We may never know what happened in each of the alleged incidents between Jian Ghomeshi and his growing number of accusers, but the disturbing undercurrent of misogyny still alive and well in Canada is plain to see. It doesn’t live behind closed doors, or in the recesses of the minds of a few individuals. This week, it was on display for the world, in mainstream media and from the mouths (or typing fingers) of our leaders.
See, this week, a few prominent Canadian women felt it necessary to take to social media to voice their support for a man just accused of sexually assaulting and physically battering several women.
First, consider what Green Party leader Elizabeth May tweeted out Sunday after reading Ghomeshi’s infamous Facebook plea:
“I think Jian is wonderful. Likely TMI for an old fogey like me, but his private life is none of our beeswax.”
May deleted her tweet in the ensuing backlash and issued a formal statement, in which she attempted to justify her earlier comments. “Too many women over too many years have been disbelieved and blamed. In saying, as I will continue to say, that anyone in our society is entitled to the presumption of innocence, I am not in any way disbelieving the women who state they were assaulted. I cannot know who is telling the truth here and no one can,” she wrote.
Now, I have a lot of respect for Elizabeth May as an accomplished writer and a political leader, but that just makes this all the more disheartening. Anne Thériault explains the flawed logic in May’s non-apology and the arguments of other Ghomeshi apologists far better than I can in her Vice column, Jian Ghomeshi, Sexual Violence, and the Presumption of Innocence.
Next up, we saw former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps rush to defend Ghomeshi on Monday. Why?
Perhaps Copps hadn’t noticed that while the women now bringing forward disturbingly similar accounts of sexual and physical assault at the hands of the influential CBC star were still cowering in fear and living out their torment in silence, Ghomeshi had hired top gun PR and legal firms to launch a pre-emptive strike ahead of the news breaking. Does he need the first woman to give birth while in Canadian office to leap to his rescue on Twitter?
Oh, but she did, and in stunning form.
The Twitterverse reacted immediately, chastising Copps for what could initially have been apologized away as an insensitive or poorly thought out tweet.
Copps wasn’t going to retract the sentiment, though – this is how she actually feels. Jian Ghomeshi, in her mind, is a victim of the court of public opinion.
You would think that a sobering tweet from Glen Canning, father of the tragically deceased Rehtaeh Parsons, might have inspired Copps to pause and rethink her position.
But no, twenty minutes later, Copps again displayed a complete and utter lack of understanding or empathy for sexual assault victims with this:
It continued on this way for some time, with Copps sharing pearls of wisdom including, “Trial by media is hardly due process,” “But if someone is fired based on their alleged bedroom behaviour, shouldn’t there be some sort of due process?” and “Crimes should be brought to justice, not to The Current.”
That’s right. Sheila Copps, trailblazing Liberal woman, women’s rights advocate and the author of the autobiographical Nobody’s Baby seems incapable of grasping the fact that due process and justice for victims of sex crimes in Canada aren’t quite as simple as telling the police about the Bad Man.
I tweeted Copps this column by former Crown prosecutor Sandy Garossino, who very adeptly explains the myriad of reasons women don’t report sexual assault to police. She shares a laundry list of reasons reporting sex crimes usually ends badly for the victim, succinctly summing up the various obstacles for sexual assault victims with this explanation of the type of women who doesn’t report it: “Any woman with a past. Any woman with a future she doesn’t want derailed by the stress of reporting. In short, the kind of woman who doesn’t report a sexual attack is almost any normal rational woman.”
Copps didn’t respond. If she read it and had a change of heart, she’s yet to acknowledge any understanding of the effect her outspoken pro-Jian position has on women in Canada.
We like to pretend we’ve made great strides in equality up here in Canadaland; that sexism is a part of our history, or is at least a despicable and dying tendency exhibited by only an uncultured few.
Yet this week, I observed a prominent media figure who coincidentally gave a keynote at a conference I attended this summer tweet a joke about Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual prowess to his 63,000 followers (he’s since removed it and apologized). And then there was this, courtesy of the National Post from the brand new editor of The Walrus, Jonathan Kay:
Even in their initial expose, in which freelancer Jesse Brown and the Toronto Star do the world a service by shining a spotlight on accusations about sexual assault and abuse that have gone unchecked for far too many years, the authors took care to mention that the victims were “educated and employed” women. If they were unemployed, would they be less believable? Does a woman with higher education somehow ‘ask for it’ to a lesser degree than her uneducated counterpart?
Sexism and its ugly cousin misogyny are alive and well. When we’re forced to talk about it – when a prominent man is accused of habitually and over a period of more than a decade assaulting several women – we see the full extent to which it still rears its ugly head. When our female leaders leap to the defense of the man and somehow fail to comprehend the message that sends all victims of all sex crimes, we have to recognize how little we’ve evolved and how much work is yet to be done.
What compelled May and Copps to publicly air their support in the first place? If they’re close personal friends, one would think a phone call or email might have been an appropriate way to express their warm fuzzies for Ghomeshi, a man who has not been charged but has been accused of heinous acts of violence against several women.
We’re having the wrong conversation and it’s being led by people who should bloody well know better.
This isn’t about Jian Ghomeshi’s accomplished career, or a jilted ex, or a bit of rough sex gone too far, or whether the women might have been too suggestive.
This has become about the floodgates that open when one or two women feel safe enough to tell their story to someone, be it the media or the police.
It’s about an incredibly personal, intimate crime that happens to a woman in Canada every 17 minutes going unreported 90% of the time.
It’s about 98% of the sexual assault charges laid being charges for the least severe form of assault, despite the physical injury of 62% of sexual assault victims.
It’s about those few brave victims who decide to run the gauntlet going under the microscope and in front of the firing squad of the on and offline public because what we pass off as ‘justice’ for the victims would be laughable if it weren’t so goddamned tragic.
I’m glad May, Copps and others took their Ghomeshi well wishes and praise to Twitter, though.
This notion that a woman who has endured a sexual assault must then subject herself to a lengthy process of repeating every salacious detail for police officers, lawyers, and a judge or jury (if it gets that far) in order to “get justice” is antiquated and offensive. What lawmakers and the general public perceive as justice for sexual assault victims is actually quite often months or years of having her life peeled apart, layer by layer, with every aspect of her personal and professional existence the subject of scrutiny and judgment by law enforcement, the criminal justice system, media (unless a publication ban is in effect) and now, social media.
She must endure this repeated and prolonged victimization so her abuser may be ordered to serve a whole two years in jail, the average sentence for sexual assault convictions.
That’s the conversation we need to be having.
We need to talk about the kind of real change that will empower sexual assault victims to come forward, and a brand of justice that is actually just. We need to talk about how we’re going to be fair to all parties in an age where the accused can have a pricey PR firm fire an indictment of the accuser(s) off to a few million people in social media before the news is even out – and influential, powerful people will tip the scales further against victims by singing his praises.
As prominent Canadians, policymakers and self-proclaimed women’s advocates or feminists, this is the conversation Elizabeth May and Sheila Copps could be leading.