Mandi Gray, Mustafa Ururyar and the Tyranny of the Weak

Scrolling through the entirety of the judgement, in the Mandi Gray rape trial, is depressing. That’s because what we see is not a Jamesian Portrait of a Lady—an Isabel Archer who learns hard lessons about love—but a troubled woman playing the role of villain, like that of Isabel’s husband, a manipulator who uses deceit to control others.

Mustafa Ururyar
Mustafa Ururyar

Citing James in this context is apt: he was a novelist who specialized in the tyranny of the weak, a theme that if one looks closely enough, links the various Toronto trials. I refer here to the trials of Gregory Alan Elliott, Jian Ghomeshi and Mustafa Ururyar. All three were accused of committing sexist crimes against women. Both Elliott and Ghomeshi won their cases; the case against Ururyar, who is accused of raping Gray, is on appeal.

From a distance, it seems there is a cadre of young Toronto feminists who, like a proverbial tail, are trying to wag the dog, the dog in this case being women in the ROC, or the rest of the country. This is an elite squad who are out to heighten our perception of male wrongdoing and are using a succession of legal challenges to do so. That they are failing is good news; it points to the truth that Canadians are eminently fair, sensible and disinclined to rule out provocation.

And it’s the provocation aspect of the Gray case that I’d like to examine.

The sheer amount of verbiage Judge Zuker included in his judgement has created a subtext clearly at odds with his decision. In it, Gray’s tale is fulsome, so much so that she betrays her true intention with Ururyar that night—to elicit affection from him–and spends much of her testimony behaving as though she is on a therapist’s couch and not in a courtroom. Her story is heavy on feeling (“He had destroyed any self-esteem I had”) and light on fact (“I don’t remember taking off my pants”). Moreover, her professed intoxication often pops up when her version of events is challenged. In the end, the judgement reads like an exhausting conversation with someone in denial, the kind where saying, “He’s just not into you,” seems the painful but necessary solution.

Read Judge Zuker’s judgement here.

Ururyar’s frustration with Gray’s behaviour is also evident. His version of events is that by the night of the alleged rape, he and Gray had been involved in a brief, casual affair: Gray had accepted the fact that Ururyar was in an open relationship and she was present, at the end of that night of drinking, when he invited yet another woman to come home with him. When the woman refused and hopped into a cab, Gray says Ururyar became abusive. She went home with him regardless, stating that she had little choice, given that the transit service had stopped and taking a cab was out of the question for two reasons: she had spent all her money and she felt too “vulnerable.”

In response, Ururyar says that earlier in the evening Gray had been inappropriately sexual with him in public–he’d asked her, twice, to stop massaging his inner thigh. Interestingly, Ururyar’s request was confirmed by Gray. However, her argument is that it came out of the blue and was apropos of nothing she’d said or done. She couldn’t remember massaging him, for example, and asserts she had no plans to have sex with him that evening. This contradicts a text she’d sent him earlier, one inviting him out and mentioning “hot sex” afterwards.

Perhaps it’s my literary background, but as I read through the judgement, a clear theme emerged: Ururyar’s anger towards Gray is comprehensible and knowable, even if the actual events of the evening are not.

I feel sympathy for him because I too had a casual partner while in university, one who was good at manipulating events in his favour. Our relationship started unravelling one night after I returned from an evening out with friends. He called and asked to come over. Given the lateness of the hour, I said no, but a half hour later he showed up anyway. When I told him to leave, he pleaded and started cuddling with me in the foyer of the house I shared with other students.

Although I was insistent, it soon became clear a prolonged discussion was in the offing—one that might wake up my roommates—and so I relented, a choice I felt manipulated into making. Of course his persistence continued in my bedroom. The next morning, a Sunday, I shooed him out early, lying by telling him I was spending the day with my parents. After all but pushing him out the front door, I went back to bed fuming.

