In my late 20s a friend played a trick on me. She invited me along to a party, the kind that turned out to be a cover for an orgy. An hour or so after we arrived, the host started projecting a porn video onto a blank wall in the living room. That’s when everyone’s clothes started coming off.
When I understood what was happening, I bid a polite goodnight to the man and headed out to my car. My friend followed me, hectoring me in a half-whisper, saying that I was embarrassing her. When the host followed her out and apologised (to me) for the misunderstanding, I reassured him no apology was necessary. I have no issue with what consenting adults do behind closed doors, I told him. Swinging just wasn’t my scene.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’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.
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.
A women-as-victims ideology is once again on the rise in western cultures, and its epicentre can be found in the academic world. That’s where liberals have a stranglehold on the production of cultural information, most of which, if recent brouhahas are anything to go by, is hopelessly biased.
As an unmarried woman of a certain age, I’ve had my share of romantic entanglements. I’ve also had crushes and been crushed on. That means the overall ledger of my love life—the part that I think of as voluntary—is balanced: I’ve hurt others and been hurt in equal measure. Given my experience, I don’t pretend women are the fairer sex and natural gatekeepers of civilized society.
When it comes to the less voluntary aspect my love life, I’ve had two experiences that could be considered sexual harassment. In reality, they were crushes where I could not return the feelings of my admirers. Both individuals behaved in ways that were remarkably similar: they ran hot and cold with me initially, then cold and hostile when they divined, after what seemed like an eternity, my lack of interest. The twist? One was a man and the other a woman.
The woman was a colleague and was about ten years my junior. She was the girlfriend of a local celebrity and, in hindsight, I suspect she basked in his reflected glory a little too much and began believing her charms, and her ability to pull women, matched his. The fact that she had a boyfriend meant I missed some signs in the beginning. Her hot and cold behavior did strike me as odd, but the dots I connected ran more to concluding she was socially awkward. I’m sympathetic to awkwardness, so I responded with neutrality (I’m not going to notice how unsettled you seem) or kindness (I still think you’re worthwhile, even if you are awkward). It was only after a flurry of particularly intimate and alarming events that I realized she was suffering from a crush and I was its object.
So how does this connect with the Ghomeshi trial? The themes of the Twitter campaigns supporting Ghomeshi’s accusers are #IBELIEVEHER and #believeallsurvivors. The implication is that women are hesitant to come forward with accusations because they fear they won’t be believed. That fear may be justified, but surely we can parse this down more finely: isn’t that true of most cases of intimate and sexual abuse, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator?
When I understood I was dealing with an infatuated woman, I made the decision to act neutrally, but to limit my time with her. I felt that if I addressed the issue directly, I risked incurring more hostility and I was already feeling a bit stressed. In what seemed like magnanimity at the time, I believed that if I treated her humanely, but set clear boundaries, the situation would eventually resolve itself. Looking back, I was in denial and could not have been more mistaken.
After she realized I wasn’t interested, I experienced months of clandestine insults. When I found myself alone with her, she uttered words that easily exceeded workplace standards for psychological abuse. When others were present, she was civil and friendly. However, since I was working at a job I loved, and was bothered more by her persistence than her words, I scheduled myself strategically and used a back route to my office, making chance meetings less likely. This approach helped, but didn’t stop her entirely.
Another difficulty was trying to explain the situation to friends and colleagues. When I saw an EAP counsellor to ask for advice, she sympathized but couldn’t help much beyond telling me to report the woman. When I spoke to my union rep, just hinting at the problem netted me a dubious look (raising the question: if I’d been complaining about a man, would they have taken me more seriously?).
I started reflecting on this experience when a writer I respect contacted me recently. She told me that she knew, from personal experience, that Ghomeshi was an abusive boss and that he deserved to be fired. I suspect she’s right, but what’s bothering me and others dismayed by his accusers is this: too many people are making this about gender, too many people are making this about rape, when it’s not about rape at all. It’s really about consent, and consent, in the case of the three complainants in Ghomeshi’s trial was indeterminate at best because of their overall behaviour.
At some point we must draw a line; at some point we must say that if we create a context of flexibility in matters sexual, we must own that behaviour and see it as one part of any unpleasantness we experience. We are now in the year 2016. How many of us, when faced with prolonged and unwanted attention, go along with it out of social pressure or fear? I say very few of us, especially in the west. When I became aware that my colleague’s interest in me was sexual, I took steps I thought would dissuade her from pursuing me. However, I erred in not being more direct: angering her in the short-term would have been better in the long-term and that’s an error I’m not likely to make again. The lesson? Indirection doesn’t always serve me well.
