Monday, October 27, 2014

Fifty Shades of Ghomeshi: Why this isn't about his "private" sex life

Normally, I wouldn’t invoke the link to E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. Normally, I would worry that such a link would appear to trivialize or make light of the fact that women have come forward alleging sexual violence during personal encounters (including romantic/ sexual encounters) with former CBC broadcaster and host of ‘Q’ Jian Ghomeshi.
However, Ghomeshi himself invoked a Fifty Shades of Grey reference in his pre-emptive official Facebook post on Sunday.

“We joked about our relations being like a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey or a story from Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize winning book last year.”

This reference really arrested my attention. Reading this, not long after absorbing the breaking news that CBC had parted ways with the host, yet long before reading the startling and detailed Toronto Star report this morning, I kept coming back to the decision to make this reference.

Of course, we know Ghomeshi has hired a crisis management PR team and, since his intentions to file a lawsuit against CBC were immediately stated, we can assume PR professionals helped sculpt and refine his lengthy and candid statement, which can only be interpreted as an effort to put his side of the story out there first. Fair enough.

Without a doubt, the mainstream success of Fifty Shades of Grey has made it easier to talk about BDSM publically – and regardless of what you think of the books (here are a few thoughts I put together after reading the first book in 2012), I think being able to talk about sex is a good thing. 

Still, I found myself wondering if Ghomeshi could have so readily made public some tidbits of his sex life in a pre-Fifty Shades world. I read Ghomeshi’s subtle but deliberate reference to the book as an attempt to garner sympathy by resorting to something that everyone knows of, even if they don’t know much else about BDSM. As though presenting his situation in a Fifty Shades context somehow neutralized the allegations by framing himself in the terms of this cultural product. After all, Fifty Shades is first and foremost a, bizarre, improbable, over the top romance interspersed with intricate descriptions of sex; elements of violence may be involved, and people may dislike its depiction of a young female submissive, but the sex is consensual. The reference, somehow, frames the message in easy-to-digest terms.

Also, Ghomeshi’s invitation to think of him as Christian Grey is nothing if not self-aggrandizing.

In the day since all this started breaking and since Ghomeshi’s first-out-of-the-gate Facebook statement dominated everyone’s newsfeeds, there have been some excellent articles tackling different aspects of this controversy.

Elizabeth Hawksworth’s blog post was particularly compelling, an astute excerpt of which I’ll quote at length here:
“Women everywhere are sexually assaulted by men in power. Many don’t bother to speak up because of reactions and consequences like this: Ghomeshi is a man in power and he is also well liked and well known. Chances are, he will be almost universally believed, while she will be accused of lying to get something from him. And while there is an extremely small percentage of women who do accuse men of sexual abuse in order to get something from them, the majority of women don’t. The majority of women speak up because they want justice. And right now, we don’t know what the real story is – but as someone who never spoke up when a man in power put me through hell, for a variety of reasons – I believe her until further notice.”
Anne Theriault tweeted eloquently when the news broke. It’s hard to choose just one tweet to highlight, but this one particularly resonated.

For my part, in this post I want to focus on an alarming and, so far, less discussed and analyzed aspect of this emerging story: the notion of sexual privacy and freedom.

It is highly unlikely, as others have noted, that CBC would dismiss Ghomeshi, a hugely popular and beloved show host, without significant deliberation and compelling evidence that his behaviour is, indeed “unbecoming” and, possibly, illegal. It is highly unlikely that they would risk the success of an eminent show and invite a tangly, high profile lawsuit based on being prudish or simply finding his bedroom practices unpalatable.

If you wouldn’t make the same argument to defend an accused consumer of child pornography – that what one does for sexual pleasure is private and not grounds for firing or legal recourse – then don’t make it here.

One of the most pervasive reactions I’ve encountered so far is the rush to condemn the employer, in this case CBC, for peeping into the proverbial bedroom and invading Ghomeshi’s private sexual life. I’ve read many takes on “what he does in his own home is his business” and “CBC has no place in the bedroom” as well as commentaries that masquerade as being sexually liberal and open-minded when really theyre overlooking the allegations of sexual violence that cannot and should not be lumped into part of that BDSM stuff.

