci, comme ça behaviours, providing a measured analysis that included ambiguity, a far cry from the inelegance of zero tolerance policies and #MeToo thinking.
That thinking gets the same treatment in Claire Berlinski’s, “The Warlock Hunt.” She describes a sublimated attraction she shared with an older man and the power it gave her:
I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don who at a drunken Christmas party danced with me, grabbed a handful of my bum, and slurred, “I’ve been dying to do this to Berlinski all term!” …He…had power over me, sensu stricto. I was a 20-year-old undergraduate. But I also had power over him—power sufficient to cause a venerable don to make a perfect fool of himself at a Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, I loved having that power.
Roiphe and Berlinksi’s anecdotes fall on opposite ends of a power spectrum. Reflecting on Stein’s victims, Roiphe voices the powerlessness some women feel when it comes to sexual harassment. Reflecting on her randy don, Berlinksi expresses the pleasures of having sexual power over him and, by extension, other men. These experiences are familiar to most women, but they are not daily events, a misleading aspect of the #MeToo campaigners’ insistence that sexual harassment is ubiquitous. For many of us, the norm is living in the middle of that spectrum, a neutral place where, when it comes to men we’re not intimate with, nothing too daring or dastardly happens. It’s middle ground where we may roll our eyes at men or engage in low-level flirting, but where we co-exist with them harmoniously nonetheless.
And that middle ground is worth defending. I imagine it as a vast territory akin to our Canadian north or the Australian outback: it’s vulnerable, understaffed and deserves protection from the misandrist feminists who would have us believe every man is a potential rapist. Feminists of this ilk are very active in Canada, and I fear we’re becoming a cautionary tale to the rest of the world because of them.
That’s due to the fact that many of them work in, or adjunct to, our legal systems as lawyers and professors. A look at the parade of recent scandals presents a troubling pattern: when social media isn’t being used to ruin careers, legal processes themselves, as disruptive and expensive as they are, are weaponized instead. Five cases stand out:
1. The first is the most celebrated trial, that of broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, which started in 2016. He was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance (to sex) by choking. Of his three accusers, one misidentified the car she claimed to have been assaulted in. (Ghomeshi had only purchased it months after the alleged assault.) The second sent him love letters after their relationship ended and colluded with the other two complainants to coordinate their stories; the third kept seeing him romantically after her alleged assault, but did not admit this to police. The judge made these closing remarks: “The cross-examination dramatically demonstrated that each complainant was less than full, frank and forthcoming in the information they provided to the media, to the police, to Crown counsel and to this court.” Ghomeshi was acquitted.
2. The 2016 Twitter harassment trial of Gregory Alan Elliott ended with these words from the judge: [Elliott] cannot be imputed with knowledge that [the complainant] was harassed by his tweeting. Mr. Elliott was not responsible for that view, which is at least arguably incompatible with Twitter.” This was in response to accusations made by two Toronto feminist activists–Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly–who claimed they were harassed by Elliott over months of mutual Twitter exchanges. Theirs was a clear challenge to Canada’s laws governing free speech, which the judge upheld.
3. The 2016 Mandi Gray trial put fellow Ph.D. candidate, Mustafa Ururyar, on the stand for alleged rape. According to Ururyar, the two were dating casually. He agreed to let Gray stay over on the night of the alleged assault, but told her he wasn’t feeling well. Twice that same evening, while they were out with others, he had to ask her to stop touching him intimately. When they arrived at his apartment, he decided to end the relationship. They were intimate one last time, and the next day, Gray contacted the police. Her problems began when it was discovered she had sent him a text before meeting up: “I’m at Victory come drink and then we can have hot sex.” She had deleted it before going to police and then failed to disclose it. Rape charges against Ururyar were dropped after a wrongful conviction and successful appeal.
4. In 2015, Steven Galloway, chair of UBC’s creative writing department, was suspended over alleged sexual misconduct. The main complainant was a former lover, one Galloway had had a two-year relationship with when both were married. In an investigation conducted by an independent investigator, a retired judge, the complainant walked back her accusation. As of 2018, Galloway has not been reinstated at UBC.
