Ghomeshi, Feminism and Clickbait

Real news or outrage clickbait?
Real news or outrage clickbait?

Clickbait

If you spend any time on the net, you will have encountered clickbait, those tempting photolinks directing you to slideshows like 16 Stars Who Live Modestly, Hollywood Stars Who Are Bi-sexual and Couples You Didn’t Know Were Couples. These sites load slowly and for a reason. Every page is crammed with ads and creators are paid per click.

Most of us understand the strategy behind clickbait. However, the use of it is expanding and infiltrating other spaces, becoming less obvious and more sophisticated. Much of it now assumes the mantle of political activism and is designed to hook us using powerful triggers. What this means is that our emotional life, for much of our online time, is being actively manipulated. Think of it as road rage with a mouse.

I’ve recently expressed concern about the accusations being made against radio host Jian Ghomeshi. I don’t doubt that unpleasant and unexpected things happened to his accusers; what I’m intrigued by is the gap between his and his accusers’ versions of events and our need to draw quick and nasty conclusions. That Ghomeshi is a troubled and immature man, with all the tics that pampering and celebrity create, is clear. What is less clear is how these tics, when mixed with drugs, alcohol and apparently willing partners, have been parlayed into a spectacle worthy of Sophocles. One man’s narcissism, methinks, should not garner this much attention.

Where does the problem originate?

Media outlets like MicBustle and their ilk are news sources for the hip. They form one strand of an information bundle, a strand that delivers news of interest to political progressives. Just like stealth advertising, however, these sites use strategic targeting. Names like Mic and Bustle may sound neutral, but their consistent coverage of sexist outrages is not: it’s safe to say their intended audience is women between 18 and 45, or those most likely to respond viscerally to stories about rape. Call me cynical, but what I’m seeing isn’t politics, it’s clever marketing. If you want to sell to that cohort, sparking their outrage is the way to go.

In sociological terms this process is called priming: an idea is cultivated to predispose individuals to think a certain way and to believe certain narratives, even when those narratives are distorted or false. When it comes to conventional feminism, which is the voice typically used on these sites, the target of the outrage is men and the intended audience women. Given the distribution of men and women on this planet, this ongoing provocation is problematic — it supports the lie that in sex wars and gender skirmishes, anger is a good solution. That’s a lie I rejected about 30 years ago, when I stopped taking courses in Women’s Studies.

Are reports of rape exaggerated?

Gabor Maté
Gabor Maté — Click on photo to read his article.

Jian Ghomeshi’s hubris has triggered a cascade of information about sexual assault, much of it slanted in favour of viewing women as victims. Even Gabor Maté, a physician whose observations on addiction have moved me deeply, has weighed in. Commenting on Ghomeshi in the Toronto Star, he writes:

We live in a society steeped in male narcissism, one in which aggression towards women is deeply entrenched in the collective male psyche. Nor is male sexual predation confined to a few “sick” individuals: that we see it portrayed, relentlessly and voyeuristically, in movies, TV shows, and advertising is beyond obvious, except for those mired in denial.

I understand Maté is trying to be sympathetic: he opines about a world that creates men like Ghomeshi and allows them to flourish. However, what sinks my heart — and it truly does — is his assertion that women have poor odds in the happiness stakes. We will only cheer up at some point in the future, once men learn about feminism and stop making us miserable.

Apart from the fact that this belief does not reflect my reality, nor the reality of my friends, there’s an assumption at the heart of it that undermines my autonomy and my perception of my life as it unfolds. I don’t feel disadvantaged and I don’t think I’m in denial about it. I don’t feel that the faeces sitting in front of my fan, the one that gets switched on on a bad day, are any worse than the faeces sitting in front of the fans of my male peers. As a jolly friend of mine often reminds me: “The shit-fairy visits everyone.

However, because I am an academic, I know the next phase in this argument will be that the broader sociological foundations of my culture, as liberal as they may appear, are in fact tilted against me, and patriarchal brainwashing has fooled me into thinking I have power when I don’t. Those trinkets of a good job, home ownership and the freedom to do what I want (within legal limits) are just distractions that keep me from seeing the deeper truth about my misery. The problem for me is my pesky pragmatism. It and my gratitude for living in a free country keep getting in the way of that gloomy perspective and keep providing me, inexplicably, with opportunities to fulfill myself.

