A Montreal journalist started an I-can’t-believe-Ghomeshi-got-off thread on Facebook. It triggered a lengthy debate, one he kept punctuating with comments about how our legal system is biased against women when it comes to sexual assault. Although I disagreed with much of what he said, I suspect it was the father in him speaking: he argued passionately and his despair seemed very real.
There are many responses to this: that the legal system is equally unfair to male victims, that sexual assault isn’t the only crime that’s difficult to prove, that our desire for privacy, when balanced against the need for safety, can make convictions difficult to secure. Altering the way we prosecute is often what is called for in the aftermath of cases like Ghomeshi’s, but these cries for justice, coming from those unfamiliar with the law, obscure much simpler solutions.
There are temporal points at which sexual abuse or assault can be minimized or even halted, but what this requires is a willingness, on the part of those who are able, to be more proactive on their own behalf. Prevention of any sort is rarely on the feminist radar, however. It’s become tainted by its close association with victim-blaming, an association we would be wise to undo.
There is also the misconception that older women like myself have it out for younger women caught up in the fight for better legal protection. Several journalists, and Christie Blatchford in particular, have been incorrectly labelled anti-feminist. I think they are just anti-suffering, as I am, and are using their voices (and in Blatchford’s case, her wildly pithy observations) to illustrate that much of the drama around Jian Ghomeshi is needlessly self-generated.
An anecdote might be helpful here. I once shared an apartment with a woman who was a few years my junior. She and I were both single, but our dating patterns were very different. She seemed drawn to pain while I tended, for the most part, to avoid it. When men did things I didn’t like, I made use of that lovely 50s concept, mad money. My escapades in dating made for a lot of laughs among my friends, but my intent was serious. I was determined to be an active player in my own happiness.
So it was frustrating when my roommate started dating a man I’ll call Pierre. I looked on as she fell into a painful and prolonged bout of self-destructive behaviour.
Pierre travelled a lot. He had a job that took him to Asia for three months at a time. When he returned to Montreal, he was typically off for three months, but even so, he only made time for my roommate once every couple of weeks. A pattern emerged: she would see him in this intermittent way while he was in town, and once he left, she would spent the next few weeks slamming cupboard doors and treating me with contempt. After a couple of cycles, I figured out how to gauge her mood and braced myself accordingly. By the fourth or fifth cycle, I asked her to move out.
But not before I tried talking to her. I was gentle in the beginning, but by the time a couple of years had passed, and she went out of her way to spoil a dinner party I was hosting, I lost patience and confronted her. I made the connection between her behaviour and her relationship and dared her, none too kindly, to let Pierre’s phone calls go to voice-mail the next time he was in town, just to see if he would make any real effort to see her. I told her that continuing to see a man who wasn’t committed to her was a choice she was making, that she needed to take responsibility for it and stop taking her frustrations out on others.
The point of the anecdote is this: watching people choose suffering can be difficult. Putting up with their unhappiness is tough too. It gets even tougher when the solution to their problems is clear: that they need to leave a bad relationship. But just as drug addicts need their drugs, these women need the drama of what is going to happen next? They are usually not willing to listen; the idea that they may be responsible for their own happiness is anathema to them.
What they do think is that women who try to talk sense to them are either jealous or prudish or both. And once they do let go of a relationship, they often swamp friends and family with their neediness.
These are also women who, like Lucy DeCoutere, arrogantly announce a “paradigm shift” by starting a hashtag like #Ibelievesurvivors, when slacktivism of that sort achieves nothing except to garner them more attention.
The fact is that seriously misguided people are not easy to be around. It’s hard enough being around people who are mourning the death of meaningful relationship or the death of a real person. Most of us have limited capacities for sympathy and extend ourselves to those whose problems feel worthy.
