Our Broken Discourse About Sexual Assault
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Our Broken Discourse About Sexual Assault

Accusers continue to step forward with allegations of sexual assaults committed by Jian Ghomeshi. His accusers deserve the presumption of innocence just as much as he does.

Ghomeshi moderating a Canada Reads panel in 2010  Photo by ardenstreet from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Ghomeshi moderating a Canada Reads panel in 2010. Photo by ardenstreet from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

After the CBC announced Sunday that he had been fired, Jian Ghomeshi took to his public Facebook account to defend himself against the allegations of sexual assault he knew would be published in the Toronto Star. In a lengthy open letter addressed to “everyone,” Ghomeshi noted how long he had worked for the CBC, how good he was at his job, the fact that his father has died recently, and his proclivity for BDSM-style sex. He also used this letter as a chance to rake his as-yet-unnamed accuser over the coals, describing her as a jilted ex-girlfriend who was trying to ruin his life.

This post has turned out to be pretty useful for me. For the first few days after it went up, I was able to use Ghomeshi’s open letter as a sort of barometer to measure who in my life is still a safe person and whom I should be wary of.

Every time I saw a friend click-to-like Ghomeshi’s Facebook post, I recognized that this was one more person that I could no longer fully trust. What’s frightening is that these friends supporting Ghomeshi were people who would have been appalled by sexual assault committed by a stranger. But it’s different, I guess, when the accused is someone whose radio show you’ve enjoyed for the past eight years.

Even as the number of accusers grew—there are now eight—I understood the instinct people initially had to jump to Ghomeshi’s defence. After all, he was a well-liked public figure who had carefully crafted a sturdy nice-guy persona. His preemptive strike against his accusers—framing his firing as the result not only of the sick work of a jealous ex, but of some kind of prudish anti-BDSM sensibility at the CBC—was a brilliant tactic. He managed to win a great deal of public support before people had any clue what the accusations against him actually were. I understand that people were uncomfortable and upset, and I know that believing in Ghomeshi’s innocence was a natural and easy defence against this discomfort. I’m not here to tell you that you aren’t allowed to be uncomfortable. I’m not even here to tell you not to believe that the allegations against Ghomeshi are false, in spite of the mounting evidence emerging to support them.

What I do want to tell you is the effect your defence of Ghomeshi has had on other people, specifically on women who are survivors of sexual assault.

First of all, you need to know that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Think about that figure for a second. Now think about how many women you know, and calculate how many of them, based on that statistic, might have been sexually assaulted.

Here’s another statistic for you: in Canada, only 10 per cent of sexual assaults against women by non-spouses are reported to the police.

This means that you likely know multiple women who have been sexually assaulted but have never reported that fact to the police. Maybe they were threatened into silence by the person who assaulted them. Maybe they didn’t think they had enough evidence to garner a conviction: sexual assaults rarely have witnesses, after all. Or maybe they were afraid that no one would believe them.

Given the initial public reaction to the allegations against Ghomeshi—the huge outpouring of love and support on social media, and the 70,000 fans his Facebook page gained after he first posted his note—it’s easy to see why women who have been assaulted choose to stay silent. When women speak out about assault—especially if the assault isn’t of the stranger-in-a-dark-alleyway variety (which, by the way, is statistically far less likely than being assaulted by someone you know)—they are almost always met with some level of disbelief. When a woman speaks out against a powerful, well-liked man, the scrutiny and doubt that she faces are even worse. When accusations of assault boil down to he-said-she-said, public support nearly always comes down on the male side of the equation. Even when there’s incontestable proof and an admission of guilt—as in the case of Roman Polanski, for example—there are still plenty of people willing to turn a blind eye toward it or somehow rationalize their way out of condemning the violence that has happened (“it wasn’t rape-rape,” as Whoopi Goldberg famously said of Polanski).

And every time someone breaks out the old “she’s doing it for the money” claim (where is this magic pot of gold that women apparently get to dip into every time they accuse someone of assault?), or “she just wants attention,” or—my personal favourite—“she’s a freelance writer trying to get work” (quick, name five women who have become famous writers because they called out their rapist), the culture of silence that surrounds rape and sexual assault deepens just a little bit more. Whenever someone blusters that there are two sides to every story, the sexual assault survivors in that person’s life recognize that that is no longer a safe person. Whenever someone cops out of a discussion about rape with “Well, we’ll never know what really happened,” it becomes harder and harder for survivors to tell their stories. Because survivors have told you what really happened; you just didn’t want to listen.

Now one accuser, actress Lucy DeCoutere, has gone on the record in the Toronto Star with some seriously frightening allegations against Ghomeshi. This was a profoundly brave thing to do, considering the vitriol and disbelief the four anonymous women mentioned in the Star‘s initial article about the allegations have had to face.

Now that the number of women accusing Ghomeshi of assault has risen to eight, the tide of public opinion seems to have turned. For everyone whose initial response was to believe Ghomeshi, it’s vital to think about how your reaction and others like it affected not just the women you know, but also other women who might have been considering coming forward with more allegations against Ghomeshi. Consider this: a minimum of eight women stayed silent for years because they were afraid of the consequence of coming forward. Given the recent events of Gamergate, fears of public backlash are not at all unfounded. And in many ways, the backlash accusers can face in their personal lives is even worse.

The presumption of innocence is a necessary part of our judicial system, but it’s important to remember that this presumption goes both ways: yes, we need to presume that the accused is innocent until proven otherwise, but we also need to presume that the accuser is telling the truth. I say this because I often see the words “presumption of innocence” thrown around in a way that silences survivors of sexual assault; I almost never see anyone mention this presumption when men accused of rape start publicly tearing down these women’s stories, or the women themselves.

We live in a culture in which the negative repercussions for women reporting sexual assault overwhelmingly outweigh the benefits. We participate in this culture by—still—asking those women what they were wearing or how much they had to drink. We do it when it takes the words of eight women to equal the power of one man’s voice.

If you were among those who initially defended Ghomeshi, or if you’re still inclined to do so, think about how your defence might make the women around you feel unsafe. Before you start presuming Ghomeshi’s innocence, try flipping things around and testing what it feels like to believe in the innocence of the accusers. And finally, think about all of the women who have been assaulted and stayed silent about their assault for years—and then think about the role you might have played in that silence.

CORRECTION: October 30, 2014, 3:30 PM This post originally stated that only 40 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. That statistic, though, related to the United States: in Canada, data show that only 10 per cent of sexual assaults against women by non-spouses are reported to police.