Niya Bajaj is chair of fundraising at the Elspeth Centre for Women and secretary of the Board at the Native Women’s Resource Center.
This article is part of a Discussion addressing the question, ‘What changes can we make to our social, political and legal institutions to improve gender equity in Canada?’.
Gender equity is the process of being fair to people of all genders such that they have equal access to resources, opportunities and fair treatment; while considering and accounting for differences in lived experience, historical and social disadvantages. Thus the process should include provisions to redress existing inequalities in order to ensure fair access to all people.
There is a great deal of possible change that can be made as we work to create a more equitable society. This article will address the possible social, political and legal changes to address the causes of gender-based violence, by examining the recent media coverage surrounding the allegations made against Jian Ghomeshi. Gomeshi’s case is not unique; Bill Cosby’s is another example of a case where a man in a position of significant social power creates a state of crisis for certain women by using their gender and associated disadvantages against them.
Anthropologists have said that, “Every touch is a modified blow” (E. Crawley, The Mystic Rose [New York, 1927] I, 78). It is a dramatic statement, but a very real one. Intimate touch intrudes on a closed space. It violates a fixed boundary that serves a crucial purpose – to regulate space and ensure order among individuals. Civilized society is based on the creation, observance and respect of these boundaries.
The intrusive nature of intimate touch makes consent vital. Intimate contact that is not consensual can create a state of crisis – a dangerous, difficult situation that requires serious attention from civilized society to prevent ongoing, socially accepted harm – for those individuals whose boundaries have been violated. Problematically, western society facilitates this sort of crisis and it happens to a surprising number of its citizens, particularly the female ones.
According to police reported data in 2011 women were eleven times more likely than men to be sexually victimized, three times as likely to be stalked (criminally harassed), and twice as likely to be the victim of indecent and harassing phone calls. The data also indicates that there are 1,207 female victims for every 100,000 women in the population, 5% higher than the rate of violence against men (1,151 per 100,000).
Consent, and the ability to give it, should be a simple matter between equals. It rarely is, because in most societies, the female half of the population has been and is currently seen as lacking the self-control and maturity required set or control their own boundaries. This perceived lack of ability has evoked fear and controlling actions from the male half of society including the discounting or ignoring of the boundaries that women set for themselves and their attempts to control it.
Women used to begin life as their father’s property and later became their husband’s property. Those who chose to live outside their father’s homes, or without husbands, relied primarily on male members of society to determine their boundaries and to police those who transgressed them. While it may seem archaic, women are still defined as valuable because of their relationship to men who traditionally hold power in society. One current illustration of this is the constant reminder, often through public service campaigns about street harassment, that women should be respected, and not harassed or assaulted, because they are someone’s daughter, sister, wife or mother. Women continue to be conceptualized as a social group whose only value is the relational function it serves to the dominant male group. Social messaging rarely reminds people that women should be respected because they are equal human beings; and that all human beings are entitled to that respect, regardless of gender.
Men have more social ability to control their boundaries. They are less commonly objectified or treated like property for common use unless they are also members of a socially marginalized group defined by sexuality, colour, age, ability or wealth. In some societies these groups have been deemed as incapable as women are when it comes to establishing, maintaining and policing personal boundaries.
Civilized society has failed to properly protect the female half of its population because it has not ensured they have the same rights and abilities to control their boundaries and prevent crisis situations as their male counterparts. The recent allegations leveled against the somewhat infamous Jian Ghomeshi illustrate this failure clearly.
In case you are not familiar with the story, Ghomeshi is a Canadian radio host and former musician. Until recently, he hosted Q, a popular arts and culture show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) national radio network. Q is also syndicated to 180 Public Radio International Stations across the United States. This makes Mr. Ghomeshi a minor celebrity in some respects.
On October 26, the CBC announced it had terminated its relationship with Mr. Ghomeshi. Shortly, after, Mr. Ghomeshi took to Facebook and told everyone why. His extensive post painted the CBC as a judgmental, prudish employer, which terminated him because he enjoys activities that are “mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.”
These include rough sex and other activities that generally fall under the social definition of BDSM when they take place between consenting partners. In his Facebook post, Mr. Ghomeshi alleged a smear campaign by one or more jilted ex-partners, saying, “in the coming days you will prospectively hear about how I engage in all kinds of unsavoury aggressive acts in the bedroom. And the implication may be made that this happens non-consensually. And that will be a lie.”
His case is a good example of the five areas where society fails to protect those at risk of having their boundaries transgressed and being forced into crisis situations: power, rape culture, celebrity, misogyny, and deviance.
As a man, Mr. Ghomeshi has access to more power than the women who have come forward and shared their experiences. He is still seen as an autonomous being. He sets his own boundaries. He is not defined as someone’s son, brother, husband or father. He is not reliant on another person for his safety or equality. This basic differential when it comes to access to power is complicated by the fact that in most cases he was older than the woman involved. Age, and the life experience associated with it, confers a higher level of power and status.
