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Monday, November 10, 2014

The Ghomeshi story: what to learn from it

Gidi, Flickr

(Note: for the sake of conciseness, this article refers to genders in their most common acception, including the role most often played in sexual assault. We are aware that a whole array of situations does exist.)

Is Jian Ghomeshi guilty, or is he the innocent victim of a smear campaign? Despite the early widespread and rather enthusiastic support he received, evidence now seems to be pointing in the other direction. But of course our justice system is based on a presumption of innocence, and no matter how outraged we may be feeling, a jury has to declare someone guilty before we can conclude as such.

Therefore, let's leave Ghomeshi aside for a moment, and focus instead on the debate(s) that have been prompted by the recent events.

The good guy illusion

A few years ago, a friend of mine learned that one of his acquaintances had been found guilty of sexual assault. My friend's reaction was one of surprise - which is understandable if you never suspected the person to be capable of such things. But my friend went on to explain that it was particularly surprising since "this man was a smart guy, with lots of degrees and a great career"... as if that had ever rendered anyone unable to do wrong!

I believe the reason Ghomeshi got so much support in the beginning of this saga is a similar one. I heard and read comments such as: "But he is such a great host!" "He has liberal views!" "He has talked about domestic violence!" and even "He has a wonderful voice!"

Better make it clear right away: rapists, molesters and violent people in general come in all sizes and shapes and are not easily recognizable. If they were, no one would agree to hang out with them in the first place (since rapes often happen when the victim already knows the aggressor). Rapists can be found in all strata of society. Some (many) are fathers. Most probably act and look nice - from the outside anyway. I was discussing this with a friend recently. When I said that it's impossible for a woman to know, initially, if a man is a "good guy" or a "bad guy" (hence the precautions many females feel obliged to take), my friend was offended. He proceeded to try and explain that it's unjust to perceive all men as potential predators. He felt like I was vilifying 50% of the population. I wanted to say "Believe me, I (and most women) would much rather have good reasons to trust men!" It reminded me of the "Not All Men" meme (click here) and its response: "Yes All Women" (click here): despite the fact that many men are respectful and generally pleasant to be around, all women will face, at some point in their life, discrimination based on gender, harassment, sexism and misogyny. Many women will end up having to tell a man to "please back off" after trying to send more subtle signals, in vain. Not to mention the high number of women who will be sexually assaulted (official numbers are around 20%, but it is estimated they might be higher). What are we supposed to do? Walk around happy-go-lucky and ignore the risks?

My friend was also skeptical when I said that just because a woman is kissing and making out with you, it doesn't mean she wants to have sex with you. Maybe not that night. Maybe not before a couple dates. Maybe never. You should never assume that someone wants to have sex with you, and the only way to avoid a misunderstanding is to be very attentive to their body language and, ideally, to ask. My friend disagreed with all that. Yet I consider him to be a - very - good guy, who wouldn't hurt a fly.

The definition of consent

What is consent, and how do you obtain it? To counteract any potential ambiguity, a trend has been growing, enjoining us to move from implicit consent to an explicit, or even better, enthusiastic consent, in all our "encounters of the flesh". A consent that cannot possibly be obtained, for example, if your partner is in a drunken stupor. It might seem like a no-brainer to most of us, who would immediately worry - and stop to inquire - if our partner did not seem enthusiastic about the physical contacts s/he is having with us. Unfortunately, it seems that many tend to overlook any clear signs of consent, enthusiastic or not, before they make their move, during, and after. This is complicated by the fact that women are generally taught to be passive about flirting and the initiation of sex. In that context, any hesitation might not be taken seriously.

Is consent a complicated thing then? Can no mean yes? Here's my very simple advice: if your sexual partner does not seem enthusiastic, moves back, says no, or shows any other sign of hesitation, just stop whatever you're doing, and check in. If they really want you to keep going, they will  let you know. If they don't, too bad, but at least there will be no risk of making someone very uncomfortable and then having a very bad surprise when you learn later that whatever happened was not consensual.

Consent also has to be ongoing, meaning that no matter how far you've gone with a sexual partner, it's always an option to declare that you don't want it to go any further.

To learn more about consent, click here and here. Quotes:

"Consent is a whole body experience. It is not just a verbal “yes” or “no” – it involves paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues as well. Consent is also mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous. You can stop at any time, you can change your mind, and just because you said yes to one thing doesn’t mean you have consented to anything else [...] Positive sexuality begins with enthusiastic consent.  This means being as excited and into someone else’s enjoyment as we are excited and into our own enjoyment.  Only yes means yes – and yes should come from an engaged and enthusiastic partner." 
"Freezing up, saying you're tired, crying, or pulling away are a few examples of ways to communicate no. A person doesn't have to yell "no", scream, kick or bite for it to be exceedingly clear that they don't want to engage in sexual activity." 
(from the Consented website)

But it ruins the magic!