In this climate of hypersensitivity, many people would consider this rape. It wasn’t, but I did experience it as an annoying and off-putting level of persistence. However, my response wasn’t about having unwanted sex–that was a detail–I was angry over the man’s controlling behaviour. It made me realize two things: that I didn’t really care for him and that he often contrived to get his way, this despite an outwardly breezy temperament. That memory surfaced as I was reading, probably because I recognized what Ururyar’s reticence toward Gray actually meant, her jungle of rationalizing language notwithstanding.

So here’s my argument: if feminists can understand my anger at Mr. Persistent, they should understand Ururyar’s anger at Gray too. That’s because Gray acted in a way that led her, inexorably, to Ururyar’s bedroom that night. She invited him to meet her, mentioned sex and asked to sleep over. During the evening, she was inappropriately sexual with him twice and agreed to share a bed with him even after his apparent interest in another woman was made clear. She was also free to leave the bar at any time and she’d had, at one point, enough money for a taxi. When asked about her “vulnerability” with regard to using one, an undisclosed story about an incident Gray had had with a taxi was offered as an explanation. However, since many women consider taxis a final line of defence for dates that go badly, I do wonder what happened and why Gray felt she couldn’t call one. I ask because her reluctance fits in with a pattern of recurring rationalizations, rationalizations that rule out the possibility of another, safer course of events happening that night.

Let’s turn the tables. You are a young woman deeply involved in your university’s student union. You’ve had a couple of intimate nights with a man for whom you do not have strong feelings. Even though you’ve made your intentions clear, he sends you a sexy text, inviting you to meet at a bar where several other union people are drinking. You go, thinking that since others are there, you won’t be in for an intimate evening with your erstwhile lover.

Then he tries some surreptitious fondling and you ask him to stop. He tries again and again you ask him to stop. At the end of the night you leave with the group, including him and a new man you are more interested in. You ask the new man back for a drink. He senses an atmosphere and says no. After he leaves, your lover wants to talk about what’s going on. You don’t because you’re nettled over the other man’s rejection. Your lover insists on coming home with you anyway, even though your mood is stormy. (“But I don’t have cab fare and the buses have stopped running!”) It’s no surprise when things go badly in the bedroom, but you’re relieved the pretense is over and you’re off the hook when it comes to seeing him again.

There’s no doubt that this erstwhile lover, were Gray to describe him to her friends, would be labelled a creep who doesn’t understand the word no. It’s a perception endemic to the kind of feminism touted by many academic women and yet it’s never held up to the mirror. That women are equally capable of harassing men in the same manner simply doesn’t figure into this world view; that men can feel equally and deeply provoked by it doesn’t either.

Judge Zuker’s judgement has come under fire, even from other judges. That’s because in an ill-advised show of partisanship, he included many references to controversial feminist theories, theories that many of his colleagues at OISE, where he teaches part-time, embrace fully and disseminate freely. But if there’s one reality feminist theorists often avoid, it’s that today, women in the western world are free to choose most things. Gray was free to leave a bad situation at any time, unlike previous generations of women, and James’ heroines, who, when they made bad choices and bad marriages, were forced to stay and suffer.

When Ururyar’s lawyer asked Gray why she didn’t walk away, especially once Ururyar became abusive, she replied that she would be asking herself that question for the rest of her life. It’s a non-answer in terms of her testimony, but a good start in terms of her mental health. In fact it’s the kind of questioning we should all do on occasion, if only to remind ourselves how unpleasant disrespecting ourselves can be.

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The verdict was guilty, but now high powered lawyer Marie Henein is fighting to have it overturned.

When I wrote On Trial for Rape last year, I took readers inside the courtroom to see what a regular, non-headline-making sexual assault trial looks like. Now, I want to take you back to court for another very different trial, which raises still more questions about how our legal system deals with sexual assault. This is a very hot topic nowadays, and I want to give you facts and reporting so that you can be the judge.


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What’s Wrong with the Mandi Gray Rape Trial

I’ve taken a summer hiatus but will be writing on the Mandi Gray rape trial soon. In the meantime, I’m posting two excellent sources of information. The first is a video by Diana Davison, where she covers some of the more troubling aspects of the case taken directly from court transcripts.

