The summer that I was 17 years old, I volunteered at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I worked on the concession stand run by the festival, a pretty good gig. I was there with two of my closest friends, and super chuffed that one of my favourite bands at the time, Moxy Früvous, was playing the main stage. I remember hanging close to the front during their set, dancing awkwardly as only awkward teenage girls can do, and imagining that all the band members were making eye contact with me (also as only teenage girls do). Especially the cute one with brown eyes and curly long hair – a guy then called Jean Ghomeshi.
My strongest memory of that concert, though, came later, after the set ended. I rode the festival van back to the hotel with the band; I nearly passed out from the excitement, and I know I was mumbly and trying way too hard to be cool and saying lots of not-nearly-articulate-enough things. I also remember that the band was not sympathetic; I remember they made fun of me a bit. (Which, btw, super not cool, guys. I WAS SEVENTEEN.) And I remember explicitly that Ghomeshi mocked my festival volunteer T-shirt. (Who does that?)
Today, I feel incredibly lucky that this is my only embodied memory of Jian Ghomeshi, who was acquitted last week on four charges of sexual assault and one of choking to overcome resistance brought against him by Lucy DeCoutere and two other unnamed witnesses. It’s a story that reminds me of the mild discomfort he always roused in me, even when I’d listen with pleasure to his superb radio show, Q, now hosted by Shad for the CBC; it’s also a story that reminds me how I empathise with the women who brought charges against him, even though each, as it emerged in court in February, had complex romantic or sexual relationships with him after the alleged assaults took place. Because, you know what? The fact that Ghomeshi mocked and ridiculed the young me in a van on the way to a hotel in Edmonton when I was 17 always made me, perversely but very genuinely, want strongly to like his radio persona, to admire it even, as though to do so would be to reclaim something of the dignity he and his fellow band members took from me that day. I was so much more than the girl he embarrassed.
(Obviously, I do not wish in any way here to equate my mildly upsetting experience with that of the women Ghomeshi hurt in a much more profound way. I share this anecdote only to demonstrate that, for a lot of women in a lot of different ways, the narratives that have emerged around his arraignment, trial and acquittal are personal indeed.)
I’ve been uncertain about the value of doing a post on the outcome of the Ghomeshi trial. Last week, our airwaves were saturated with the story. I spent $10 on in-flight wifi last Thursday just to catch up on the all the news feeds I’d been banking, trying to get every possible perspective on what had happened – and on what it meant for Canadian justice, for women bringing allegations of assault before the court, and indeed for the individual women in this case, who were absolutely savaged by the judge in his 25-page decision. (He accused them of “deception” in giving inconsistent evidence; the full text of his verdict is available here. I’d also recommend, if you’re not up on the full story but want to be, the pieces I’ve linked here to the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Guardian.)
The media chorus seems now to have settled on a contradictory but entirely reasonable consensus: that the judge, given the evidence before him and the presumption of reasonable doubt that governs all defendants, could not but acquit; and that this acquittal not only does not mean that Ghomeshi did not in fact commit the acts he was accused of, but also means that women in future, faced with similar acts and similar circumstances, way well just choose to keep it to themselves.
I agree entirely with this consensus, but it also makes me very, very angry. And the anger has been consuming me. So I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, and in the process to reconfigure this anger, get a handle on it, and turn it, instead, into something like hope. I’m doing this for myself, to be sure, but I’m also doing it for my students – men, women, gender queer, and trans. Any Canadian with a body to love and protect (that is ALL Canadians) deserves to see the hope in this verdict rather than only the despair.
As a teacher, I’m especially, acutely aware that I need to find a way to talk about this trial and its fallout with my students in a way that is empowering and activating, rather than depressing and foreclosing. I know the students I teach at Western University have been following the Ghomeshi scandal closely, and I am sure that many of them don’t quite know what to make of the verdict and its implications for them – they are so vulnerable so often at bars, in dorm rooms and apartments, and at house parties around town. So herewith, three ways I’ve found hope in the verdict, and three things I will tell my students when they ask to speak to me about it.