And making errors and owning them should be another theme emerging from the Ghomeshi trial, but it isn’t because some of the main players aren’t being truthful. The fact is that Ghomeshi’s celebrity status was important for two reasons. It made him less dangerous, since he had a lot to lose, and it obscured his bad behaviour, allowing him to get away with it for years at a time. In fact, his celebrity draw was powerful enough that the women complaining about him now happily pursued him in the early aughts, when he was allegedly abusing them. Feminists say that that’s down to social conditioning that tells women to love their abusers, but is that really true?
It may be for a minority of women, but it’s probably equally true for a minority of men. I also believe my experience with my colleague is one that plays out across Canada daily, the only difference being that the victims, if we can call them that, are mostly male. That’s because workplace crushes are as common as field mice and individuals of both genders have been known to take things too far.
Being brutally honest about this would create a fuller picture of what sexual harassment actually looks like, but that’s hard to do when one half of the population keeps insisting that it’s all about them.
“Other tactics employed by suffragettes included chaining themselves to railings to provoke an arrest, pouring harsh chemicals into mailboxes, breaking windows at prestige buildings, and night-time arson at unoccupied buildings. Many were imprisoned in Holloway Prison in London, and were force-fed after going on hunger strike.”
We owe a lot to early 20th century suffragettes. However, we no longer need to take extreme measures. I’ve provided an example of how we can use passive-resistance to deal with sexism, especially in fields like medicine where it is still endemic.
Dr. Gabrielle McMullin, a vascular surgeon in Australia, has angered feminists around the world. She believes women med students would be better off complying with sexual advances made by male superiors.
As someone who recognizes the value of realpolitiks, McMullin’s observations resonated with me.
When I was an undergrad I was harassed by an academic, a professor who also organized an important, yearly event in Toronto. His harassment was sexual innature, but I suspect an emotional conquest was his real goal. He seemed to relish having a harem.
His pursuit of me was open and obvious. He would distribute handouts around the room—it was a well-populated seminar—and when he got to me would say, “Oops, no more handouts. Miss Ogrizek, you’ll have to pick yours up at my office.” This was before the Internet, and the University of Toronto, at that time anyway, was notoriously short on photocopiers.
When I did go to his office, he would typically invite me to sit down. Then he would stare deeply into my eyes, no matter what I said. So a simple comment like, “Um, yeah, I need the handout we used in class today,” was met by a penetrating gaze, one designed to elicit my most carnal fantasies.
As the course drew to a close, those squirmy encounters became less bearable. I finally decided that the next time he pulled the “Oops no more handouts” routine, I would not go alone. I would take a friend.
It made him visibly unhappy. So unhappy in fact that after my friend and I left, and he shut the door behind us, he lost his temper. As we hit the exit we heard a loud crash and once out on the street, we heard footsteps running up behind us. When I turned around, a student from the class stood there and breathlessly asked me what I had done to make him so angry. Apparently he’d thrown a large metal camera case at a wall, liberating artwork hung on the walls both inside and outside his office. Students had seen the case and pieces of camera equipment strewn about when he opened the door and burst out of it frantically looking for someone. Because I had been there last, they sensibly assumed it was me.
I didn’t think I was upset. However, walking through Queen’s Park the next day, I experienced sudden and severe chest pains. Two students saw me faltering and helped me along to the campus clinic. Once there I was asked whether I wanted a male or female doctor. I’m generally not choosy, but that day I asked for a woman.
I had no idea what was about to transpire—that she would ask questions that would prompt a confession I hadn’t consciously made even to myself. I told her I had been offered a provisional full scholarship to graduate school and was concerned about how the professor’s instability might impact it. I also admitted I had underestimated the depth of the problem. After the appointment was over, I walked home knowing I would never have to see the man again. The doctor agreed I needed to drop the course—this only weeks before the end of term—and offered to write a letter providing me with a medical excuse. The relief I felt almost bowled me over.
It didn’t last. Within days I was taking my first steps into an emotional trough that was to last several months. I lost a lot of weight. I started talking to myself, sometimes in public. I did not walk; I stomped. When I tried to describe the experience to a friend, I told her it was like trying to chew my own ears off.
The reasons for it weren’t hard to understand. In a financial sense, the experience cost me. I now had to give up the earnings I would make during the summer so that I could make up the credits. It meant taking out a student loan and going into debt. In an emotional sense, I felt a total failure. Tyrannical men typically don’t frighten me—my father was one so I’m usually unfazed—but this man had slipped under my radar and fooled me into thinking he was harmless. I also resented the system. It was one that would dent his career slightly if I reported him, but had the potential to hinder mine considerably, especially come Ph.D. application time. I knew that being a tattle-tale, even in those hysterically feminist times, could be a career-ender.
