Experiencing betrayal, on any level, is never easy. This past week, the country was rocked by a particularly troubling sex scandal that triggered a re-examination of the staggering number of unreported incidents of rape and violence against women. Our collective shock and outrage mushroomed into a national conversation facilitated by the Internet and social media stretching from coast to coast. As a result, victims are coming forward, and for the first time women who have never spoken about their assaults (some dating as far back as thirty and forty years) are talking. The sheer magnitude of what has occurred cannot be overstated.
The scandal involves Jian Ghomeshi, disgraced media darling of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and former host of the popular syndicated arts and culture program, Q. He was fired on October 26th after which, wave after wave of shocking allegations emerged over a five day period—allegations so disturbing that they knocked the wind out of me in a way that few events have since the 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre of fourteen female students in Montreal. While some may argue that there is no comparison, they do in fact share one fundamental commonality—violence against women. And for that reason, this story has touched me on a very personal level. Let me explain.
As a loyal fan of public broadcasting for many years, Jian’s seductive voice (along with those of several other beloved CBC hosts) has been a daily staple in my private, cultural landscape. And like cherished friends who have the capacity to nourish the mind and soul, these voices have been present—in my home, in my car, and indeed, in my head. You see, Jian was my radio “boyfriend.” Intimacy comes in many guises, but so do shock and betrayal.
Part of the reason why the Ghomeshi scandal has hit so hard is that, like many others, I too have experienced violence and non-consensual sex. I was young, naive, and didn’t know how to keep myself safe. If Facebook had existed back then, I likely would have ended up like Rehteah Parsons, a suicide statistic. Instead, I became another statistic—shamed, vilified, raped and never reported. It’s a story older than time, but I know too well how it goes—before, during, and after…including the scars that linger years later. And now, I can’t help it, but my rapists’ faces and penises have become interchangeable with Jian’s, and it makes me sick to my stomach.
One cannot un-hear or un-experience things. I’m still processing, but am hopeful that all of what has transpired this past week finally highlights the undercurrent of misogynistic attitudes still afflicting us today—from high school and beyond—and that we can finally make a real change for the better. Indeed, the conversation has begun, but there are so many questions.
Some are demanding to know why the CBC did nothing after complaints about Ghomeshi had been brought to their attention as early as 2010. Now it has come out that several universities also knew something was amiss, and had been warning young, female journalism students away from internships at the Q studio because of Ghomeshi’s notorious reputation. Each of these institutions will be facing some very tough questions in the coming weeks and months.
Unfortunately, the way complaints were (or were not) handled is not unique to the CBC. Most often, unwanted touching, comments, and bullying are not taken seriously, especially when it’s a “she said, he said” situation with no concrete evidence or witnesses. As a woman, I am familiar with the pattern. The following is an account of an incident that occurred about fifteen years after the assaults I experienced in my teens and early twenties.
While studying at the University of Guelph for my BFA, a fellow mature student (39) that I didn’t know cornered me in an empty classroom one afternoon under the pretext of showing me his intaglio copper plate, when I noticed his penis was fully out of his pants. I nervously stated, “You’re flying low,” at which point he acted like it was an accident and tucked it back in. At my brother’s urging, I reported the incident to campus police. Unnerved, I also signed up for Campus Safe Walk (for an escort to my car after dark), and over the next few days I began discreetly approaching female classmates to inquire if anything “odd” had happened to them in the printmaking department. Things got ugly when an indignant, younger male student got in my face and accused me of starting a “witch-hunt.” Sound familiar?
