I have not waded through the public evidence in the Jian Ghomeshi case, nor do I claim to be a subject matter, or legal expert on this trial. I’m not going to publicly convict, nor exonerate Mr. Ghomeshi of the charges laid against him. What I am going to do is comment on a sentiment that is being shared in the media and in my personal life. Despite my lack of knowledge of the legal system and criminal code, limited expertise about sexual assault, and only glancing familiarity with the Ghomeshi case, I’m confident that I can settle any arguments you may be having about whether victims of a sexual assault should be blamed for what happened to them.
The first time I had a serious discussion and argument about the topic of blaming the victim of a sexual crime was after seeing the 1988 film starring Jodie Foster, “The Accused”. Without going into the full plot, Foster played a young woman who was brutally gang raped in a bar. Her attackers were sentenced to a lesser crime, “reckless endangerment”. This verdict was determined partly based on witness accounts that her character, Sarah, had flirted heavily with one of the accused, was drunk and danced seductively in a provocative outfit. In other words, for what happened to her, she was partly to blame. Since then, there have been other movies and real-life stories that have stirred similar discussion and arguments in my life based on their similarities when it comes to questioning the credibility and accountability of sexual assault victims, particularly women. The latest being the Jian Ghomeshi case for which he stands trial for sexual assault and overcoming resistance by choking.
I present to you the same argument I did back in 1988 with my girlfriend at the time. I was unsuccessfully persuasive with her, (but I’m pretty sure that’s not why we eventually broke up). A key differential is that, with you now, I will do a better job to make it clear up front that we are on the same side, the same page, we agree: the attackers in the movie, “The Accused”, were guilty of rape and should have been found guilty and sentenced accordingly. End of story. (FYI: the movie is loosely based on a real gang rape trial from 1983).
If I were to dress in a sexy outfit, dance seductively, invite you back to my place, start making out with you, then change my mind and tell you I don’t want to have sex with you, but you physically force me to anyway, you should be charged, convicted and sentenced accordingly. End of story.
If I were to take money out of an ATM in the wee hours of the morning in a sketchy neighbourhood and then walk down the street waving wads of cash in the air above my head, and I get robbed, the person who mugged me should be charged, convicted and sentenced accordingly. End of story.
If we’re friends, get into an argument, you shoot me with a gun, I don’t die and we remain in contact with one another afterwards, you should still be charged with attempted murder, convicted and sentenced accordingly. End of story.
If it’s proven that you punched me in the head and choked me during a sexual encounter, and I email you the next day and eventually see you again, you should still be charged, convicted and sentenced accordingly. End of story.
In all of these examples, I’m guessing there is room for variance on the charges and sentencing, even pleas or charges being dropped. The baseline, however, is that crimes, if proven with evidence, have occurred and perpetrators should be held accountable. In the absence of any concrete evidence, I understand that any discussion about the character or actions of the victim can influence verdicts based on “he said, she said”. More to my point, even when there is substantial evidence to demonstrate a crime has taken place, as soon as there is any discussion about the character or actions of the victim, the conversation completely unravels. Even when you were on the same side, the same page, you agreed, you are now in a fierce argument about rape culture.
The disagreement with my girlfriend in ’88 began as soon as I started down the pathway of any sort of commentary on the behaviour of the character, Sarah. It would be easy to say I should have kept my mouth shut and left it alone. In my opinion, however, that is counterproductive in making any progress in reducing sexual crimes in our society. Moreover, to halt opinions of any kind on such a complicated issue will do nothing to change, or eliminate rape culture.
People can be guilty of crimes AND we can learn to avoid threatening situations to our physical and psychological well being by being mindful of our own actions. If you agree that both can be true simultaneously, you may still have heated conversations, but your arguments will be settled. If, instead, we are insistent that it is our right to behave in any manner we wish, despite the possibility that it could increase the likelihood that we are in dangerous situations, this is problematic. We’re guilty of the term, which I have coined, “Self-righteous Suicide”.
I am NOT to blame when you force me to have sex. You must have the self-control and consciousness to halt your actions when I say “No!”, no matter what I’ve led you to believe. You might decide not to see me again because I’m “cray-cray”, but if you don’t stop, you’re guilty. Is it my right to behave seductively, engage in a sexual encounter and then abruptly change my mind at any given moment? Yes. Can I take better care of myself by not behaving in this way? Yes. Both are true.
I am NOT to blame when I get robbed. You took my money from me; you are guilty. Is it my right to get money from my bank account any time and in any place I wish? Yes. Can I avoid being robbed (and possibly worse) by not being flagrant with my cash in a sketchy neighbourhood. Yes. Both are true.
I am NOT to blame when you shoot me in a fit of rage during an argument. You are guilty of trying to kill me. Is it my right to still contact you after you’ve shot me? Yes. Will it look odd to others when I try to figure things out with someone I considered a friend by doing so? Yes. Both are true.
I am NOT to blame if there is no dispute that you punched and choked me during a sexual encounter. You are guilty. Is it my right to text you afterwards, and even go on another date with you? Yes. Will this stir doubt about my credibility, especially since I did not inform police of doing so? Yes. Both are true.
I understand why it’s infuriating to opponents of rape culture when language that even whiffs of blaming a victim of sexual assault trickles into a conversation, or legal defense. A hard line stance against that language may seem to be the only way to make a dent in how deeply entrenched rape culture seems to be in our society. My 80’s girlfriend stopped listening to my opinion on “The Accused” as soon as I used this kind of language. This was a problem because we actually agreed with one another, but got nowhere in the conversation. I needed to have more clarity in how I communicated my opinion, ensuring I didn’t contribute to a “blame the victim” sentiment.
You are NOT to blame if someone’s insensitive language offends your sensibilities, disturbs the very social fabric of our society and arguably puts other women at risk of sexual assault. Is it your right to shut them down completely, instead of choosing to be persuasive in changing their choice of words? Yes. Will this get their back up and push them further down the pathway of dismissive language questioning the character of sexual assault victims? Yes. Both are true.
We all need to do a better job of separating the two because it might be discovered that we are in agreement more than we know. Being able to communicate effectively in both directions is crucial to change. As soon as either side blocks the other, no progress is being made, which is why in the movies and in real-life, we’re having the same conversations since at least 1988.