This is not about discrimination against BDSM sexual practices. This is about women coming forward with allegations of sexual violence and non-consensual aggressive acts. I’m surprised by how many people are focusing solely on the salacious details of Ghomeshi’s sexual revelations, only to be distracted from the real issue here: the potential that sexual violence occurred. The titillation of learning about a celebrity’s sex life, of wrapping one’s head around what BDSM and, to quote Ghomeshi, “rough sex” means, is redirecting attention from the sexual violence that has been alleged.

It is important that this conversation doesn’t result in characterizing BDSM as deviant. That would be, frankly, untrue and certainly unfair to all the consenting adults who engage in BDSM or kink. For some, who equate rough sex and practices of dominance and submissions as inherently violent and deviant, they’re going to pass judgement on Ghomeshi’s admissions about his sexual preferences, and that’s too bad.

BDSM does not equal sexual violence, yet sexual violence and non-consensual practices can arise out of otherwise healthy, consensual BDSM practices.

I’m an ardent supporter of personal autonomy and sexual freedom. I don’t think anyone should be dismissed or have repercussions in their public / professional life because of their sexual tastes and practices, as long as those preferences are consensual and legal. As Ghomeshi stated in his post “sexual preferences are a human right.” 

I’m not condemning Ghomeshi. I’ve never met the man. I was neither a fan nor non-fan of ‘Q’ before all this. I don’t want a prominent Canadian radio personality to be a sexual aggressor. 

Just because we don’t know what “really” happened and may never know, and just because we don’t know who is telling the truth, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze and discuss this scenario, and the frenzy of varied reactions that have resulted from it. Sexual violence, victim-blaming, and the very real reasons many women cannot come forward, least of all publically and online, are conversations that need to happen.

When discussing this let’s remember: the “unbecoming conduct” that CBC supposedly learned about isn’t Jian Ghomeshi’s participation in rough yet consensual sex; it is alleged sexual violence.

What happens in the bedroom is private – until it breaks the law or hurts or exploits a person.


  1. Zaren, I think you are brilliant, and so I follow what you write. Here, I can't help but feel you jump the gun. I agree that accusations of sexual violence should be taken seriously, but it's difficult to take such accusations seriously in this case because no one's filed any charges against the accused. This leaves everything as hearsay - one party makes claims and the other party refutes it, but there's not going to be any investigation without someone going to the police.

    You say people are dismissing the accusations of sexual violence when they discuss this story in terms of his "unbecoming conduct," but aren't you just representing the flipside of such a position, presuming his guilt and her innocence? Your use the rhetoric of allegations, but it comes across as presumed guilt.

    In cases like this, how can you just pick a side - either side? Even your example about the "accused consumers of child pornography" seems to condone people acting on accusations that a person consumes illegal pornography. You must see that's not fair, right? Just because someone makes a claim that doesn't mean it must be true. More than being unfair, this isn't how our legal culture operates. Accusations lead to investigations, but that's all. The results of an investigation should be what determines punishment, whether it's from the law courts or an employer or whatever. However, without the rigour of a real investigation, to side with either party is to join the witch hunt. Isn't it?

  2. Dave, the fact that the number of fabricated sexual assaults is tiny notwithstanding, and the fact that people who report sexual assaults often get their reputations smeared across the internet notwithstanding, I think what Zaren is saying here is not that Ghomeshi has been proven guilty, or should be presumed to be guilty. (When she writes, "I’m not condemning Ghomeshi," is an example.)
    The point is that the CBC didn't fire Ghomeshi for his sex preferences, because that would have opened them up to a 50 million dollar lawsuit (whoops!) and they wouldn't have a leg to stand on in court. And without the testimonies of those women, they may very well not have a leg to stand on now. But generally, most corporations/companies try to avoid wrongful dismissal lawsuits. Which makes me think they fired him because of something else. There's much more going on behind the scenes than any of us know right now, with those women, with Ghomeshi's PR crisis team, and with the CBC's legal team. He is absolutely innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law. But remember that his half of the story isn't everything, and there are some very serious allegations of sexual abuse. All in all, I think this article is a legitimate contribution to the discourse, especially amid all the Q fanboys crying foul without even reading the Star's original article.