Second is an essay written by . She focuses on judicial independence, a problem in the Gray trial, and puts it into the larger context of presiding Judge Zuker’s work relationship with OISE and OISE’s agendas of progressivism and militant feminism. Litzcke’s essay is long, but is clearly written and makes a persuasive argument for genuine egalitarianism. She’s a refreshing voice.

I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, enjoy.

The Scottsboro Boys, Canada 2016:

From Litzcke’s The Court Jester blog:

Karin Litzcke
Karin Litzcke

The Ururyar decision issued July 21st by Ontario Justice Marvin Zuker happens to create a bit of a convergence for me. I don’t particularly want to write about individual decisions here, but there is a judicial independence issue involved that is peculiar to my field of expertise, public schooling.

First, I should say from the outset that Zuker is more than a name to me because he is an education law expert, and has written a book from which I’ve used a passage or two. I actually didn’t know he was a judge, but once I did, I was inclined to regard him positively.

To continue reading, click here. 

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Earth to Emma Healey

torstar (2)I no longer expect much from the Toronto Star, but the Ghomeshi-themed op-ed by Emma Healey is inane clickbait. Healey conflates “complexity” with dishonesty when she says we aren’t allowing  Ghomeshi’s accusers to be less than perfect victims.

She’s referring to the raft of electronic and paper evidence put forth by Marie Henein, Ghomeshi’s lawyer. That evidence made it clear that all three women were involved in romantic ventures with Ghomeshi before, during and after they claim to have been physically assaulted by him.

Here’s what I think: the world is full of women who want to be victims. That’s fine. You go girls!

But know that there are some of us who believe that with adulthood comes the responsibility to take care of our minds and bodies, especially in our dealings with men. That means not taking intoxicants when sex is a possibility. It means setting boundaries with dates who expect intimacy too soon. It means saying no and meaning it.

It means checking in with a sensible friend when a man is making you uncomfortable. More importantly, it means listening to that friend when she says, “I don’t think he’s a good guy,” instead of clobbering her with a thousand yeah-buts.

There is an outraged we involved in the excoriation of Ghomeshi and his legal team, but not all of us belong to that we. Some of us are looking at that we–that group of women who, like Healey, thinks “society” doesn’t allow women to be “complex”–and we’re wondering where they’re getting their ideas from.

Imagine, if you will, women who don’t continue dating abusive men. Imagine women who say after a bad date, “He’s a jerk,” and block his number before he has the nerve to call again.

Imagine women who have learned, perhaps through trial and error, that the word no is their friend. These are the same women who say no to a drink that will push them over the limit or a joint that will make them too stoned to stand up. These are women who actually have some knowledge of the men they sleep with before they sleep with them. These are women who aren’t waiting for the police, or a knight on a white horse, to rescue them, because they aren’t damsels in distress. Because they are adults instead, they aren’t throwing the responsibility for their dodgy decisions at everyone else.

Earth to Healey: Women are definitely complex. Men have been fascinated by us for millennia for precisely that reason.

What’s not complex, and certainly not very appealing, are women in women’s bodies who act like children and expect that the world owes them their safety.

Men who get drunk and go into bad neighbourhoods late at night can be attacked too. They can be rolled for their wallets or beaten up just for the heck of it by a bunch of hooligans. They can walk into the wrong kind of bar and end up losing some of their teeth. I doubt that the police are extra-sensitive when these things happen to them. Why? Because the understanding is that they should have known better, or at least travelled in pairs, in order to have a safe if boozy night out. But they’re not taking back the night because guys like them usually have a vague idea they may have made a bad decision or two in that evening they are now having a very hard time remembering.

The problem with op-eds like Healey’s is that they make the dispensing of sound advice difficult. We can’t tell young women to watch their alcohol or drug intake when they are heading out at night because, gosh, what about those young women who took too much of whatever and got raped? Aren’t we implying that it’s their fault? Aren’t we going to be hurting their feelings?

