Why we need to listen to Jian Ghomeshi’s victims
October 29, 2014
by Caleb Glasser
First things first: I’ve always found Jian Ghomeshi grating. That smarmy self-indulgence? That marvelous trick of somehow (how does he do this?) making so many of his interviews about Jian Ghomeshi? That loathsome, breathy, insipid opening monologue? I’m getting chills remembering it. Ugh.
You’d think that as a hater, I’d be thrilled to hear that Jian was leaving the airwaves. I am, a little bit. However, as a reasonably thoughtful person, and especially as a Canadian male, I’m dismayed and more than a little nauseated by the recent revelations behind Ghomeshi’s firing. This scandal and the ongoing PR manipulations surrounding it reflect badly on all of us.
If even one of the inflammatory statements in the Toronto Star is true (and, as I note below, we all should assume that they are) then the CBC ought to be lauded for cutting Jian loose. “Hate-fucking”? Non-consensual punches to the face? Canada lives here? Let’s hope not…
Ghomeshi (aided by the crackerjack PR team at Navigator Consulting) wants to portray himself as a crusader for sexual freedom, and he’s clearly hoping for a Sook-Yin Lee-style groundswell of public support. ‘The prudes at CBC just don’t get me, man! There’s no place for the CBC in the bedrooms of the nation!’
This rhetoric is at once silly and dangerous. It’s silly because consensual BDSM just isn’t that risqué these days. As Ghomeshi himself points out, 50 Shades of Grey is a popular cultural touchstone. You can laugh about it on dates! If you’re in an open, communicative sexual relationship, there’s a good chance you’ve experimented with some form of dom/sub or bondage sexplay. If Jian was, as his PR team claims, simply into consensual albeit kinky sexplay, activities that were “mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners,” we’d have a different situation here.
Despite Jian’s posturing, and despite the eloquent, cynical claims of Navigator PR, however, this is clearly not what’s happening here. The crucial issue isn’t kinkiness, it’s consent, a fact so obvious that I can throw it to an anonymous Reddit commenter without fear! Take it away calgacus_inperpetuum:
The CBC isn’t firing [Jian] because he’s into BDSM, they’re firing him because of allegations of sexual assault and unconsented sex. Those can’t be glossed over as “well that’s my private life and none of your business”. He’s pre-emptively telling us that there will be multiple women coming forward, and that a vast conspiracy of him being a creep has been formed.
There are a lot of ways to have sex. Kinky, BDSM sex. Violent sex, even, if that’s what you and your partner(s) are into. The crucial issue is fully informed consent. The line between extreme BDSM and sexual assault is a fine one, and if you allow your terms to be amorphously defined, you open yourself up to justifiable charges. Consent entails naming and agreeing to specific acts: if you go beyond what you and your partner have established as “aggressive” sex, you’ve obviously crossed that line. This is doubly true if you’re in a clear position of power (if, say, you’re considerably older, richer and more famous than your sexual partners) and it’s triply true if your sexual fantasies involve extreme violence. If physical trauma is going to be involved, the burden of responsibility (namely making 300% sure that the specific acts you’re about to engage in have actually and unambiguously been consented to) falls squarely on the person inflicting that violence. If you exploit that grey area, especially if you let your position of power stand in for very specific conversations, then you’re committing sexual assault and you should be held accountable.
If, like me, you’ve talked about this situation with your friends/colleagues/strangers on the street, you’ve surely heard someone (in my own experience it’s always a man) make the argument that we should “wait for the facts” before deciding anything. This is a fine principle in the abstract. Listen to how fair minded it sounds! Why not just let “the truth come out”? Surely the proper place for these allegations is the courthouse, not the media, right?
No. Not right. Not if you’re at all willing to acknowledge the tremendous power imbalance at work here. Jian Ghomeshi may be a smarmy, insecure creep who serially dates and allegedly abuses women half his age, but he’s also, because of the unfathomable tastes of radio listeners nationwide, a wealthy, famous, very well-connected man. Let Carla Ciccone be a lesson to us all: Jian and his fans have the means to ruin your life and career if you go even pseudo-public. Who can blame these women for deciding not to risk their careers, reputations, and mental well-being for a chance to go toe-to-toe with Jian Ghomeshi’s lawyers? What reasonable person could fault them for their reluctance to come forward and relive their trauma publicly?
To espouse a high-minded deferral of judgment in the face of this emphatically slanted playing field (a place where Jian holds a significant financial, legal, and PR advantage) is to implicitly sanction a world where the rights of powerful men trump those of abused women. You cannot brandish the “innocent-until-proven-guilty” flag without simultaneously condemning these (understandably anonymous) women of malicious slander. Jian, lamentably appears to be doing exactly this, but he’s clearly desperate. It’s up to the rest of us, as informed public citizens, to acknowledge and resist this dangerous narrative.
This is why, if you’re at all concerned, and especially if you’re a man (and therefore an implicit beneficiary of this imbalance of power in sexual assault cases) you have a moral obligation to believe Ghomeshi’s alleged victims. This obligation stems not only from the fact that the imputed ‘malicious’ motives of these women (vindictively taking down a famous man at any expense!) are implausible, but also from the combined weight of their respective testimonies. To quote Aaron Bady, whose perceptive remarks about the Dylan Farrow/Woody Allen situation remain dismayingly germane: the best reason for believing the testimony of sexual assault victims is that their accounts are overwhelmingly likely to be true. In parsing the plausibility of allegations like this we can and should be
swayed by the fact that sexual violence is incredibly, horrifically common, much more common than it is for women to make up stories about sexual violence in pursuit of their own petty, vindictive need to destroy a great man’s reputation. We are in the midst of an ongoing, quiet epidemic of sexual violence, now as always. We are not in the midst of an epidemic of false rape charges, and that fact is important here…All things being equal, the explanation that doesn’t require you to imagine a conspiracy of angry women telling lies for no reason is probably the right one.
Contemporary Canadian statistical accounts bear out these dismaying truths. The figures are well known: 1 in 4 Canadian women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and yet less than 10% of these victims will report their assault to the police. False reports, by contrast, account for only 2-4% of all reported claims, which means that the overwhelming majority of women are remaining silent. Anything that we can do to resist the systemic forces that encourage that silence is a laudable thing. Good riddance, Ghomeshi.
I wrote this post quickly on Monday evening, and in the time in between now and then I’ve read some excellent articles that cover much of this ground better than I could. I’m so grateful for the voices of Owen Pallett, Andrea Zanin, Dan Savage and many others on this topic.