- Marie Henein is a damn good lawyer – one of the best anywhere. She’s a gorgeous, powerful, smart, articulate woman. She did exactly what the law permitted her to do, and what she was paid to do, in throwing everything a good defense lawyer should at the court on Ghomeshi’s behalf. The fact that this “everything” included a process of repeatedly shaming (known as “whacking“) the crown’s witnesses, the women who alleged Ghomeshi had assaulted them, reminds us in turn of something incredibly important: just because women can become smart, successful, wealthy and powerful professionals does not mean they will always use those advantages to help and support other women in need. In other words: Henein stands as evidence that individual women can make it to the top tiers of power in Canada. She is NOT evidence that all women can do so, nor that feminism has “won” and is “over”. Her incredible success is a result of her individual talents, advantages and experiences, not evidence of broader feminist success. (It’s also worth noting that Henein is frequently cited as a feminist in legal circles. At the same time, media stories on her feminism reveal it to be somewhat Thatcher-esque: every strong woman for herself.)
- Canada has a robust judiciary, including consent laws that recognise the complexity, and non-retroactivity, of this concept. (That is: a person can consent to sex once, and not consent twice, and that second time counts as rape. Consent cannot be read backwards into a fresh moment of intimacy.) Nevertheless, we have a serious, systemic problem with the way sexual assault is read in real-life courtroom situations, and those problems severely impact the individual, imperfectly human witnesses who bring assault complaints before a court not fully equipped to examine them fairly (despite the implicit, assumed “fairness” of a trial situation in a liberal democracy). Further, these problems are much in evidence in the text of the judgment in this case. (For an excellent, detailed reading of that judgement, its internal contradictions, and the ways in which it subtly relies on stereotypes about victims, see Anne Kingston’s superb article in MacLeans, linked here.) What does this mean? Lots of things. It means that some women might now choose not come forward to undergo what DeCoutere and her peers did. It means some women who do come forward may have a really tough time. But it also means that our imperfect system still needs lots of work – work that smart, politically engaged, activist, and well-trained women (and men) have yet to do. The young people we teach may be – can definitely be – the ones to do some of that very important work. Let’s remind them of that.
- When we support each other, our collective voice is loud, and it gets heard. From the start, the allegations against Ghomeshi attracted widespread attention; this attention quickly ballooned into a loose but powerful coalition of women from around the world who spoke out in support of the complainants on social media, in street protests, and across the web. The trial itself brought loads of protests physically into the space of the law, the space in front of Toronto’s Old City Hall chambers, and powerful images from those protests accompany many post-trial “what happens next” pieces. Those images can look hopeless: “the system fails survivors” reads one of my favourites, on a placard held by a woman whose face looks like I feel. But they also look to me like something more, because they speak to the embodied, collective strength of all of us who have raised our voices in support of a woman’s human right to say what has happened to her, in all its messy complicatedness, and to have the nuances of that story thoughtfully heard. That strength made it possible for Lucy DeCoutere to speak in front of protestors at Old City Hall after the verdict, and to speak to and in various media outlets in the days following (read her interview in Chatelaine here, and her op-ed in the Guardian here), even after her experience under cross-examination left her confused and shattered. And that strength will, I believe, make it possible for other victims of sexual assault to keep coming forward, even though the outcome of this trial was not in the complainants’ favour. Because strength in numbers is the only thing that has ever given women, plural, the kind of voice that patriarchy deigns to hear.
So I’m done feeling angry and hopeless. Instead, I’ll take these things away, and pass them on to my students.
First: incredible success for one woman does not guarantee support for, empowerment of, all of us; that’s a lie neoliberalism tells, and it tells it well. Postfeminist bull it is, and nothing more.
Second: systemic problems with the reporting, investigation, and prosecuting of sexual assault allegations in Canada require our labour and attention so that they can be solved, the system changed for the better for everyone. It’s up to us, and to our students, to do that work, and that work starts now.
Third: raise your voices, boys and girls. Now is when we stand up and help survivors’ voices, at long long last, to be properly heard.