So instead the upstanding PC brigade is expecting “society” to keep young women safe. It’s dumb and impossible, but like all immature women, Healey and her ilk are insisting on it anyway.




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Jian Ghomeshi: The Truth about Bad Boys

Jian Ghomeshi
Jian Ghomeshi

Originally published in November 2014.

I’m being asked why I defend men like Jian Ghomeshi. It’s because I’m disturbed by the hysteria and the accusations against him. Everyone deserves their day in court.

We have good safety nets in this country. We have shelters for women and children, welfare for those who need it, charities and food banks for families in need. We also have rape crisis centres and female police officers to handle reports of domestic abuse and sexual assault. We have women lawyers who fight legal battles and women judges who bring our gender’s perspectives to the courtroom. Divorce is easy as is access to birth control and abortion. Very few of these things were available to my mother’s generation.

As someone born in 1960, I remember when getting a divorce meant going in front of a judge and admitting one had cheated, was infertile or mentally ill. A woman who had been abandoned by her husband in 1964 – and could not find anyone willing to rent her an apartment – was helped by my parents, who could see the difficulties she was having as a divorceé. With few social services, she had to throw herself and her son on the mercy of my parents, immigrants who had an upstairs flat for rent and were complete strangers to her. Once I got older, she told me about her divorce and the indignities she suffered because of it. Her story would shock most women today.

So I get stroppy when I see these services treated as if they just don’t exist. It also makes me question the legitimacy of complaints like the ones against Jian Ghomeshi. Claiming that the world is unfair when it comes to sexual or domestic abuse seems a tad disingenuous when set against all the social services that have come into being since the 1960s. This is Canada after all, not a repressive regime where women have no rights.

For the record, let me state that Ghomeshi is probably not a nice man. It’s likely his celebrity went to his head and he had no trouble hooking up with women and discarding them at will. However, because of that, his claim that a “jilted ex-lover” started the complaints against him actually sounds reasonable. (That term has negative connotations, of course, but we must admit we hear it applied to men too.) This is important because for all the cries that his accusers are courageous, it’s likely that other equally powerful dynamics are unfolding, but are doing so under cover of a persuasive victim narrative.

The problem with men like Ghomeshi is this: he is an archetypal bad boy, the kind of man women find irresistible. The saying, “he should come with a warning label” is the often applied to these men because of their seductive powers, but the truth is that seducers do come with warning labels; it’s just that their victims refuse to read them. Sliding into a seducer’s bed and life is a delectable experience and the promise of pleasure tends to eclipse everything.

Has this ever happened to me?

Before I started teaching at CEGEP, I taught at private schools. At one of these I met “John”– a man who was suave, well-educated and handsome. I fell hard, assumed he had too and so was devastated to discover he was still seeing other women. Then a neighbourhood friend, a renown print journalist, warned me about him, telling me about all the angry women he’d left in his wake. So I started ducking his calls and gently extricating myself from his life. No fireworks were discharged in the making of that breakup.

truth, bad boys
Third-party sexual assault reports can be powerful and helpful.

However, my dealings with John did not end there. After I stopped seeing him two different women, claiming to be friends of friends, called to ask probing questions about him. Other women at work also expressed an interest. The calls came from women who sounded eager and slightly unbalanced, while the inquiries coming from colleagues had puerile undertones. This activity confirmed my feelings about the man: he was chaos personified and I was well out of it.

What became even clearer to me in the months following were two things: one, that his ex-lovers, even from long-ago relationships, seemed strangely compelled to talk about him; two, most of these women did not protect themselves adequately. That is, they did not break up with him when they realized his true character. Indeed, from what I saw they tried, against all odds, to make a relationship with him work and became addicted to the process, hence the phone calls and the spicy inquiries I received. This is why I believe Ghomeshi when he says an ex-girlfriend went through his phone and called other women. That’s exactly the behaviour I saw, albeit from a different perspective.