5. The latest casualty is Patrick Brown, Conservative MP and former fore-runner in the coming election for provincial premier of Ontario. Two women accused him of sexual impropriety. However, details given by both do not hold up to scrutiny. One alleges Brown tried to seduce her while she was still in high school. The second accuser continued working with him in his constituency office for 18 months after an alleged assault. After Brown hired a private investigator, the first accuser changed her story dramatically. The second accuser’s account has been refuted by eye-witnesses, and her two conflict-of-interest links to CTV, the network that broke the story, have been revealed. Brown himself has passed a lie-detector test administered by a top polygraph expert.
In a legal sense, not one of these cases was winnable. Moreover, none of the accused was found guilty of any crime and yet all suffered ruination, financially and reputationally, losing jobs and running up huge legal bills. (Patrick Brown may yet turn out to be the exception.) I think of these cases as battering rams with great PR. The point is to keep battering our legal system until it gives way, and laws change to accommodate populist feminist demands, even when those demands compromise legal processes and fall afoul of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The devil is not in the details but in the ongoing spectacles, and in the cognitive dissonance of the victim narratives themselves, which at times is resounding.
For example, evidence exists that strongly suggests all these complainants have been dishonest, disingenuous or both, as some trial judges have confirmed. Perversely, that hasn’t stopped some feminists from treating these dismal outcomes as victories, with some politicians looking for votes cashing in. New Democrat MP Andrea Horwath said she had “two words” in response the news that Patrick Brown, a man she would have been running against, had stepped down. “Jian Ghomeshi,” she told reporters. For a politician to equate an acquitted man’s name with guilt is troubling enough, but even more troubling is the intention behind Horwath’s smear by association. She was suggesting her opponent was a criminal on the basis of evidence given by women who were thoroughly discredited in court.
And credibility matters, especially when the punishments are so arbitrary, final and staggering. The fact is that most of us make judgments based on a balance of probabilities, much in the same way our civil court systems settle material disputes. We add up facts like these: three of the above cases were instigated by women who had been rejected by the men they accused; men do rape ex-partners, but three cases coming together in a well-publicized cluster seems rather providential, especially for feminist lawyers looking to expand definitions of rape and create new laws, especially laws like Bill C-51 that will limit digital communications that are often exculpatory. With regard to Patrick Brown, a young conservative challenger to an incumbent feminist just may be getting set up by two women who, simultaneously, accused him of misconduct that allegedly happened five and ten years ago respectively. With regard to the Twitter trial, doxxing a young man–using social media reach to warn prospective employers against him–just might net the two feminist instigators some grief, an outcome that shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
These aren’t evil assumptions. They are sensible and reasonable and are being made by silent observers everywhere.
And “reasonable” should be our byword going forward because feminism, right now, isn’t much of a credit to itself, the Harvey Weinsteins of the world notwithstanding. To wit: if we extend the scope of dubious allegations further, events in the US support a pattern of questionable spectacles too: the fictional story of “Jackie,” the UVA student supposedly gang-raped at the hands of frat boys, and whose story was breathlessly told in Rolling Stone; Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University’s “Mattress Girl,” supposedly raped by an indifferent ex-lover who was exonerated; all the male students and professors whose reputations were ruined when Title IX laws were applied to relationships proven to be consensual. In the UK, Danny Kay, an apprentice welder, spent two years in prison for rape before his sister found archived Facebook messages proving his innocence; student Liam Allan spent almost two years on bail before police revealed they had text messages that exonerated him too.
Contrary to hashtags like #Ibelieveher, evidence in criminal proceedings is necessary to prove crimes have actually been committed, and sexual assault is only one of many where the burden of proof is difficult to meet. We would be better off giving advice aimed at prevention instead of being voyeurs and deciding for others how to parse consent down to the nanosecond. But until we get past the idea that giving advice and blaming the victim are two very different things, that won’t happen. That’s a conversation we need to have—without the men.
An outlier’s opinion should not have caused pandemonium in that lecture hall all those years ago, but the Women’s Studies professor announcing it made sure it did. That reckless urge to incite bothered me then and bothers me now. As a young woman, it told me that academic feminists weren’t interested in women’s welfare so as much as they were interested in their own careers. That didn’t lessen my commitment to equal rights, but it did make me wary of being used, especially when it came to my own buried misandry. Grown-up feminists like Roiphe and Berlinski are coming out and writing about this; it’s time to ditch the taught helplessness and start listening.