It’s hard to avoid stories of emotional survivors these days, especially when it comes to domestic violence and sexual abuse. These narratives are familiar: they’re about hardship endured, transformation achieved and virtue rewarded.
They’re tales as old as Cinderella.
However, while seeing virtue rewarded is satisfying, in real life these stories may conceal an unpleasant fact: some survivors have indeed suffered, but their love of melodrama is the real culprit. Stories of women who overcome difficulties, but do so privately and without much fanfare, aren’t fascinating enough for some women. From their perspective, those female dullards who suffer and grow up anyway, without any fireworks, are to be pitied.
The arrogance of this perspective shouldn’t surprise us. For all their cries of sisterhood, self-proclaimed survivors, like Jian Ghomeshi’s accusers, often feel superior to other women. That’s not news to those of us with more rational ideas about sisterhood; some of us see a wide swath of female competitiveness running through the stories we’re hearing lately, one that suggests another paradigm for interpretation. What many feminists see as the results of “social conditioning” and “low self-esteem” may just be signs of what used to be known as poor character.
A recent experience with 40-ish friends I’ll call Jane and Jeff is illustrative. It started when Jane responded to Jeff’s profile on a dating site. Like a lot of men these days, Jeff was playing it safe and winnowing down his pool of potentials by pre-emptively announcing his belief in open relationships. Jane was more conventional but infatuated with him nonetheless, so she relegated that detail to the fine print. In the following months, she breathlessly and, yes, annoyingly, talked about him to the exclusion of everything else that had previously made her interesting.
The problems started when Jane’s friends, myself included, received an overwrought message announcing that Jeff had “cheated” on her. I was surprised at her wording since Jeff had made his preferences known and she had apparently accepted them. When she messaged everyone again, a week later, she announced she and Jeff had reconciled and were planning on starting a family. When she mentioned babies, I dispensed with my usual tact and suggested she would be stuck with a cheater for a long time if she went ahead with her plans.
What I wasn’t saying, of course, was that he would be stuck with her too, a woman determined to form a bond on her terms, terms which clearly didn’t augur with his right to be himself. The next time I saw her, she airily waved away my concern as so much nonsense. There was fury beneath that airiness, however. Jane’s competitiveness emerged and she began treating me, a single woman, with not-so-subtle attitudes of arrogance and contempt.
My history with women like Jane goes back a long way, starting with my mother. Both my parents, in the last 20 years of their 40-year marriage, drank and fought a lot. Although those last two decades were the worst, the first two, or at least what I saw of them, weren’t always stable either. So knowing I wanted a better life, I worked and student-loaned my way through university. When I was in my 30s, I experienced an important turning point in my relationship with them.
It happened in Florida over one Christmas break. When the drinking and fighting culminated in my mother throwing a present at me, at 4:00 AM while I slept, I knew I’d had enough. It was Christmas day and when I got up, I called the airport and arranged for a flight back to Montreal. As I packed, I read both my parents the riot act: I told them they were equally childish and deserved each other. As I walked to the taxi, I threatened to change my name and disappear if they ever behaved badly in my presence again. It sounds dramatic now, but I was serious then.
The threat worked and what it taught me is this: when it’s in their best interest, most people will stop behaving badly. It also taught me something else: after years of observing my parents and reading up on domestic abuse, I knew the dominant narrative we have of it in Canada is hopelessly skewed. Most of it is not misogynistic; most of it involves substance abuse and is mutual in some way. The story of a vulnerable, abused woman, regularly beaten by her husband, is a distortion of another story, a story that for many children comes with a cultural dictum that forbids them from admitting–even to themselves–that their mother may be just as bad.*
Needless to say, this isn’t a popular perspective. But acknowledging its existence is necessary to counteract the pervasive belief that only women can be victims of domestic violence. Given all my research and experience, I find it curious that the male-on-female variation dominates in our culture to the extent that it does, overshadowing even parent-on-child violence, which is far more damaging. For example, when we do hear about child abuse, the default position is that the perpetrator is male and sex is involved. But by now we know women–mothers included–can be abusive and neglectful too. So why can’t we just say it?
The omission raises other important questions. With these cultural biases built into our social services, what are the children of those women supposed to think? That daddy is the bad guy, despite the fact that it’s mom who gets drunk first and starts fighting? That mom is right to keep the fridge stocked with beer because—nudge, nudge, wink, wink–controlling a drunk man who passes out every night is easier than controlling a sober one who doesn’t? What goes through children’s minds when they arrive at a shelter where the guiding narrative is ‘We have to hide from daddy because he’s bad,’ when what they’ve seen tells them mom isn’t much better? What does that distortion do to children?
