Since the bombshell about Radio Q host Jian Ghomeshi broke, I have seen a lot of predictable responses on the internet. The predictable victim-blaming, the predictable “innocent-until-proven guilty” retorts, the predictable trivializing of the issue.
Though the details of the allegations are no doubt very important, I am, like others, mainly interested in how people respond to these situations, for the responses are immensely distressing, and indeed, cases-in-point of pervasive sexism, misogyny, and dare I say it, “rape culture.” I am most distressed by the legions of men who are vociferously coming to the defence of Ghomeshi.
If you are a man and you find yourself siding or identifying with Ghomeshi, I wonder why? Is it because you can imagine yourself in a situation that you might be “wrongfully” accused of being a creep, or worse, of sexual assault or harassment?
If this is the case, I would like to suggest that the probability of you being accused of such things without any basis whatsoever are very close to zero. This isn’t a matter of stringent legal proceedings. Obviously, to convict someone of a crime necessarily requires very high standards and structurally favours the accused. Sexual assault apologists like to remind everyone of this basic premise of our legal system as if it’s some deep insight. But it’s the reason that despite all the melodrama of “his life being ruined,” Ghomeshi hasn’t been charged with anything, and is merely losing his job and public stature.
Being a creepy sexual predator that takes advantage of their power and fame is not illegal. But it’s awful and it’s wrong. This is precisely the reason that women feel the need to come forward on the internet and expose people like Ghomeshi. Men who act like creeps absolutely deserve to be called-out and shamed.
If you are at the point that your defence consists of claiming that you didn’t do anything illegal, you have almost certainly transgressed sexual boundaries in a serious way. The limit between acceptable behaviour is not marked by clear-cut legalities. You have said something, or acted in a way, that has made a woman very, very uncomfortable, or worse, has profoundly destroyed their worldview or sense of self. At the very, very least, you did not do your due diligence of seeking consent, but more likely, you knowingly pushed the limits of what you thought you could get away with. Just because you didn’t assault or rape a woman to the point that it can clearly be prosecuted in a court of law does not mean that you did not do something terrible.
And what I expect is that, behind all the self-righteous indignation of men leaping to Ghomeshi’s defence, is this implicit recognition. It is the understanding that all these men who slut-shame, victim-blame, and trivialize accusations of sexual assault transgress boundaries all of the time. These men recognize that they have pushed the limits of consent and acceptable behaviour with women, that they objectify them, that they treat them like sexual conquests. They’re worried if we actually start taking every accusation of sexual assault seriously, if women don’t have to fear repercussions and harassment for coming forward, then they might be next. They’re worried they might have to start respecting women. They know, deep down, that one day, they might push the limits a little too far and someone might accuse them of sexual misconduct or rape.
Such men are those that cat-call women, rehearse their aggressive pick-up tactics, make completely uninvited sexual advances, grab girls’ asses at the club, try to figure out which girl at the party is drunk enough to sleep with them, and say horrible things like, “I’d fuck her,” or more horribly, “I wouldn’t fuck her” about women they’ve never met. If you’re not one of these men – if you are not a fucking creep – then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. It is virtually impossible that you will ever get accused of sexual assault or rape.
When women come out and accuse someone of sexual assault, they simply need to be taken seriously by men. They need support. Don’t say you won’t take them seriously unless they go to the police or reveal their names. Maybe they don’t want to go to the police, who would? I don’t purport to understand at all the dynamics of feeling like you’ve been taken advantage of in that way, of being sexually assaulted. Needless to say, it would be devastating. Traumatizing. Life-changing. And I think most men fundamentally have no clue what kind of trauma it would cause. But if you care to start understanding, just talk to women. You’d be astonished by how many women have had negative experiences with men that have profoundly changed their world view.
Again, of course the details matter. It’s conceivable that men occasionally are accused of sexual assault for nefarious reasons. Of course it’s possible that people like Jian Ghomeshi didn’t do anything illegal. But why is it that legalities become the primary terms of discussion? Pedantically dwelling on legalities for standards of sexual conduct, or more generally, turning to the law as the standard for what’s acceptable for how men talk to, act towards, and treat women, is absurd. The question I’m interested in is why men leap to the defence of a man accused of sexual misconduct and refuse to take seriously the claims of the accusers, or worse, harass, shame, insult and degrade them?
Consider the following analogy. Imagine it was revealed that instead of man being accused of being a creep, or worse, a rapist, you had a set of very damning, very convincing accusations that he was an awful racist. You had several independent sources corroborating that he on various occasions used ethnic slurs and openly harassed people because of their ethnicity.
Are people going to sit around and debate the legality of this? No, because being a racist asshole is, except in cases of extreme transgressions (notice the analogy here?), not illegal. Would losing his job and public stature because he’s a racist be an appropriate outcome? Definitely.
And would people sit around and analyse statistics about multiple false racism accusations and turn to narratives about “jilted minorities”? I doubt it. Indeed, I am confident that if several independent sources came forth accusing Jian Ghomeshi of awful racism, then people would be much more inclined to believe these accusations, and much less eager to victim blame. This fact alone demands some serious soul-searching and reflection.