I’m no expert, but I think some people engage in this behaviour because they like two things: drama and feasting on emotional pain. For example, when my journalist friend got specific, and warned me about John’s tendency to humiliate women, it had already happened: he had just escorted another woman to a well-attended event and I was still reeling from the news. However, unlike John’s other partners, the pain of that experience was enough for me and I abandoned ship immediately. I undid the emotional velcro, face palmed my forehead for a few weeks, and wondered how on earth I could have been so blind.

Things got even trickier months later. That’s when a colleague accosted me wanting to talk about John. A group of aggrieved female teachers were getting together to make an official complaint about him. This colleague knew I had dated John and wondered if she could count on me to join them. These women were sure John had been hitting on students, even though no student had come forward.

Calling a rape crisis centre does not require reporting a rape. They are also there to support women.
Calling a rape crisis centre does not require reporting a rape. They are also there to support women.

In truth I had no suspicions in that regard. As for joining a group to oust another teacher, I balked. John was obnoxious and sexist to boot, but he was (perversely) a beloved teacher and the father of three children who needed his financial support. I took the position that I couldn’t in good conscience help; it was true that his behaviour with me had been unkind, but I had avoided the worst of it by walking away quickly. Besides, my experience with him had been personal, not professional.

However, what had made me even more uncomfortable was what they wanted from me. They wanted me speak to the board of governors of this institution and say John had been abusive, but to say the abuse was of a personal nature and that I didn’t wish to disclose details. It was a suggestion that amounted to a lie, one they acknowledged, but felt was necessary. I had had my feelings hurt, it was true, but not disclosing any details meant the word “abusive” could be interpreted in many ways. I said no.

It was only several years later, when I was teaching elsewhere, that I heard John had finally been fired. The cause? A mature student John had dated briefly accused him of date rape. Instead of going to the police, however, she went to women teachers at the institution. Several other women then came forward with their stories of ill-defined abuse. I wasn’t surprised, but also knew that the real reason John had been fired was his attitude toward women. He was a nasty man who liked humiliation and he was now being driven out of town. Was the punishment appropriate to the crime? I’m not so sure. All of his “victims,” like myself, had voluntarily dated him. No one had pointed a gun at our heads.

So if you are wondering why I am defending Jian Ghomeshi, it’s because I believe his narcissism and cavalier attitude toward women are the real problems. However, I also believe that being a less than lovely person, especially in matters that are highly personal, should not be a fireable offence. Moreover, Ghomeshi’s “violence” strikes me as clumsy rather than frightening and I do wonder why not one woman saw fit to call him the next day — free of the influence of drugs or alcohol — to ask him a question like, “Dude, what was that?”

Saying women are afraid to report abuse doesn’t ring true in this instance. If a friend was devastated by a violent attack, I would urge her to report it to a rape crisis centre. My friends would do the same for me. So I have a hard time understanding why not one of these women, and apparently there are many, did not call, if only to talk about her experience. Ghomeshi’s detractors obviously believe the numbers are proof of his guilt, but they are telling in other ways too. Of all the women coming forward, not one complained and I suspect it’s because their experiences with him just weren’t serious enough.

It’s also curious that the CBC, whose brass was apparently aware of his behaviour, did not confront him earlier and issue a warning along the lines of, “If we keep hearing these stories, we’re going to have to let you go.” For all of Ghomeshi’s folly, he likely had enough self-interest to take his behaviour elsewhere, perhaps to a professional dominatrix where his inclinations would be safe. (And that’s not a glib suggestion — most dominatrices will tell you their client lists are made up of powerful, high profile men.)

Believe it or not, some women, myself included, have questions for Decourtere and Seth.
Believe it or not, some women, myself included, have questions for Decourtere and writer Riva Seth. (Seth is jumping on the bandwagon with her own accusations.) Why did they seek publicity instead of using the many social services our taxes pay for? And, should public humiliation replace rape crisis enters? Their behaviours are not helpful, despite the accolades they are receiving.

What’s also depressing is a familiar pattern of indirect aggression on the part of his accusers. For example, Lucy Decourtere is being hailed as a courageous woman, but in fact, she didn’t follow a lot of rules either. The best thing she could have done was go to a crisis center or to the police when she had been hit, if only to make a third-party report.