If you think checking for consent "ruins the magic" of sex, you clearly haven't properly pondered the alternative. Are you really willing to take the risk of doing things that your partner doesn't really want to do, but is afraid to speak up about? Because yes, that happens. In the wake of Ghomeshi's story, a friend of a friend published this on a social media page:

"We were X years old. I loved him with all my heart. Our relationship was so intense. With him I discovered intimacy. Really, we had something, and it was great. But I felt bad saying no. I said yes to please him, so that he would think I was hot and intense, just like our relationship. I remember the one time I did say NO... he took it like a yes. I loved him, so I did not insist with my NO. I was in tears as he "finished". He whom I loved. My story might not be the most horrible you've heard, but I would be appalled if one of my children ever felt the way I felt that day."

Consent is a little bit like condoms: it kinda sucks to have to stop and put them on, but really, the alternative makes it worth it. And in both cases, consent or condoms, there is a way to incorporate it into the act without killing the atmosphere. There are ways to "check in" without completely interfering with the progression of pleasure. I have seen it at play. It's totally doable. As Lennon would say: "It's easy if you try".

The definition of rape

Contrary to the mental picture most people have of a rape when they hear the word, most rapes don't happen in a dark alley in the late hours, perpetrated by a stranger with the use of violence. Most rapes are done by an individual the victim knows. Sometimes very well. I remember a movie of Elvis Presley I watched as a teenager. In one scene, he imposes sex on his wife (Priscilla), who says no before and during, and is left shaking after. When I asked my mother what had just happened, she told me he had just raped his wife; I remember wondering how that was possible since they were married. There is no way we can get rid of rape as long as we have such a narrow-minded idea of it.

But women are just crazy liars!

Yes, that's what a lot of narcissistic manipulators or abusers say about their exes. False allegations of rape and/or violence might exist, but they are very, very rare. The prevalence of unreported rape and/or violence, or the instances in which the stories "fall between the cracks" is much, much higher. As a general rule, women are not taken very seriously when they accuse a man of rape, and all the more if such man is a prominent figure. I could list names here but I will let you do your own little research: who are the public figures who have never had to pay for their - sometimes recurrent - sexual assaults? They are numerous.

I understand that some men now worry that they could be accused unjustly. But between that and worrying that you could be raped and not be taken seriously, as have most women since the beginning of time, I wonder which is worse?...

It's easy to get away with it

For the longest time, our society and our justice system have meant that for many rape victims, going to the police (or even just telling someone) didn't even seem like a viable (and/or useful) option. Ghomeshi's story has clearly illustrated that. His victims had all kinds of good reasons to say nothing. Going to the police and to justice has been shown time and again to be a humiliating process... for the victim. But it doesn't have to be that way. And as debates such as this one happen, there is hope that it will change.

But it was just a compliment!

I would like to conclude with a note on harassment. Based on the comments I have read all over the Web, it seems like a lot of people cannot distinguish between a genuine compliment and harassment. It becomes clear, however, that if someone gets mad at you for not smiling back, and lets you know aggressively, ("Can't you take a compliment, bitch?"), there must have been an issue to begin with. As a general rule, I have a feeling that most men don't get the fact that being complimented by a stranger can feel, in some instances, like a threat. Many women have been used to men going too far. And thus they are on their guard. It is very unfortunate, but it's the way things are. I have another friend who got a very cold reaction when he complimented two coworkers on how good they looked at the Christmas party. He wasn't drunk nor obnoxious. He simply said something along the lines of "You ladies look great tonight!" and the reply he got was "Maybe, but that's the farthest this is gonna go", delivered in a stern voice. He was surprised - and hurt. Can't we pay compliments anymore, let alone flirt? If you are a "good guy" and are unhappy with this situation, go talk to the "bad guys". They are the ones who ruin it for everybody else.

"Sometimes it is suggested that definitions of harassment have become so blurred that people are wary of ever complimenting anyone, lest it be interpreted as an unwanted advance [...] Most men are capable of differentiating between a genuine act of friendliness or flirtation (an act that intends a positive social outcome), and a hostile act of sexual aggression (oblivious to the impact on its recipient, or even actively calculated to cause distress). Many men who engage in verbal or physical harassment are probably aware that it will render their victim distressed, or at least uncomfortable. And yet they do it anyway. The question then is why?"  
(source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/15/sexual-aggression-not-maleness-minority-problem)

For another edifying story, click here.
And for a bunch of other links on the topic, click here, here and here.

By Misstenebra7, 9gag,com


  1. thank you for this. Ive grown quite obsessed with this story as well.
    ((sharing)) with friends.

    1. It is a disturbing story. Especially for all the questions it raises. Thank you Carla!

  2. This is something I've given a lot of thought to. I think I can appreciate to a small degree how women have to deal with the physical disadvantages that they face. Recently I had a discussion about the video of a woman walking through New York and being verbally abused. I can't believe we have to be prisoners of our biological urges, as the expression goes, as we have the ability to make choices.

    Over a year ago, I became friends with a 27 y/o man who had immaculate credentials (MS degree, job at UF, great personality, no problem with meeting women, etc) and everything ahead of him in his life. That friendship ended when he was arrested for attempted sexual assault with battery! He is now serving 10 years in prison. I will probably never understand why and what led to his doing this.

    1. This: "I can't believe we have to be prisoners of our biological urges, as the expression goes, as we have the ability to make choices."

      Thank you Dr. J