Competing for Jian Ghomeshi, and Other Dumb Things Women Do

jealous_friend_xlargeIt’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.

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*From the Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A National Survey of Canadians’ Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs: Focus on Gender

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.

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6 Replies to “Competing for Jian Ghomeshi, and Other Dumb Things Women Do”

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful and informed article. You’ve obviously taken more trouble than me to go into the details of Ghomeshi’s accusers than I have, so I can’t comment on that. I was asked by Canadian media last year whether it seemed likely that Ghomeshi was being honest about his BDSM proclivities. I said that while choking was certainly a kink, its one that anyone who cared about their partner would take a lot of trouble to move up to gradually, with lots of checking on consent–given the huge dangers involved. The idea that you would just roll out this kink at a party seemed unlikely to me. What you say though seems highly plausible–in other words there were people enabling him and giving him a bye for his rotten behavior because of his fame and money.

  2. Wow! I haven’t been following the Ghomeshi story as closely as I should have, but your account is persuasive(and shocking). Thanks for the insights.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful and balanced article that reflects considered social and psychological analysis in place of the usual ideological blame game. Your willingness to see deeper into social behaviours, and to speak candidly about that, is genuinely appreciated.

  4. I am a male who lived with physical & emotional domestic violence for most of my 20 year marriage. I still live with emotional violence even now that I am divorced & separated. Yes, due to the fact I want to see my children, I am forced to put up with severe abuse.
    I got a phone call of a supporter who saw one of my online posts last week. He proclaimed his full support regarding my cause wholeheartedly ( the amending of current legislation ), but even though there was no reason whatsoever to suspect I had done anything wrong, he felt he had to ask if I was ever charged with abuse of any kind. He made it clear, that no matter how powerful the evidence, that a man can and will never be a victim in Canada.
    Like any man claiming abuse, we must show proof beyond proof to be 51 % believed. Ben is not my real name, but this is my real voice & situation on my Youtube videos. If my children can be left out of it, I am up to volunteering my life or what I have left of it after years of abuse. I will tell the truth & share my flaws which are many.
    It is not lost on me that if your article was written by a man, it would be written off and discarded by society.
    Thank You,
    ( one video is parental alienation, one is entrapment & the last is a false allegation of attempted child apprehension used to maliciously alienate me from my children forever ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2dpl5XrkH8

  5. Your courageous and clear articulation of common yet unspoken social norms is refreshing. I’m sorry you had the role models you tell about, but they are likely the reason you are now able to say in your column what you essentially said to your parents, “Stop the baloney and check out the reality”.

    Of course, your premise of how badly women can behave is supported by the rarely referred to science done by the few studies allowed on the subject. Canadian researchers Don Dutton, Edward Kruk, and Statscan (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2016001/article/14303/01-eng.htm), have all reported findings which show men and women are not much different in their aggressive and abusive behaviours. However, most commentators and more harmfully, all governments legislate as though other realities exist.

    Thank you for your clarity.

  6. Excellent article. I’m in a relationship with a woman that is abusive and an alcoholic. Much of the ghomeshi situation reminds me of my own experiences with abusive women.

    My wife and I are in the process of separating but live together. Getting away from her involves taking very small steps. I’ve tried to leave before but the emotional devastation she tried to bring on my life quickly made me reverse course.

    I’m trying to get to a point where she thinks she can do better.

    A common thing I find is that she would constantly accuse me of things and talk out a narrative that had nothing to do with the reality of our life or situation. I felt I was on the set of a soap opera. Drinking would almost always end in a one sided argument. So much so that whenever she drinks I turn on an audio recorder just in case she decided to call the police. Knowing the recorder was on brought me a huge amount of peace. It allowed me to sit back and just let her do whatever it is that she was going to do. I’ve literally just sat there while she repeatedly smashed a piece of wood against my leg. The whole time just looking at her.

    In that incident she actually called the police to mediate the argument even though I had said nothing. When they arrived I showed them the pictures of my leg and explained that I had audio of the whole thing. I was told by the officers that if one of us didn’t leave that I would be arrested !!!!

    The next day or two brought a non-apology, apology from her. A week later I overheard a retelling by her to her parents and friends that I had been the one that was verbally abusive, was using her, and cheating on her. All make believe.

    Our relationship started out as open which she consented too but now in relationship mode, she assumes I am continuing just because half of my close friends are female.

    Women like this lie and twist and modify relationships to suit their narrative. Whenever they want sympathy from friends and family, the man is abusive and they are the one holding things together. When they feel asexual, the guy that they are in an open honest tell all relationship with, is a lying cheating man whore.

    My advise if your in an abusive relationship you cannot easily flee, record and document EVERY abusive interaction. Women like this will lie and twist and manipulate every word, action and situation if you let them. Don’t rub the documentation in their faces, just hold onto it in a safe place for if it ever goes to court.

    We are living in an age where technology is finally able to bring these psychological abusers to justice. The legal system just hasn’t caught up yet.

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