I say this aggression is depressingly familiar because I too have been subject to it. Several women have responded dramatically to my articles about Ghomeshi. However, when I offered to let them write guest columns, to run untouched alongside of mine, they declined and used social media to attack me instead. This is not how meaningful discussions are started or useful solutions developed.

Decourtere has referred to her actions, and the actions of the women who followed her, as a “paradigm shift.” I disagree. She is setting the stage for future harm because now, humiliating a man in public, with a declaration of abuse, may become just the thing for a woman’s drug-fuelled blackout or botched relationship. And humiliation, as some of us learn the hard way, can be just as devastating as physical abuse. For example, an NDP MP has just come forward with a nonsensical accusation of non-explicit consent against a Liberal MP. He’s been identified while she has not. It’s an accusation that has many of us scratching our heads and wondering about her credibility. I cannot state this strongly enough: This does not help genuine rape victims. Decoutere may think she’s started a new movement, but it looks suspiciously like hysteria to me.

There’s a British adjective for this kind of behaviour – gormless. The truth is that going after bad boys publicly is a way to get sympathy first and revenge later. Due process has been derailed here and as far as I can see, there’s only one gender responsible. Our credibility is on the line: I think we can and should do better.


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Christie Blatchford’s Coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi Trial

Christie Blatchford
Christie Blatchford outside the Toronto Courthouse

I’m writing this in response to critics unhappy with Christie Blatchford’s coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Her words may be unsettling, but she speaks for many who question the prevalence of victim narratives when it comes to women and abuse. 

Imagine this: we have two male articling students at the same law firm. Gary works on the eighth floor and Bill on the tenth. They see each other often in the course of their work and, one Friday, they decide a game of pool and a couple of beers would be just the thing to end the week.

So they spend an evening at a local watering hole and on the way home, Gary suddenly turns to Bill, grabs him by throat and slaps him in the face three times.

What would happen?

Would Bill send Gary friendly emails afterwards? Suggest they get together for another night out? Snap friendly selfies together?

No, the chances are Bill would push Gary away, saying something along the lines of “What the fuck bro?” It’s also likely that Bill will avoid Gary in the future.

What’s to be learned by this? Lots. Whether or not feminists want to admit it, men usually have the right response to violence. They rebuff it, acknowledge it with a WTF, and stay the heck away from the perpetrator.

Jian Ghomeshi with Marie Henein
Jian Ghomeshi with defence lawyer Marie Henein

The one and only time I experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner happened when I was 23. I’d fallen hard for an attractive, edgy guy whom most of my friends considered a very sexy catch. The problem was that his edginess was real and in private it translated into an explosive temper.

When he tried to assault me, three months into our relationship, I successfully defended myself. I felt stunned in the hours following, but the next day did something that I’ve been silent about for years. I phoned him, told him I wanted to talk—during the day—and added that the conversation would not be an ’emotional’ one.

In light of the bewildering behaviour of Jian Ghomeshi’s accusers, I now know to give myself a lot of credit. I too wanted an explanation for my attacker’s behaviour, but had the smarts to realize that a daytime meeting, sans alcohol, would be safer and would elicit clearer answers.

Of course it’s a meeting that never happened.

My embarrassment over that phone call came from the belated realization that no man who could hit a woman would volunteer for a conversation like the one I was proposing. In that respect, the depth of my naïveté only dawned on me slowly. However, by the time a week had passed, I knew this man’s inclination for violence was real and putting myself in his company again would be a very bad idea. So even though my infatuation with him was powerful—I came to view it as an emotional virus with a life-span of its own—I ceased contact.

It was difficult, all the more so because I’d grown up witnessing domestic violence. By the time I turned 23, I understood I’d been primed to accept it and was likely to replicate it in my adult life. (My parents had experienced WW2 first-hand, and looking back, it’s obvious they both suffered with untreated PTSD.)

