Thursday, March 3, 2016

Painfully Personal Post #2 - I get why Lucy did what she did

It was painful watching the Jian Ghomeshi trial unfold.  As a lawyer and feminist, I've long been concerned about the way victims of sexual assault are treated in court - as if they're the ones on trial, the ones who must prove their "innocence", the ones who bear responsibility for the violence. But the Ghomeshi trial took that cruel absurdity to a whole new level.

Let's be honest. No one believes for a minute that Ghomeshi's innocent. Dozens of people - male and female - have now spoken out frankly about who he is - a deeply misogynistic, violent, manipulative narcissist. The only question is whether the women "consented" to his attacks. As proof they did, Ghomeshi (conveniently) offered up email messages and letters providing evidence that the women were nice to him after the attacks - even continued to pursue him.

Of course, what they did or didn't do after the attacks doesn't prove anything. Where are the messages from before the incidents confirming that Lucy and the others consented to "rough sex", wanted to be hit and choked? There aren't any, of course.  But there don't need to be. Because we're so sure we know what we'd do if we were assaulted that we're quick to judge his accusers and discount their evidence.

Personally, I don't doubt Lucy's testimony for a minute because, like many women, I've dated - even fallen for - my share of manipulative, selfish, abusive men. Frankly, they were pretty common when I was growing up, and in this age of narcissism, there's no reason to think the situation's improved.

Most men of my generation were raised to think it was completely normal to be selfish, sexist, misogynistic - even violent towards women from time to time. If they were "well brought up" men, they might be taught not to hit women - but even well brought up men (and women) learned that women usually "asked for it", that men had little or no capacity to control their behaviour when "provoked", and that women's perspectives and experiences could be mostly ignored.

Here's the painfully personal part: Not only did I occasionally fall in love with such men, but far too often I let them treat me badly. Admitting that makes me squirm now but it's true. Even after they hurt me, I wanted to keep seeing them, wanted them to love me back. And I don't believe my response to such mistreatment was unusual. Many of my friends responded to similar treatment in similar ways. Sadly, some still do.

Why do we women put up with bad behaviour from the men our lives? It's complicated. Sometimes it's because we're financially dependent. Sometimes we're afraid of being alone. Sometimes we think doing so will enable us to regain control. Sometimes we don't want to deprive kids of their fathers. Sometimes we think we deserve it. Sometimes we cling to the fantasy that "bad boys" can be transformed by love. Sometimes we believe it won't happen again. Sometimes we're just too tired to fight anymore. And then of course there's the fact that we're trained from the time we're in diapers to "be nice", "forgive and forget", and compete with other women - all of which makes it easier for abusers to act with impunity.

We still live in a world where people would rather take the word of one sleazy man over dozens of women. Think Bill Crosby. Think Gerald Regan. Think Jian Ghomeshi. Think the lovely guy you work with who (according to him) has a series of psycho exes. They might be psychos. Or they might be righteously pissed off women who decided they were done with being disrespected, lied to, cheated on, and abused. All I'm saying is keep an open mind and consider whether there may be another side to the story.

Narcissists and abusers aren't that difficult to spot when you pay attention: Is the nice guy at the office someone who makes a lot of "mistakes" when he's recounting facts (aka lying)? Does he regularly seek the attention of other (usually pretty young female) people? Does he have an inflated opinion of his own talents and skills? Does he think everyone's out to get him? Does he insist all his former partners were "crazy bitches"? Does he treat his partner like wallpaper and ridicule her when she dares to open her mouth?

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you necessarily do anything if you're unlucky enough to cross paths with a narcissist. Just cut his poor exes a break, okay? And maybe walk away when he starts to trash them. And keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't start treating his coworkers the way he does his partners.

That's the other thing that makes me furious about the Ghomeshi case - that the sonofabitch was allowed by managers and coworkers to sexually harass and assault people in his workplace. It wasn't okay for him to (amongst other things) sit in a CBC studio discussing the bruises on his girlfriend's breasts. It wasn't okay for him to tell a co-worker he wanted to "hate fuck" her. Presumably, some of the things he did weren't known to management at the time, but enough was known that there should have been some kind of investigation.

I'm a lawyer by trade so naturally I've been thinking a lot about how the criminal justice system could be reformed to ensure men like Ghomeshi are held accountable for their behaviour. There are no easy answers. It may well require us to alter the burden of proof in such cases and/or put some onus on accusers to prove consent to their actions. Whatever changes are proposed, you can be sure the patriarchy will fight them tooth and nail.

In the meantime, we need to start taking personal responsibility for our own part in enabling such behaviour. We need to stop blaming victims. We need to stop treating sexism, misogyny and violence as normal. We need to ask ourselves what we're teaching our children and what we are telling victims when we don't stand up to abusers. We need to be brave enough to tell our own stories.

And, men, please stop being so damned indulgent of your misogynist buddies. Just because they're fun to drink beer with doesn't make them good guys. Call them on their garbage. Tell them their violent, sexist attitudes and behaviour are unacceptable. Actively support those who are working to end violence against women. If you don't, you're part of the problem.

And women, don't laugh it off when a friend describes her partner's disrespectful, abusive behaviour - even if she does. Acting as if such behaviour is normal or acceptable will only make it harder for her to leave when the abuse gets worse, which it nearly always does. And, for god's sake, stop saying you "don't understand" why Lucy and the others responded to the attacks they way they did, that you'd never have done what they did. I don't buy it. Most of us have been there at some point in our lives, witnessed how messy and complicated relationships can be, how misguided our foolish hearts, and stayed in relationships we should have left sooner. We owe it to ourselves, our sisters and our children to stop blaming the victims and admit that we too learned lessons the hard way.

We'll know the outcome of the Ghomeshi case in a matter of weeks and I confess I'm not optimistic. The system makes it nearly impossible for victims' stories to be told in a fair and responsible way and his lawyer, Marie Heinen, was ruthless in her cross-examination. Whatever the judge decides, I'm deeply grateful to the women who are paying such a huge price to bring what happened to light. We need to have many more conversations about the myths, attitudes and systems that enable men like Ghomeshi to act with impunity. It will be damned uncomfortable at times but things won't change unless we do.


  1. I am so damn proud to be your friend, Jan. Your post is passionate, articulate and true. Thank you for this step forward in the debate.

  2. A powerful, thoughtful and important post, Janice. Right on the mark.

  3. I applaud your honesty. Women have stayed quiet too long. We have all, at one time or another, fallen prey to a culture that trains us that being wanted by a man is the most important achievement we can attain. Allowing them to disrespect us or even abuse us often leads to a self-loathing that we perversely believe can only be alleviated by proving to ourselves that the person loves or somehow needs us, sends us back for more. Talking opening about the systemic misogyny that still exists in our society is the only way things will eventually change.

    1. Thanks, Hermine. You've described the situation in which too many of us have found ourselves perfectly.

  4. So well written, Janice! When a whole society has grown up with the common understanding that what women say is has lesser weight than a man saying it, we can understand why one on one 'he said, she said' situations are so difficult. But when it's more than one on one, when several women have essentially the same experience, it should be a no brainer, unless you can prove conspiracy. I'd certainly like to see more respectful workplaces, starting with Parliament, where the power structure pushes back when people misbehave. It's so easy to overlook the small stuff, but why you apply root cause analysis you find the root cause is almost always something small, and more than one thing. When you are trying to prevent workplace deaths, you don't just think about that, you record and try to prevent slips, trips, and falls.