Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What will the Jian Ghomeshi revelations mean for sexual assault reporting?

A lot has happened in the last week. When I wrote my first post on Jian Ghomeshi, on Monday, Oct. 27, it was about 24 hours after reading his Facebook post that set out to discredit the allegations that (he knew) were forthcoming. Now, it’s hard to even remember what I thought about Jian Ghomeshi, if anything, before a week ago.

At that point, when I jumped into the conversation to try to articulate my frustration with how discussions were focusing on the titillation of “unusual” / BDSM sex practices instead of non-consensual sexual violence, I didn’t have much information about the alleged victims and tried to refrain from writing the commentary as though Ghomeshi was guilty of the allegations of sexual violence.

A little over a week later, I feel quite confident writing as though he is guilty.

The defenders and, to a lesser extent, the neutral zone commentators, thought to even discuss the situation in terms of the alleged victims’ presumed innocence was unfair to Ghomeshi because criminal charges had not been filed. For some, the absence of a criminal investigation delegitimizes the validity of the complaint. I have a deal of faith in Canada’s justice system, but I know it is imperfect. I know whether or not a formal police probe exists can be irrelevant to whether or not a crime has been committed.

But in the short time since the allegations came forward, first with four anonymous victims, then with some women putting their name and faces to the allegations, and then the count rose to eight alleged victims, the Ghomeshi fiasco has snowballed considerably. The suggestion of a nefarious jilted ex being the reason he was fired from CBC no longer seems even remotely plausible.

I find myself wondering if he is deliberately deceptive, consciously trying to exert his power over women for sexual pleasure and get away with it, or a deluded narcissist so wrapped up in his own image that he has, somehow, convinced himself that he was entitled to do these things and, somehow, consent was granted.

Of course, entitlement to women’s bodies is a larger symptom of toxic masculinity.

I believe the way many media outlets, commentators, blogs, and individuals approached the topic – as crucially important to discuss and analyze critically, as connected to serious issues of sexual assault and abuse of power – may have helped more people come forward. And now everywhere we listen or read we can find more personal testimonies of encounters with Ghomeshi ranging from awkward to blatantly inappropriate, of journalism interns or grads being warned to stay away from Q, of people who heard about his behaviour but thought they were just rumours. 

Suddenly, we can see that the revelations that stunned so many of us who don’t know him were not so surprising to former dates, coworkers, and others in the industry.

Imagine if all those who believed the women, who believed sexual assault is horrendous and not the victim’s fault, and who believed that CBC must have had ample justification to fire him based on complaints and evidence, had just decided not to discuss it because “innocent until proven guilty” is one of our core values?

Imagine if the absence of a named woman coming forward and filing a police report was enough to believe Ghomeshi’s elaborate post and pre-emptive plea for forgiveness?

It’s telling that Navigator, the crisis management PR firm, no longer represents him. It’s telling that we haven’t heard a peep out of him since Thursday (Oct. 30) about his plans to confront allegations “head on.”

But more important than Ghomeshi’s guilt or innocence, or the possibility that, in order for him to indeed be innocent and truthful, several unconnected women would have had to coincidentally reveal fabricated allegations of his sexual and physical abuse, is what this case may mean for victims of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Although it may seem minor by comparison to physical violence, I deliberately include sexual harassment, especially workplace sexual harassment, in this list. I think navigating reporting a coworker (who may also be more influential, more securely employed, and maybe even your boss or someone you report directly to) as a perpetrator of sexual or gender-based harassment is a similar although unique quagmire. 

Often, there are no criminal charges to seek, no police report to file, in a workplace harassment / hostile work environment case. Why? Because so much of how men treat women in the workplace has been normalized to the point that it may not even be seen as a transgression.

There can be a lot of pressure for complainants of sexual harassment to determine the solution – do you want to sit down, face to face, with the perpetrator and explain how you feel with the help of a mediator? Then you can feel awkward for the rest of time and dread going to work while the perpetrator ostracizes or, perhaps, increases the intensity of their harassment. No thanks.

I hope the revelations of these brave women – survivors of sexual assault and abuse – coming forward to report their experiences with Jian Ghomeshi helps more women come forward. I hope this story, which has astonished the country, is a tipping point for adjusting and reframing how sexual violence is understood in society.

There are so many reasons why victims feel they cannot report, and we need to cultivate a culture that lets them. I hope that, at least, comes out of this.

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