I also had my own incredulity to contend with. My sense of grievance originated with the idea that I had been born into a courageous family. My father had been a partisan in Yugoslavia during the second world war and my grandmother, on the border of Slovenia and Austria, dealt with Russian occupiers in ways that earned her the admiration of her community; she was considered a hero. So it seemed inconceivable that my career path could be interrupted by a man who simply had trouble controlling his emotions. It was like being rejected by a prestigious university for being a dollar short on tuition.
On one particularly bad day, I stopped in at the local rape crisis centre. I hadn’t been raped so going there meant admitting to myself that I was in very bad shape indeed. I told a counsellor so, but luckily she divined my emotional state and offered to listen regardless. That visit provided me with a faint hope that I might, one day, feel okay. The reason? When I told the counsellor that I wanted to make the professor experience what I’d experienced, she did something I didn’t expect. She told me how to do it.
Letter writing used to be an art. Letters of the sort the counsellor was suggesting were less about art, however, and more about being artful. There were rules: I could send letters to the man to remind him of his bad behaviour, but there were to be no threats, no anger and no misstatements that could be used against me legally. The letters’ power, she said, came not from their content but from their quantity.
She suggested sending them in an irregular pattern. When I asked how many and for how long, she cryptically replied, “Until you feel better.” For some women, that meant weeks, for others, years. It was a therapeutic and legal way for women who knew their abusers to exert power over them. These men came to dread the letters, she said, despite their apparent banality.
I was sceptical but had no other options. Reporting the professor would change the focus of my studious life and I had already had an emotional eruption, the intensity of which had taken me by surprise. So when this same woman suggested sending the letters anonymously and offered to mail them for me, I became more interested. The whole point of keeping silent had been to protect my reputation, so the prospect of creating a nuisance without the commitment of signing my name to it, appealed. I set about researching just how I would do it.
Not writing angry letters meant being my best passive-resistant self. The counsellor had said, “Imagine him taking them to the local police station.” What she meant was that they had to look harmless to unbiased onlookers. She also suggested including personal information about him. So I spent the next few weeks calling on all my resources—friends, that is—to ask them for every possible detail they knew about the professor.
I discovered that for a man who liked to push personal boundaries with his students, he kept his own life awfully private. However, I had some luck when I one friend referred me to a disaffected grad student who had studied under him. She provided me with an admittedly sketchy overview of the man’s life, but it was enough to get me started. I discovered he was married to a middling socialite and that he believed most of his female students were in love with him and that his male students wanted to be him. A classic narcissist, in other words.
Around halfway through the next semester is when my assault started. I began by sending letters of concern. I created the persona of a caring and anonymous onlooker, someone who wanted to help him sort out his complicated and difficult life. I introduced what information I’d gleaned and made references to unnamed students he’d hit on and “repeated” comments they had made about him. Some of this information was flattering because I wanted to hook him on that flattery; the rest damned him with faint praise and unleashed in me a viciousness I had not known I had.
In the end, some letters were pleasant, some less so. Some were about what I had done that day; some were philosophical treatises. What they all had in common was that they were over-familiar and assumed an intimacy that was wholly fabricated. All of them were mailed from Toronto courtesy of the crisis centre, which created the impression that the woman who so adored the professor was near at hand. They were creepy, yes, but calculatingly so.
The effect the letters had on me was liberating. I was a student of literature after all and so saw this escapade into bad behaviour as an instance of putting my education to good use. Who says arts degrees are a waste of time, I often thought. The one downside was that I could not investigate their efficacy. By necessity, these letters disappeared into a black hole; if I betrayed knowledge of them to anyone who knew him, the illusion could be shattered and my mission failed. So I kept quiet, wondered how on earth the letters were being received; if I suffered at all, it was only with a growing sense of curiosity. My anger, so profound at the outset, did gradually lift, as the counsellor had predicted. The letters were a safe release directed at the right culprit.
What I appreciate about Dr. McMullin’s statement is its honesty. Looking back I know I would handle an over-familiar professor very differently today. I would weigh the cost of capitulation against the cost of speaking up and decide accordingly. Would allowing that professor to believe I was one of his groupies be worth avoiding his wrath? I think it might. That isn’t the same as agreeing to abuse: having been alive long enough, I know that men who force themselves on women who don’t want them are objects of pity. I recently capitulated to a physician in a hospital setting too. When he got flirty, I flirted back. I did not like the man and was not attracted to him at all. However, he had the upper hand in circumstances where I didn’t and I wanted a positive outcome. I held my nose and played along.