I was determined to break the cycle, however. When it came to this man, I went cold turkey and agonized through a terrible period of what felt like withdrawal. It was something I never wanted to experience again.

Lucy Decoutere: She and Ghomeshi had an encounter that ended, she says, in violence.
Lucy Decoutere

That was over 30 years ago and what slowly evolved out of it was an impatience with friends who choose denial over clear-sightedness in their intimate relationships. These are the women who cycle in and out of relationships with men they alternately adore and vilify, the ones they want to have kids with one day and turn in to the authorities the next. It’s an impatience with downright flakey behaviour, the kind that is often explained away as social conditioning, the kind that produces women too polite to tell deserving men to take a hike.

The problem I have with the politeness excuse is that children often pay the price for it. It seems no children were harmed by Ghomeshi—which is a blessing—but there are plenty of women like his accusers who have children and who expose them to the consequences of bad decisions. A woman who tolerates an abuser and takes her kids along for the ride, needs, in my opinion, to be held accountable too. It’s an unpopular way of thinking, but let’s face it, fewer children would suffer if we held it as a basic standard of parenting.

No one likes tough love when it’s directed at them, but Blatchford’s reporting from the trial isn’t upsetting all of us. There are plenty of women applauding her focus on self-responsibility, especially the sort that encourages us to act in a timely manner when it comes to reporting sexual or domestic abuse.


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James Deen: Porn, Rape and Consent

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 13: Actor James Deen arrives at the GQ Men of the Year Party at Chateau Marmont on November 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images For GQ)
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 13: Actor James Deen arrives at the GQ Men of the Year Party at Chateau Marmont on November 13, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images For GQ)

There’s been a lot of hysteria on Twitter lately, especially when it comes to celebrities and their alleged sex crimes. Mobs that pursued Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi a year ago are pursuing James Deen, the American porn actor, now.

For both, events unfolded predictably. Reports of rape, made by ex-girlfriends, produced headlines and a procession of angry and tearful accusers. The mainstream media responded in kind: the alleged assaults are being positioned as hidden horrors of our time, proof that evil is always with us, just below the surface of civilized society.

It’s a common narrative, one that has utterly saturated the news and entertainment media, as evidenced by the popularity of crime documentaries and dramas. Its dominance is important because as westerners we think of ourselves as individualists who are not suggestible. But with social media has come some awkward insights: the deep collective animus we occasionally see on Twitter, of the sort directed at Ghomeshi and Deen, raises the question of how we define evil. Some of us observing these eruptions are wondering: ‘Just who are the real victims?’

Deen is accused of sexually assaulting several fellow porn actors. Perhaps because he’s had the advantage of observing cases like Ghomeshi’s, his response has been terse. Most of the accusations against him, he says, can be disproven with video evidence. He also surmises that his ex-girlfriend, Stoya, who posted the first accusatory tweet, may be reacting to their break-up or trying to drive traffic to her site. Whatever her motive, the accusations against Deen are particularly important because of the granular way they parse the issue of consent. It’s hard to imagine more intimate sites of violation than orifices, especially when those in question are routinely penetrated, filmed and put in front of the public eye.

This is especially true since producers of porn have recently jumped on the consent bandwagon. Female actors are routinely interviewed at the beginning and end of videos to express their willing participation. Actors often flash identification cards at the camera to prove they are of age, and along with consent disclaimers in the credits, on or off-screen narrators will occasionally describe the details of how consent was reached between or among the actors being filmed. True to the nature of their industry, they’ve learned to cover all angles.

Stoya, Deen's former girlfriend and a fellow porn actor
Stoya, Deen’s former girlfriend and fellow porn actor

However, the problem with all these codified rules is that it’s a bit like having the long arm of the law reaching into our orifices too. That’s because porn producers, along with supporters of consent classes, are forgetting something. Their rules serve a specific purpose on porn sets and in hook-up culture, but do not augur with everyone’s idea of seduction. A lot of us know our partners well enough, or if we don’t, we may do the quaint thing and delay sex until we do. In those instances, trust is established and instructions on how to negotiate consent aren’t necessary. In fact, many of us feel that the push to normalize consent rules–coming from either the porn industry or prescriptive feminism–infringes on our privacy. It means regulating matters that should remain uncharted and private, lest we rob them of their mystery. After all, porn actors and prescriptive feminists can hardly be accused of being mysterious, so why pretend their worlds are just like ours?