The Ghomeshi trial is giving us an opportunity to talk about female patterns of abuse too. We can start with the denial that underlies much of it and end with the abuse that happens–to children, loved ones and the legal system–when the facts stop fitting a woman’s fantasy. Ghomeshi’s trouble started when an ex-girlfriend went through his phone looking for the numbers of other women he was seeing. As Jeff did with Jane, Ghomeshi clarified the extent of his commitment to this woman. The relationship was decidedly casual, so casual in fact that she came to regret it later.
It also appears she was hoping to round up other hurt women so they could collectively punish a man they believed had been dismissive with them. In terms of their anger, women like Ghomeshi’s accusers and Jane have a lot in common: their denial causes problems, yet when they seek support they usually, and quite arrogantly, dispute any advice that points to their own responsibility. My conversation with Jane is one I could have had with Ghomeshi’s ex months before she decided to go through his phone; however, she probably wouldn’t have listened either.
Turning to the question of Ghomeshi’s abusiveness, we must admit that it is just that, a question. His flirtatious texts indicate that instead of being deceptive with women, he was actually straightforward, lending credence to his assertion that he negotiated consent. For example, when some women indicated they just wanted to be friends, he gave them a polite version of “I’m not looking for friendship, thanks.” When some mentioned getting help with their careers, he made it clear he’d contacted them for “personal and not professional” reasons. These are strategies I’ve seen used by plenty of women over the years. If I can admire them for being bold and decisive, I have to concede Ghomeshi likely was too: his texts indicate that he announced his intentions. The question, of course, is did his accusers choose to believe him?
As those of us who have lived with others know, purposeful filtering is not always about low self-esteem–sometimes it’s about control. I plucked the following line from a comment thread because it is representative of much of the thinking out there: “Women who feel inferior often choose men who have lots of power and/or money. I would say this happened with Ghomeshi and his women.” But did these women suffer from low self-esteem or were they just being competitive? Didn’t they also fall for the allure of dating a celebrity, recognizing the admiration and power it would naturally confer on them?
Men like Ghomeshi may be in the habit of discarding women, but they never seem to want for female company. That’s because their power is an aphrodisiac and not only do women offer themselves freely, they freely do the dirty work too. I think of a university professor who was surrounded by an admiring circle of female students. Unbeknownst to some of us, these students engaged other students in conversations about him at his behest. His purpose? He reveled in intimidation. He read a casually uttered set of complaints I’d made about him back to me, verbatim, after calling me into his office to have a chat. Thanks to one of his loyal admirers, I felt forced to drop his course.
I think of a surgeon who operated on a family member. Without telling us, he’d deemed her life futile, so when she suffered a serious setback, in the midst of a recovery, the nurses on duty did everything except take meaningful steps to revive her. When I tried to investigate afterwards, I was stonewalled on one level, but enlightened, discreetly, on another. Several staff members told me that a surgical charge nurse, who was having an affair with the surgeon, had the power to change nurses’ schedules and revoke holidays. Apparently it was a power she wielded freely with those who contradicted the surgeon’s wishes. The nurses on duty that day failed to act because they feared her retribution, not his. I’ve since learned that the intimidating behaviour of women like her–mistresses with toxic loyalty, in other words–is common in Canadian hospitals.
This is what competitive behaviour among women looks like and it’s time we stopped minimizing its damage. The behaviour of Ghomeshi’s accusers deserves close scrutiny too: the idea that these women weren’t cognizant of their own motives may explain their poor choices, but it doesn’t excuse their poor behaviour, or the grief it’s caused others. These women are experiencing unpleasant consequences, not tragedies. That distinction needs to be more widely acknowledged and accepted, if only to protect the truly vulnerable: children and adults who legitimately lack the agency to protect themselves.
With regard to domestic harm arising from alcohol use, summary found on page 55: Among men, the rate of reported harm is similar to that of women, with having been insulted or humiliated the most common (22.3%), followed by having experienced verbal abuse (17.2%), serious arguments and quarrels (14.8%) and having been pushed or shoved (13.3%). In comparison to women, men reported fewer family or marriage problems resulting from others’ drinking (7.7%). However, men reported significantly higher rates of aggressive harms, including being pushed or shoved, verbally abused or being hit or physically assaulted.