If you’re Canadian, you’ll have heard about the firing of CBC radio host, Jian Ghomeshi. He is accused of sexual violence with women he has dated. What’s complicating matters is his involvement in BDSM, a practice where consensual violence is the norm.
This is an explosive situation happening in a media context that has primed us perfectly. If what I’m seeing on social media is anything to go by, we are experiencing another wave of feminism, a wave asking the right questions and making the right demands. Why is Microsoft’s CEO telling women to behave? Why can’t large companies provide on-site daycare?
However, there’s also a troubling element in some current feminist thought, and that’s the wide and potent swath of victimism running through it. As wise global voices discuss the politics of being female, a whiny voice of entitlement, coming from western countries, is scratching its manicured nails on the blackboard. That voice is complaining about social circumstances within women’s control, decrying the disadvantage of being female in cultures that are comparatively privileged. It may be wrong to weigh an articulate Malala against a twerking Miley Cyrus, but if we want to take ourselves seriously we need to out ourselves on some fairly blatant hypocrisies.
I don’t know if Jian Ghomeshi is guilty of any wrongdoing. However, the accusations against him have more than a whiff of vindictiveness about them, which means we should be eyeing them critically.
What we know is this: a former girlfriend of Ghomeshi’s made accusations of physical violence against him. She did this after a two-year relationship ended. She also contacted four of his former lovers. Then Kevin Donovan, an investigative journalist with the Toronto Star, became involved. I think it’s fair to conclude that the instigating ex-lover, or someone connected with her, contacted the media outlet.
Ghomeshi is notoriously private, so much so that speculations about his sexuality abounded online, speculations that mostly asked: “Is he gay or straight?” So his contention that his ex went through his phone to find the numbers of other women seems plausible. In any event, information about these women was collected and I suspect technology, in the form of a device or social media conduit, was the source. We will probably hear that Ghomeshi’s ex did this to validate her doubts about her relationship with him. Their joint enjoyment of BDSM means this included consensual violence.
As a woman who also enjoys her privacy, I wonder why Ghomeshi is the only one concerned about this violation. Surely most of us put this kind of snooping somewhere in the stalking ballpark? If a man I was dating, and only dating, went through my phone to contact former lovers (with the intention of gathering information), I would be enraged. And I’m betting that a lot of women having that experience would be too. So Ghomeshi’s complaint that his privacy has been violated is a powerful one and one that we should not be ignoring.
The privacy violations against him go further. As a daily user of social media, I see hundreds of attempts at public shaming. The problem is that shaming posts and tweets constitute their own sub-genre, a sub-genre vast enough to get lost in and common enough to be overlooked. So even though it’s often ineffective, at least for regular folks like myself, the trend of public shaming is worth examining. While some commentators place Ghomeshi’s behaviour in the context of a “rape culture,” they forget that we in the west, perhaps less dangerously, live in a tattle-tale culture as well.
In the end, Ghomeshi’s lawsuit against the CBC for wrongful dismissal may have broad implications. And that’s because he’s not just up against our nation’s broadcaster, he’s also up against a social media culture that makes TMZ look kind. He’s essentially holding the CBC responsible for believing unsubstantiated accusations and making sure that the consequences do not end with him. I hope he wins his case. (Update: he lost.)
Why? Because although it’s unfortunate, the accusations against him do appear contrived. The fact that his main accuser waited until after the relationship was over is problematic. It raises the question: if the violence was non-consensual why did she tolerate it for two years? I am always uncomfortable when he said/she said conflicts like this become public. They have a deleterious effect on real victims of sexual assault.
The reality is this: there are some forms of sexual play, rough and gentle, that are deeply compelling. I once heard a BDSM aficionado, a plump middle-aged woman, say that for her, ordinary sex was “vanilla” by comparison. That sounds convincing to me, more convincing than the complaints made by this group of young women. That they now feel used by a promiscuous man, interested in their bodies only, seems more plausible than their allegations. This does not get Ghomeshi off the hook — he’s clearly not a prince — but it doesn’t make him a criminal either.
The fact is Ghomeshi was upfront about his tastes, a fact that Kevin Donovan is only reporting reluctantly. This makes the accusations against him seem more petulant than justified. If a man tells a woman he likes rough sex, it’s up to the woman hearing those words to believe him and make a decision. And that process — of listening, processing and deciding — is where the real power for women resides. Saying yes can be as powerful as saying no and saying maybe can give a woman time to think about it. What isn’t good for a woman is to violate her own boundaries and then regret it later in the form of an accusation. That’s pathologizing something that’s not pathological to begin with.
Here is an example: when I was in my 20s, I dated a renown bad boy. The relationship ended because although his edginess was exciting — I’ll admit it was a huge turn on — he pushed me too far. I walked away because I accepted reality as it was.
What is the problem here? Ghomeshi is a celebrity. He is also a very attractive man. Even so, these women had a duty to themselves to respect their own limits. They also had a duty to recognize they had made an error and to learn from it. What they don’t have a duty to do is publicly warn other women about a man who announces himself before anything sexual happens and then use those warnings to make rough sex synonymous with victimization.
This combination of actions has the singular effect of demonizing a man who may not deserve to be demonized and the overall effect, achieved through moralizing and fear-mongering, of frightening women away from an experience they may actually enjoy. In short, their collective assertion that they are victims has the larger effect of infantilizing all women and limiting our choices. Other Canadian men with odd tastes and fetishes must be feeling a chill right now. “Which woman,” they worry, “will regret that bit of fun we had together and turn me in to the police?” That’s how fear mongering works.
One last aspect of this situation has me curious. I’m wondering how many of the five women complained to friends or relatives about having violent sex with Ghomeshi. I’m curious because while I understand their reluctance to go public, I would have a harder time understanding why they didn’t share their concerns with those closest to them. One would hope, if things were really bad, these confidantes would have talked Ghomeshi’s “victims” out of seeing him again.
Kevin Donovan makes it clear that he spoke to these women repeatedly and that he found them convincing. However, anyone who has read The Crucible knows that even a small mob, guided by fear, can act like a single organism and fall uniformly into uttering one narrative. The proof, that abuse actually occurred, will be in what the friends of these five women say. Did they complain? Did they complain and keep seeing Ghomeshi anyway? Or did they decide that the kink was too much, and like me, all those years ago, walk out of an untenable situation?
The fact that these women are now acting in concert, with a collection of stories, tells me they didn’t walk away soon enough. And of course that begs the question: why not?