I’m concerned by Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged victims taking to the media instead of using proper legal channels. If even one had reported her assault to an authority, like a rape crisis centre, things may have turned out differently.
In my 20s, I took a Women’s Studies course at the University of Toronto. It was taught in a large theatre classroom where about 200 of us would squeeze in. Only one male student was brave enough to join us.
Around midterm, an explosive idea was raised and, like a stadium wave, it travelled around the room accompanied by indignant cries and foul language. That idea had a profound effect on me, but instead of stirring my anger, it signalled the beginning of the end of my love affair with conventional feminism. Students wept when they heard that a dissident feminist, in an act of unspeakable treachery, proclaimed it was possible for victims of sexual or any kind of assault to “get over it”.
The class’ reaction was troubling: three years earlier I had experienced an “intimate” assault. I fought off my attacker, but the incident left me shaken. I took up Women’s Studies in the hopes of putting my experience into a rational framework and filing it in the mental basement of my mind.
My intentions were good, but the solution wasn’t. The problem with much of what passes for contemporary feminism – the sort taught in universities – is that it can put pressure on women to turn their victimhood into their life’s work. Far from finding peace, my anger over the assault was reawakened; I needed hours after each class to decompress.
Eventually, the larger conflict became this: I wanted to participate, wanted to make change in the world. What I didn’t want was to reinvent my life as a perennial victim just because I’d had the misfortune of encountering one bad man. So a tension grew between the theoretical framework I was absorbing and the reality of my life. In the end I felt urged to prolong my victimhood, not because it was good for me, but because it was good for the cause. My solution to that was dilemma simple: just as one becomes a lapsed Catholic, I became a lapsed feminist. I’ve never looked back.
The events unfolding around Jian Ghomeshi remind me of that class full of indignant women. The contagion effect of potent anger is unfolding here too – first an ex-girlfriend spoke up and now there are nine women claiming they were assaulted. It’s only now, after days of building tension and concerns over scant evidence, that some of these women are actually pressing charges. In my opinion, it’s about time.
The overarching theme of the Ghomeshi spectacle is that women are naturally afraid to speak up after an assault. The thinking goes that victims fear they will be assaulted again, emotionally, by a society that will judge them. I sympathize, but must add that these women’s voices aren’t the only ones being silenced: women like me, who have also experienced assaults, and have gone through official channels to deal with them, are being pilloried for daring to ask for proof. And if we’re wondering about proof, you can rest assured men are wondering too. The difference is that because they are men, they’re not going to ask.
In my case I reported my assault, but not right away and not to the police. I went to a rape crisis centre at the urging of a campus counsellor. Through that crisis centre, I filed what was then called a “third party report.” These are documents that report the details of an assault, and are kept by the police, but are not used immediately in a legal sense. They are there to bolster subsequent reports of assaults if the perpetrator is the same, and to help those subsequent victims know they are not alone. Subsequent victims can then ask previous victims to come forward to file multiple charges with them. This makes winning a case easier.
What bothers me about Ghomeshi’s accusers is that they have taken a very public route, one that sensationalizes their encounters with him and has the definite scent of retribution. The reporting done by the Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan and Canadaland’s Jesse Brown isn’t helping. Despite minimizing evidence of complicity, it’s clear that for some of these women, their status as full-blown victims is at best unclear.
And that’s because given the rights, freedoms and resources women have these days, it’s hard to understand why some of his accusers kept going back or walked straight into trouble when they knew it was likely. Ghomeshi’s claims that the violence was consensual is questionable too, but the behaviour of his victims, unfortunately, raises more questions than answers. I’m not the only one wondering if some of those encounters weren’t just episodes of mutual incompetence.
Back to the 80s
During that class, when everyone’s ire was raised over the “women get over rape” sentiment, I was sitting next to another woman who was a lot like me. She too grew up in rural Ontario, around farmers, and had witnessed a division of labour that looked fairly equitable.
Farming is a difficult business and in some seasons, all hands are required on deck, male and female. I had grown up in such a family and it was that work ethic, and especially the non-gendered aspect of it, that made me feel I could do anything.
So that day, as I pondered whether recovery from assault was possible, I’m sure a bereft look crossed my face. That’s when my friend, who knew about my experience, leaned over and suggested I read Nancy Friday. At the time, I had no idea why she said this, but do wish I had acted on her advice sooner.
That’s because several years later, a short relationship with a difficult man had me tearing my hair out. I had come to the realization he was a womanizer and knew I could not carry on. The break-up was amicable, but what followed were months of strange encounters with mutual friends. When I discovered he was spreading unflattering stories about me, the encounters made sense. A confrontation wasn’t in order – it would only make things worse – so when I wandered into a used book store and came across a book of Friday’s, I remembered my friend and picked it up. The book seemed germane to my problem.
It was. What Friday did was put my ex’s actions in an anthropological framework. Men, she posits, are afraid of jealous feelings and so often “mark” women territorially so that in the short term other men will consider them off limits. This is a short version of a fuller version of this theory Friday explored, with considerable depth, in her book Jealousy. Discovering Friday was a revelation. In an immediate sense, the resentment I felt toward my ex evaporated. In a general sense, her theories offered an alternative feminist framework that suited me.
Now, in 2014
Feminists like Caitlin Moran are right when they say young women aren’t interested in feminism. But the reasons cited by Moran and other feminists are incomplete. Another issue can be found in quotations like this one, taken from the online publication, MIC. This was about a presentation made to American university students:
The presentation included tips from the school’s Substance Abuse & Violence coordinator Cory Rosenkranz, who advised students on how to dress, how much to drink and how to use body language that would lessen the chances of assault. Students expressed outrage over what was seen over a misguided effort to shift the burden of sexual assault onto victims.