To further complicate the matter, Mr. Ghomeshi sometimes occupied a position of financial power and status over his partners, as the host of an internationally syndicated radio show, since some of them were students at the time. In some cases, he also held a significant amount of social power due to his social status as a Canadian celebrity of sorts. In addition, most of the incidents took place in Mr. Ghomeshi’s home – a space where he held the most power over the women. Together, these power differentials ensured that Mr. Gomeshi occupied a space of power where he was able to exert control over the situation and his partners – leaving them in a crisis situation when their boundaries were violated.
None of the women who shared their stories in public state that Mr. Ghomeshi obviously threatened to use his power to ensure their silence. He did not have to. Reva Seth, in her piece in the Huffington post about her involvement with Mr. Ghomeshi, shares insight about why he did not.
“I didn’t do anything because it didn’t seem like there was anything to do. I hadn’t been raped. I had no interest in seeing him again or engaging the police in my life. I just wanted to continue on with my life as it was. And even if I had wanted to do something, as a lawyer, I’m well aware that the scenario was just a ‘he said/she said’ situation. I was aware that I, as a woman who had had a drink or two, shared a joint, had gone to his house willingly and had a sexual past, would be eviscerated. Cultural frameworks on this are powerful.”
Ms. Seth makes a valid point about the power of cultural frameworks. In the past two years, there has been an increase in coverage and conversation about the pervasiveness of rape culture in North America. For reference, rape culture is defined as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women… violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm ..In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable.“
The burden of proof on the survivor when it comes to sexism, sexual harassment, and other forms of contact, worsens the state of crisis. Victims without obvious evidence are rarely believed, much less taken seriously, especially when the men they accuse hold positions of significant social power.
Social and digital media has made it much easier for women and their allies to raise awareness of the quotidian violence they face as a result of rape culture. Hashtags including #EverydaySexism make it easy for them to share stories in a systemic way, amplifying single voices and creating a larger and more aware movement of supportive allies.
Using social media platforms to share stories also increases the audience for the messages and makes it much easier to provide salient examples coupled with screen shots, photographs, and videos. This is particularly effective because it provides concrete examples of relatable experiences to other survivors, making it okay for them to come forward with their experiences while providing evidence.
The hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, which gained popularity since Mr. Ghomeshi’s story broke, is an example of this. It links a collection of disturbing anecdotes from survivors. Like some of the women who have shared their stories about Mr. Ghomeshi’s non-consensual conduct, the women using the hashtag believed they did not have enough proof to risk telling their stories. They did not want all of their past choices and every future one judged. They did not want to be told that what they lived though was not that bad, or that they were exaggerating in order to get attention; nor did they want to damage the reputation of a powerful figure.
The women who have come forward, publicly or anonymously, to share their stories about their experience all note a common theme: physical violence within the context of a sexual encounter that ended abruptly, was never discussed, was not reported at the time, and that created a state of crisis.
Lucy DeCoutere stated that she did not go to the police partially because she felt there were too many holes in her story. Like the women who share their stories using the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported, perhaps she did not want to expose intimate details of her life to virtual strangers because she knew she could not trust them to be on her side when she accused a powerful celebrity and a “nice guy” of sexual violence.
Mr. Ghomeshi has an additional advantage over his victims. He is a celebrity of sorts, and fame brings a new level of power and access to credibility with it. He is a recognized ally of a number of public LGBTQ figures. He also held a great deal of social clout in the arts and media community. He brought this power to bear when he hired the crisis communications firm Navigator to advise him when he was first informed of the allegations against him. Navigator has built a reputation on advising powerful clients, including Michael Bryant. Average Canadians don’t hire PR firms to handle their media requests or spin stories that smear former partners.
When Mr. Ghomeshi published the Facebook post suggesting that his jilted exes were out to get him, he was still a Navigator client. Had their relationship continued, stories about the survivors and the skeletons in their closets would have come to light, since that is what firms like Navigator do well. They undermine the reputations of those who do not have as much access to social capital. The Michael Bryant case is an example of how well Navigator does this.
Most survivors who come forward with stories and allegations have their credibility undermined in some way. They hear some version of the accusation that they are simply out to get the more powerful figure. The survivor vs. perpetrator power relationship in the court of public opinion is an unpleasant one at best. Survivors who do come forward with stories that paint “Nice Guy” celebrities as sexually violent individuals put themselves at risk.
Women who come forward risk damaging their credibility, but also risk verbal, physical and potentially sexual violence from staunch supporters of those celebrities. In part, this is because of the problematic social mythology that a “Nice Guy” could not possibly commit an act of violence, much less one against someone in a position that is less socially powerful than his. It is an unthinkable notion, and any suggestion of violence or misogynistic behaviour is explained as the result of misread signals, inebriation, or a lack of appropriate, clear social cues.
Andrew O’Hehir at Salon.com has named this manifestation of misogyny the “Ghomeshi Syndrome”. He notes that, “what we see in these cases is a widespread disorder that is less easy to see, and far more widely tolerated, than obvious crimes like violent spousal abuse. We see men who seem to have adapted poorly to the era of feminism and female sexual agency, and who react to that stress by retreating into fantasy or delusion, perhaps into a dissociative or narcissistic personality disorder that makes it impossible for them to see or evaluate their own behavior.”