And that’s why some of us are taking a tough love approach to Ghomeshi’s accusers: we’re having a hard time whipping up sympathy because their problems don’t feel worthy. Yes, being hit is unpleasant and of course physical abuse is never okay. But the fact is these appear to be isolated incidents in these women’s lives and on the larger scale of grim experiences to be had in this world, they are certainly not the worst.
In short, these are bad dates, not bad lives. They didn’t marry their abuser. They weren’t forced to marry their abuser. Apparently their abuser warned them he liked rough sex. Given these facts, a lot of us are watching the Ghomeshi carnival unfold and asking, “What gives?”
If we’re going to have a paradigm shift here, what about this? Why don’t we teach young people that the best defence against abuse is self-awareness? That the moment a sexual partner makes them uncomfortable, is the moment they have a chance to do something about it. That going along with sexual momentum is safer when you’re with a partner you trust and trust isn’t something that develops overnight. That calling a friend, or some sort of help line, to talk about discomfort is one way to determine where your boundaries are.
What isn’t okay, and what is frustrating to a lot of us, is the expectation that our police and our legal system should protect those who don’t seem interested in protecting themselves. That may be fine for children–they lack the maturity and emotional resources to do it–but it’s hardly fine for women who expect to be taken seriously as adults.
Below is an excerpt of a text describing Julian Assange’s experience with Sweden’s sexual assault laws (also taken from The Guardian). Although the article was meant to defend the women accusing Assange of assault, its tone, and account of the facts points to a legal response we in Canada should be wary of. I’m not sure I want our nation’s police officers fielding “torn condom” complaints.
[One accuser’s] account to police, which Assange disputes, stated that he began stroking her leg as they drank tea, before he pulled off her clothes and snapped a necklace that she was wearing. According to her statement she “tried to put on some articles of clothing as it was going too quickly and uncomfortably but Assange ripped them off again”. Miss A told police that she didn’t want to go any further “but that it was too late to stop Assange as she had gone along with it so far”, and so she allowed him to undress her.
According to the statement, Miss A then realised he was trying to have unprotected sex with her. She told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs. The statement records Miss A describing how Assange then released her arms and agreed to use a condom, but she told the police that at some stage Assange had “done something” with the condom that resulted in it becoming ripped, and ejaculated without withdrawing.
When he was later interviewed by police in Stockholm, Assange agreed that he had had sex with Miss A but said he did not tear the condom, and that he was not aware that it had been torn. He told police that he had continued to sleep in Miss A’s bed for the following week and she had never mentioned a torn condom.
On the following morning, Saturday 14 August, Assange spoke at a seminar organised by Miss A. A second woman, Miss W, had contacted Miss A to ask if she could attend. Both women joined Assange, the co-ordinator of the Swedish WikiLeaks group, whom we will call “Harold”, and a few others for lunch.
Assange left the lunch with Miss W. She told the police she and Assange had visited the place where she worked and had then gone to a cinema where they had moved to the back row. He had kissed her and put his hands inside her clothing, she said.
That evening, Miss A held a party at her flat. One of her friends, “Monica”, later told police that during the party Miss A had told her about the ripped condom and unprotected sex. Another friend told police that during the evening Miss A told her she had had “the worst sex ever” with Assange: “Not only had it been the world’s worst screw, it had also been violent.”
Assange’s supporters point out that, despite her complaints against him, Miss A held a party for him on that evening and continued to allow him to stay in her flat.
On Sunday 15 August, Monica told police, Miss A told her that she thought Assange had torn the condom on purpose. According to Monica, Miss A said Assange was still staying in her flat but they were not having sex because he had “exceeded the limits of what she felt she could accept” and she did not feel safe.
The following day, Miss W phoned Assange and arranged to meet him late in the evening, according to her statement. The pair went back to her flat in Enkoping, near Stockholm. Miss W told police that though they started to have sex, Assange had not wanted to wear a condom, and she had moved away because she had not wanted unprotected sex. Assange had then lost interest, she said, and fallen asleep. However, during the night, they had both woken up and had sex at least once when “he agreed unwillingly to use a condom”.