Jian Ghomeshi and predators in progressive spaces

[Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women, Rape]

As of 8:30PM Monday night, some 26 hours after its posting, over 106,000 people had ‘liked’ former CBC Jian Ghomeshi’s tell-all Facebook novella in which he pins his icarian downfall on the follies of his ‘jilted’ ex.

That’s a whole lot of likes.

I’ve been left aghast at how many came from Facebook friends, many of whom are dedicated activists. Rarely have I witnessed such a pronounced public rift in progressive circles, and it’s left many people whom I deeply care for quite literally ill.

Triggers are everywhere, and social media is consistently a cesspool of rape apologia that victims, survivors and others affected by sexual violence need to navigate through, but I think many were genuinely surprised and betrayed to have to encounter it from dozens of people they wouldn’t suspect of falling hook, line and sinker for a PR strategy centred around misogynistic tropes of the crazy, scorned ex lover.

People cling to the presumption of innocence, but as many have already noted, such presumptions are problematic in cases of rape and sexual assault because to presume one’s innocence infers that somebody somewhere is lying.

I’ve noticed many harp on to the idea that the CBC’s lawyers expressed to Ghomeshi that he had adequately proved to them that he had the consent of partners to engage in rough sex. I’m not sure what is more naive: believing that the accused is speaking truth to the legal opinion of his former employer, or thinking that it is possible to “prove” consent.

Sharing text messages, emails and videos of enthusiastic sexual kinship with partners is not demonstrating consent. Consent is not a static state, you do not gain it once and hold on to it forever. Consent can be removed at any moment for any reason, including during any and all acts of intimacy.

Unless Ghomeshi wore a GoPro 24/7 for the past year, it is impossible for him to disprove these allegations. Even in such a hypothetical situation, there would be little way of knowing whether his lovers were fully consensual, or whether their seeming consent was fuelled by fear for their physical or emotional safety.

CSI and its neon-screened ilk have done copious harm to society as is, but most notable is promulgating the misconception that most rapes are committed in dark parks by strangers that can later be tracked down with the help of a Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) kit.

This is far from the truth. In reality, close to 80% of sexual perpetrators are friends and family of the attacked. An estimated 30% are in a relationship or dating at the time of the crime, a percentage that increases to upwards of 75% after an individual turns 18. Their proximity with their assailants may be one of the reasons close to 60% of victims and survivors of sexual assault never report it to the authorities. Compounded to this is, of course, the likely possibility of being dejected by their communities for speaking truth to their experiences.

In progressive circles, there is often a misguided notion that we must concentrate our efforts on smashing neoliberalism, and that any distractions from that goal should be quietly swept under the rug. It goes like this: we shouldn’t talk about abusive sexual practices of our comrades, because doing so divides us and strengthens the conservative agenda. Such thinking is extremely damaging and a betrayal to all victims and survivors of sexual assault.

This brings me to a sad realisation: perhaps, we progressive feminist leaning men are the most dangerous of all. All men are, of course, but there’s something particularly conniving and frightening about men exploiting feminist credentials with the thought that there may be a sexual payoff at the end of the tunnel.

Ghomeshi fits the bill of such a predatory profile: women’s studies minor, former Student Union activist, and champion of many progressive causes. He, and others like us, have a lot to gain from being granted access to spheres of society not traditionally available for people from relative positions of privilege and composed of many vulnerable, trusting and loving individuals.

This is amongst the reasons why women-only spaces are so important, why cisgender men should seriously reflect on whether to outwardly identifying as feminist or allies, and why we must challenge ourselves to strengthen our awareness of consent and reject all the ways that exist to excerpt power over partners and subtly coerce physical or emotional affections from them.

Rape is hard to prove or disprove, and while this can be a disastrous truth for all parties, it carries extra weight for those who only to be met by disdain by their communities, or in the case of Ghomeshi, Canadian society at large.

There are ways to lift this burden ever so lightly, and it begins with making efforts to believe people who come forward to speak of physical and sexual abuse. They have a lot to lose in sharing their stories, and having their experiences greeted with open minds and hands is a necessary step towards justice, in one way or another, taking form.

Not everything Ghomeshi did may be illegal, and employers must be diligent in balancing workers safety while providing employees the chance to rectify inappropriate behaviour through progressive disciplining, but this does not render him immune to wide criticism.

The level of victim blaming, misogyny and saneism in his open letter is sickening, especially from a student of women’s studies, and should serve as a lesson to anybody who ever may find themselves in a similar situation: when faced with accusations that you have hurt people or made them feel unsafe, acknowledge their experience and labour to unlearn damaging behaviour and change your actions, don’t espouse whatever money and power you have to throw them under the bus in order to save yourself. Anything less is not acceptable.