What does this have to do with Jian Ghomeshi?

Rene Denfeld. She and Christina Hoff Sommers have successfully challenged inflated statistics in feminist theory.
Rene Denfeld. She and Christina Hoff Sommers have successfully challenged inflated statistics in feminist theory.

A fear of not being believed is often put forth as an explanation for why women do not report sexual assault. It seems a genuine fear and one not helped by discrediting behaviour. And so it’s frustrating that many public intellectuals, feminists and other women who find themselves in the limelight hedge and fudge in ways that reflect badly on all of us. Rene Denfeld is one feminist critic (of many) who takes feminist/activist/professors to task for inflating statistics around sexual assault and domestic abuse. Denfeld examines this shoddy research in her book The New Victorians, and one data set is particularly revealing.

In the 1980s, a study was conducted by Ms. magazine. The focus was on the sexual experiences of young women on university campuses across the U.S. Respondents whose accounts corresponded to the study’s definition of rape reported perceptions of themselves that were unexpected: only 27% said they felt they “had been raped,” 49% said their assault was the result of “miscommunication,” and 11% said they did not feel “victimized.” These findings are important because what is perceived as under-reporting may actually be confusion about how to frame a difficult and unusual experience. This confusion may explain why an astonishing 42% of these women had sex with their assailants again.

Credibility

Credibility is an issue in the case of Ghomeshi’s accusers too. It’s not because the women are at fault, but rather that date-rape is notoriously difficult to map and that is especially true here. It is misleading, for example, to use the language of forceable rape when describing Ghomeshi’s violence because of his participation in BDSM, a form of sexual play that may not be as controlled as its connoisseurs imagine. Despite the outrage, stories emerging from his accusers support his claims of innocence. He did announce his preference for rough sex, albeit not very effectively at times. He also stopped being rough when asked and showed an appropriate (written) response to the distress of one of his accusers. He was also clear with his boundaries. After a flirty meeting with Ghomeshi, one young woman had this experience with him:

One hour later, she received a text from Ghomeshi asking her to meet up for a “non-work related drink,” she said. He added a winky face — 😉 — to the message, she said.

“I didn’t want to date him, but then I thought this would maybe be a good opportunity to speak to him about the industry,” she said, responding by text and telling him a “friendly meet up” would be OK.

“If you could help me get a job that would be cool, too,” she added.

Ghomeshi texted back saying he wasn’t interested in a personal friendship and didn’t want to be used as “conduit to a job,” she said. The text messages stopped shortly after, she said.

Click on the image to read "Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship," from The Chronicle of Higher Education
Click on the image to read “Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship,” by Sommers, as it appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education

If this anecdote is accurate, it supports Ghomeshi’s claim that he communicated his wishes to his accusers. The problem is the entire narrative being spun about him: journalists are magnifying and minimizing facts at will. The encounter above was intended, ostensibly, to show Ghomeshi’s inappropriate behaviour. That’s curious since it actually illustrates his willingness to be clear about his intentions. So it seems unfair that his violence has been magnified while the more pedestrian matter of his negotiating and arrangement-making has been minimized and used to suggest his cunning.

Given Ghomeshi’s openness about his struggles with anxiety, the last accusation is easily eclipsed by the more pungent whiff of pathos. It also begs the questions: Is it possible? Could Ghomeshi and his accusers be shallower than we think?

Read: Ouch! When Sex Goes Terribly Wrong

Read: A Feminist Disses Ghomeshigate

Read: l’affaire Ghomeshi

Read: Jian Ghomeshi Gets Spanked 

Read: Ghomeshi, Feminism and Clickbait

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Jian Ghomeshi Gets Spanked

jian Ghomeshi, spanked
Jian Ghomeshi

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.

jian Ghomeshi, spankedGhomeshi 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.

Read Why we all need Edward Snowden.

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.

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.

jian Ghomeshi, spanked
Nancy Friday — one of the first women to write about women’s sexual fantasies. She was also one of the first feminists to dispute victim-feminism.

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.

jian Ghomeshi, spankedKevin 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?

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Related: Jian Ghomeshi Gets Spanked and  Ouch! When Sex Goes Terribly Wrong

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