His observation underlines something deeper – the fact that an increasing number of men have been socialized not to care about the soft socially-imposed boundaries that they cross when they verbally, physically or sexually harass and abuse women. Whether it is “mansplaining” catcalling, or rape, the end result is a woman who feels her boundaries have been violated and that she is powerless (to some degree) to stop it. It does not help that there are few, if any, social supports that encourage women to come forward and share their stories. It is even further complicated if the crisis-causing activities they were involved in are considered “deviant” in some way.
In his initial Facebook post, Mr. Ghomeshi noted, “I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participate in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.” When addressing the relationship with his jilted ex girlfriend he noted that they engaged in “adventurous forms of sex that included role-play, dominance and submission. We discussed our interests at length before engaging in rough sex (forms of BDSM). We talked about using safe words and regularly checked in with each other about our comfort levels. She encouraged our role-play and often was the initiator. We joked about our relations being like a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey.”
His choice to share this information through social media, while efficient in the short term, has backfired in the longer term. The law demands not merely consent before sex, but ‘ongoing consent,’ something that’s difficult to define in the realm of BDSM and, therefore, built into the rules and rituals. “You can’t consent in advance,” says Brenda Cossman, a University of Toronto law professor who specializes in sexual behaviour and the law. Nor can you consent to an assault that causes bodily harm. This may mean that, regardless of written or oral permission to punch, bite or choke a sexual partner, anyone who commits those acts may be in violation of Canada’s consent laws anyway.
Mr. Ghomeshi used BDSM and the associated sense of deviance from social norms to create an angle for the press to leverage. Perhaps he hoped it would draw their focus away from the unsavoury notion that some tax-paying, productive members of society have their safety threatened on a regular basis. It also makes it easy to forget that those members of society currently have very few options beyond accepting rape culture as a norm instead of as something that should be changed. Fortunately, BDSM educators have responded in an intelligent and mindful way – using the opportunity to educate people while refocusing the conversation on the more troubling issues.
This is one of a few steps that are being taken to begin to reduce the risk of intimate contact becoming a crisis for women. Additional steps to address the issue could include approaches that modify behaviour and create social change in the five areas identified below.
- Power – We need a social shift in the way women are perceived, such that they are seen as individuals who have the agency to and can set and police their own boundaries, instead of relying on society to do so. Bystander awareness campaigns that encourage people to ask others who seem to be approaching, or are already in, a state of crisis if they require assistance, and in what from it would be best, are an example of a useful beginning. This puts the decision-making capacity back in the hands of the individual living through the experience instead of furthering the perception that they cannot make those decisions for themselves. Further, building on the movement where survivors who speak out are empowered to tell their stories, and are believed when they do so, will create space for an ongoing awareness of the depth and pervasiveness of the issue. However, empowering survivors at the costs of the civil rights of accused will not further access to equity. Changes that result in the accused being denied their rights will only serve to exacerbate the problem. Creating a space where all sides of the story are welcome will provide salient information to a necessary conversation about how we can move forward in a less adversarial manner.
- Rape Culture – We need to change the pervasive social belief that sexual violence is an inevitable fact of life and thus should be accepted. This may begin by changing the sexual education curriculum to include conversations around consent and creating a safe space for partners. Ontario has begun this process and it will be interesting to see the impact it had. It could also take the form of more bystander action, both on the streets and in the media. The #NoBystanders campaign that currently exists to address the use of homophobic slurs could be a useful model to adopt.
- Celebrity – We need to change the belief that fame and celebrity confer greater social credibility and power. This belief obliterates the credibility of survivors who come forward to share their stories and make their cases. If society exhibited less disbelief when “nice guys” are accused of sexual violence, it would create a space where more survivors could come forward without fear. Women who speak out about acts of intimate violence committed by celebrities should not require celebrity status to be heard and believed.
- Misogyny – Behaviour change in this area can come in many forms and at many stages of life. It could begin by creating more positive role models for young men to engage with. It could also involve creating space and facilitating the development of skills so that individuals can have conversations about the soft social boundaries and what transgressing them could look like, and how transgressions can be avoided or prevented. Organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign and the What Makes a Man conference have begun the conversations about how men can play a more active role in preventing and addressing violence against women when it does occur. Continuing these conversations and starting others will benefit everyone.
- Deviance – While sex sells, sexual practices that society deems deviant should not be accepted as convenient smoke screens that mask practices causing harm to participants. As deviant behaviour grows increasingly commodified and marketable, it becomes less deviant and less of an easy excuse to derail the conversation. Additionally, behavior that is socially defined as deviant that takes place between partners who consent should not be confused with abuse.
It will take time, and a significant desire, for social, behavioural and legislative change to occur. However, until these changes are implemented and embraced, intimate non-consensual contact will still result in a crisis state for women whose voices remain quiet to the society that does not recognize them as equal members.