“She was saying that women need to watch their body language and that women should practice how they articulate their face [in a social setting] by practicing in the mirror,” student Brandon Molina told the Ramapo News. “My thought the whole time was maybe women shouldn’t practice how long they’re blinking, men should just not rape people.”
Complaints like this appear on social media with depressing regularity. The problem? What this brand of feminism offers is a glimpse into the future, into a hypothetical world where safety for women is unconditional. It’s a world where men have finally gotten the hang of feminism and have stopped assaulting us. What it doesn’t promise, and what is more important to women right now, is any sort of payoff in the present. Current feminism, when it comes to issues of consent, demands we carry our anger around with us to make that future possible. Not all of us — as I realized all those years ago — are prepared to be martyrs for the cause.
Back to Ghomeshigate
This is when looking at another troubling aspect of the Ghomeshi case helps. Women like Reva Seth, a lawyer and author, have written articles about Ghomeshi with titles plucked straight from the National Enquirer: “Why I can’t remain silent about what Jian did to me.”
Well, I can think of one reason why she should (although I take it she has a book to promote). On the evening Seth claims she was attacked, Seth and Ghomeshi both became highly intoxicated. They drank alcohol and smoked pot. There is nothing wrong with indulging in alcohol or drugs, although I generally don’t recommend mixing them. The thing is, if a man or woman indulges in these substances, gets into a vehicle and kills another person, our legal system holds them responsible. Gone are the good old days when driving while impaired got you a free ride home in a police car. Now jail time, suspended licences and community service are the norm.
Read: l’affaire Ghomeshi
Seth is a highly accomplished woman yet she diminishes the role substances played in her evening with Ghomeshi. In fact all that’s missing is a Gallic shrug when she mentions pot. So here is a newsflash for those of you who don’t already know: Drugs and alcohol are dis-inhibitors. People of both genders do incredibly stupid things while taking them: they walk off the end of piers and drown, they express inexplicable hatred for people they love and they mistakenly believe the sexually available person sitting across from them is up for sex — now. Women make the latter mistake too, as I have heard to my amusement and the victim’s (usually male) mortification. Anyone who doubts this can just google “dates from hell” and this fact will be confirmed.
So the presence of drugs raises other questions: I’m sure Seth is not the only woman who imbibed with Ghomeshi, so do drugs explain why so many women became intimate with him so quickly? Or were they willing to overlook troubling signs because of Ghomeshi’s celebrity status?
Rules belonging to other communities can be helpful here. The BDSM and the swinging communities, when one looks at them closely, are surprisingly conventional. BDSMers maintain safewords and conversations that hinge on consent and do so contemporaneously; that is, participants are encouraged to check in with one another frequently. In swinging, participation is by couples only – with few exceptions – and the swapping aspect of the lifestyle is predicated on the coupledom structure. Husbands and wives are free to experiment, but only with the blessing of their spouses.
Here are two communities, considered by most to be risqué, that use strict codification to maintain individual safety, both physical and emotional. Ghomeshi’s accusers, by contrast, entered into an intimate situation that was not codified. And in the absence of a safe code, being intoxicated while visiting a sexually available partner, under unsure circumstances, carries risks for both genders. If the BDSM and swinging communities acknowledge that dangers exist, I don’t see why less colourful folk shouldn’t also.
Saying there were implicit risks does not excuse Ghomeshi’s behaviour, but it does, at least to my mind, mitigate some of his guilt. Torontonians laughed at Rob Ford’s admission that he acted while in a drunken stupor, but let’s face it, if we had to dismiss every person who has ever gotten drunk we would be leading very lonely lives. So the rules quoted above, in the presentation designed to keep all students safe, are not stupid or offensive. They are based on social contexts that exist right now, this minute, and not on fantasies coming from the land of Should-be.
This brings me to my last point. A conventional view of sexual assault compresses all transgressions into one hate crime against women. So in Sweden, Julian Assange is charged with rape for not wearing a condom; in Canada, Jian Ghomeshi is publicly vilified over allegations of hitting and slapping. These may be considered forms of assault, but are not on the same scale as those committed by the tormentors of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the two teenagers whose images were posted on the internet and were used to humiliate them at tender points in their lives.
And this conventional perspective causes other problems. The emotional response of my fellow students, in that classroom almost 30 years ago, reveals why. A zeal for a no-holds-barred feminism, the kind that asserts recovery is impossible, is what holds us all of us — men and women — hostage and makes honest conversations about degrees of sexual assault impossible. Reva Seth, in her article, lists reasons why some women don’t report sexual assault. One of them, that a victim might think, “Well, it wasn’t that bad,” is worth looking at. Seth brings it up as a defence against the very concept, but I myself, when I speak about my own ordeal, am careful to state that it was an attempted assault. I do this to differentiate it from more comprehensive attacks, a nod to and recognition of the fact that some women have endured worse.
I have no doubt the women Jian Ghomeshi hurt were unsure and possibly afraid. But I also think his high profile rendered him less dangerous than an anonymous attacker. These women were also of age and I suspect enthralled by his celebrity status. What else can explain the varying degrees of their own complicity? We are no longer living in the dark ages when making the link between drug use and sexual assault should be rejected just because the victim is a woman. I think we can all agree there is a huge difference between a drunk 14 year old and a stoned 26 year old without stirring up a controversy. The irony is that not discussing these differences leaves more women vulnerable. In that regard, sensitivity is not always our friend.
The end result of events like Ghomeshigate do not bode well for our civil liberties. If a woman can take multiple risks simultaneously and then expect the law to protect her in the eleventh hour, what will this create? Pierre Trudeau spent years getting the state out of our bedrooms. Conventional feminism, it seems, wants to let it back in.