Later that week, in front of my peers, I was called out of class to the dean’s office where a university blue-suit (head of campus security) was waiting to see me. He stated that the pervert had been apprehended following numerous other complaints on campus regarding “a flasher” in the library and elsewhere. What I found confusing, however, was that he proceeded to minimize the gravity of the situation. He explained that the perpetrator was married, with a known history of indecent exposure in Montreal, but that he had expressed remorse, and voluntarily submitted himself to counseling. This man in the blue suit, smug in his authority, assured me that statistics show that “flashers” are NOT dangerous, and that they rarely attack. I replied that if a guy was going to show me his gun, I had to presume he might use it. Still, he went on and urged me not press charges, but I was confused because I had already reported criminal activity to the authorities. In the end, I allowed myself to be intimidated by the head of security – a man – and everything was swept under the carpet. Meanwhile, it was a very distressing time, fraught with fear and anxiety, which compromised my education and grades over a period of about one month (of a four-month semester).
Given the university’s handling of a sexual predator, and my later experience as a high school teacher attempting to address student bullying (including reporting it to administration), the CBC’s handling of the situation in the months leading up to Ghomeshi’s firing is not surprising to me. He was an adept manipulator, calculating in his [alleged] predation and attack strategies. It’s the same way that most bullies get away with murder, while endlessly tormenting their victims. Without witnesses, concrete proof, or anyone willing to stand up to them, things are very slow to change.
While a few heads may roll at the CBC in the end, tolerance and denial are systemic problems common to many workplaces, and everybody knows it—just like so many women from coast to coast “knew” about Jian, as Melissa describes so eloquently on her blog.
In the wake of Ghomeshi-gate, as it has come to be known, and in its magnitude and consequent exposure of bureaucratic indifference and complicity, we can only hope that the pernicious attitudes and business practices which ultimately enable rape culture are addressed and remedied once and for all. This conversation is long overdue, which brings us to the government.
Before I go on, it is important to point out that to digress into a philosophical debate (about investigative journalism, or the role of social media in the lightning speed with which it enabled public opinion to expound and chose sides) would be a tragedy. It would be a slap in the face to the countless victims of sexual violence, bullying, and abuse, no matter where or how it happened—be it in the bedroom, on the side of the road, or at work. We cannot forget that crimes have been committed.
In my opinion, the Canadian government’s complicity in the escalation of a national crisis is reprehensible. By ignoring repeated calls for a public inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is guilty of turning a blind eye to rape culture. Through arrogance, male entitlement, inaction, and cold-heartedness, his style of leadership inadvertently sends a message loud and clear to abusers, rapists, murderers, and misogynists everywhere that human rights violations against WOMEN are tolerated in this country. Women are open season, have your way with them. Harper’s stance is an absolute disgrace.
So… maybe it has taken Ghomeshi and this moment to finally address the situation. Maybe this is the moment where every woman who has ever been beaten, harassed, raped, or abused finally has permission to speak out without fear of recrimination or humiliation.
On a final note, Margaret Wente in the last paragraph of her article soberly directs our attention towards the abusers. “The truth is that some men have been pigs, and some men always will be. These men should be outed, shamed and ostracized.” And so too have my thoughts shifted away from dwelling on the countless victims—too ashamed, confused, and intimidated to report their rapes—and towards the MEN who have committed these heinous crimes with impunity for too many years. It is chilling to think that these men are out there, likely reading these endless articles and essays along with the rest of us. So I say this:
I do remember my abusers from so many years ago. You were young men, which is typically when abusive patterns in the male population emerge. You engaged in predatory, pack mentality behaviours and callous slut shaming. You raped again and again. Though I’ve managed to more or less blot out those painful memories and carry on, it has taken decades to realize that the shame is not mine to bear. I can only hope that if any of you ever gained a conscience or some sense of morality, and later had daughters of your own, that you hang your heads in shame and horror every single day remembering what you did, and how devastatingly WRONG it was.
If there is anything positive to be gained from the Ghomeshi scandal, it’s that it has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of previously untold stories of abuse, rape, and violence; an increase in reporting of sex crimes and assaults; and a hard look at the abhorrent practice of victim blaming. This is a huge step in the right direction, but if things are truly going to change, we need to do a much better job of ensuring that our sons fully understand the meaning of consent and all that it implies.