The first wave of feminism was started by suffragettes who agitated for women’s right to vote. Their suffering has allowed us women in the west to prosper. But we’re heading into very different times. The nuances of sexual liberation have created a complex grey area where negotiation and its success or failure can be largely subjective. We need to accept the truth of Gabrielle McMullin’s words. We may not like them, but they’ve got us talking, and that’s a good thing.
Postscript to Suffragettes, Medicine and Passive-Resistance: 16 years later, and completely by chance, I discovered the professor had indeed found the letters difficult. He apparently took a leave of absence, did some soul-searching and returned to teaching a chastened man. It’s likely he was motivated primarily by fear, but regardless, he stopped behaving inappropriately with his students. I want to add here that while this strategy worked on this occasion, it comes with risks. Before undertaking something like it, please consider your own safety. Ask yourself: Can this man harm me in any way and will I be risking my reputation?
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For those of you unfamiliar with Canada’s most recent scandal, Jian Ghomeshi is a former CBC radio host. He was fired and is now facing several charges for allegedly harming women during sexual encounters. He is contesting those charges.
The morning after is something I no longer need to contend with. After weighing my options ten years ago, I came to the conclusion that I needed to break up with alcohol. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
So it’s with the knowledge of where alcohol can take people, and the tricks it plays on their minds, that I ask why our media, and the Toronto Star in particular, so willingly followed Rob Ford’s descent into addiction, but refused to reveal whether Ghomeshi’s accusers were intoxicated or not.
This is not to minimize the gravity of physical abuse, but is a necessary question nonetheless. We are experiencing a crucible of sex abuse accusations in North America – even Alan Dershowitz has been named – and I’m wondering how we can sort the hysteria from the truth. Since substances seem to have been involved in all these cases, I suspect this will be difficult.
Drugs and Alcohol
Around the time I decided to ditch alcohol, I had one final experience that underlined exactly why it was a good idea. A Christmas get-together with hometown friends turned ugly. We agreed to meet at a local bar, and I arrived on time and alone.
An hour and a half, three sparkling waters, and a lot of awkward moments later, I was irritated and poised to leave. That’s when my three friends blew in, a bit like Charlie’s Angels, radiating invincibility in a way only the truly hammered can.
They ordered drinks, which they promptly abandoned to go outside for a toke. I never really got the hang of pot, so I declined. I was driving, I told them, when they looked at me like I was crazy.
Salvation came in the form of another old friend who serendipitously turned up, and who was, like me, gloriously sober. So we caught up on our news and around 20 minutes later, my friends returned and caused what can only be called a five-star fracas.
In short, the entirety of the bar was treated to the sight of three 40-something women tossing accusations and recriminations around from, oh, about 25 years ago. I left a half hour in, but from what I heard the next day — the sober friend messaged me — events escalated even further and they were asked to leave. Apparently, they were clearing out the bar.
Now, let me be clear. Apart from the awkwardness of being left alone, this was mostly amusing. But what was less so were the phone calls I got the next day. Each of the three blamed the others and not one of them reported events correctly. Their versions were so distorted in fact that I finally understood what sober friends meant when they said alcohol had made them insane.
Insane isn’t a word we should use lightly—it’s harmful when used against those struggling with genuine mental illnesses—so when it came to alcohol, I resisted using it myself. However, after that night I got it. The effects of alcohol and drugs, especially when used together, can render one’s perception useless.
How is our media getting it wrong?
The problem with many of the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi are this: they are coming from women whose perceptions were altered by alcohol, drugs or a combination of the two. As sympathetic as we may feel about their experiences, we must factor this into the equation. These women were of age and ingested these substances voluntarily.
So this is when I start to question exactly what the Toronto Star’s mandate is when it comes to reporting alcohol-fuelled behaviour. Why is it that Rob Ford’s after-hours hijinks were vividly described as debaucheries, while questions about the sobriety of Ghomeshi’s accusers, which I’ve politely tweeted and sent, have gone unanswered?
The scuttlebutt among recovery folk is that the Toronto Star had a journalist planted in Ford’s rehab. Kevin Donovan and crew were clearly aiming to let the public know each and every detail of Ford’s efforts to get sober. These are serious privacy violations, which have implications for all of us, but I’m sure their rationale will be that Torontonians had a right to know if their mayor was serious about his recovery.
But some goose for the gander please? If our media wants to handle sex and drugs scandals honestly, we deserve to know the truth about Ghomeshi’s accusers too.
If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.