It’s that pretence–that all sex is the same–that Deen addresses in a response to his accusers. ‘I’m in porn, and when you take porn activity into polite society it sounds really twisted.’ Critics may take issue with the word ‘twisted’ but Deen’s meaning is clear. Porn is marginal, not mainstream, and so the sex in it needs to be kept in context: it’s entertainment and taking lessons from it would be like taking lessons in astronomy from Star Trek. But the push to popularize pornographic and hook-up sex, and to uphold them as a generalized reality, is getting support from another quarter, one reliant on victimization and identity politics.

The porn actors accusing Deen say that reporting him is futile since the police won’t take their complaints seriously. Their sentiments align with those expressed by some female undergrads. These are young women who assert their right to casual sex, but may not be fit to handle it, if the rising number of campus rape accusations is anything to go by. However, conflating sex with a stranger with sex with a lover–a goal that slogans like “no means no” attempts–suggests that both are equally risky. This is an assertion that for many of us does not pass the reality test.

Linda Lovelace

Moreover, most of us are sensitive to the pain of women who have been assaulted. When a porn actor says she has been raped, my tendency is to believe her. The deeper problem is identifying with her choices, a problem that those promoting a politically correct attitude would like to outlaw, despite the reality that responding with different levels of empathy to different situations is natural. I’m far likelier to feel empathy for a victim of a bank fraud, for example, than a person who loses all their money at a casino. The victim of fraud has fallen further, so to speak, from her expectation of safety, a fact my greater level of empathy reflects. This is not a moral failure on my part, nor is it a sign of narrow-mindedness. My response springs from my reason and emotional history, resources that all of us have and call on to make judgements.

Deen also addresses the issue of regret, suggesting that it may be an underlying motive for some of the accusations against him: ‘I have heard many stories from many different performers who have engaged in all sorts of various acts and then after either [sic] retiring, taking a break, or slowing down in the adult industry, change their desires and perceptions about things that have happened in the past.’ Linda Lovelace and Traci Lords are two well-known porn actors who repudiated their association with the industry. Lovelace joined the anti-pornography movement in 1980, gaining the support of feminists like Andrea Dworkin. In 1986, Lords admitted she had been underage for almost the entirety of her porn career, an admission that saw her entire (pre-internet) oeuvre pulled from distribution, effectively destroying any evidence of her involvement.

These stories raise the twin spectres of shame and regret, feelings experienced by women like Lovelace and Lords, who come to believe they’ve betrayed themselves. Although Deen could simply be capitalizing on his knowledge of this phenomenon, rather than observing a genuine truth about his accusers, his words resonate with anyone who’s done the walk of shame. These spectres also preside over accusations of date rape and make determining the intentions of both parties difficult, a fact that points to the advantages of caution, but is rarely heeded when desire or intoxicants gain the upper hand.

Traci Lords
Traci Lords

Stoya’s apparent victory has at least one feminist pundit claiming that ‘with multiple women having come forward to accuse Deen, it’s seen as more than enough proof of his guilt…ergo due process doesn’t really matter.’ In response, Cathy Young has written about multiple accusers and the bandwagon effect, a distinct possibility in this case, and Deen himself has admitted, among other things, to being arrogant. Of all the possibilities, I suspect it’s Deen’s admission that’s behind the drive to ruin his career. By all accounts the American porn community is a close-knit one. With such a clear focus on consent, how is it that Deen could abuse so many actors without being confronted in person first?

Despite the #SolidaritywithStoya sentiments, Stoya is an ex-girlfriend and apparently an angry one at that. Her relationship with Deen may have been abusive, but as it is with all of us, she too had a choice: she was always free to go.



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