The Toronto Star’s extraordinary report on fired CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged attacks on several women is a landmark in the history of the reporting of sexual violence. It has revealed the huge spiked metal barriers women still face — even now in times we call modern — when they speak out about the hideous things that have been done to them.
None of these allegations has been proved, or even tested, in any courtroom. They are stories, pure and simple.
Three women have told the Star, in more detail than has been yet reported, that Ghomeshi “struck them with a closed fist or open hand; bit them; choked them until they almost passed out; covered their nose and mouth so that they had difficulty breathing; and that they were verbally abused during and after sex.” More women have since come forward. It now appears that stories of Ghomeshi’s behaviour had been circulating privately for years, an open secret — and there are many of them — in a vast institutionally secretive country dotted with tiny crowded islands of power.
Why hadn’t this been reported before? Why had Ghomeshi, 47, continued to prosper at the CBC, despite one former employee describing him fondling her at work and whispering in a meeting that he wanted to “hate f---” her? She complained, it went nowhere, she left her job.
When it comes to redress for suffering a sexual attack, Canadian women might as well be in Saudi Arabia. We whisper among friends and quietly trade stories, or we shut up for our entire careers.
The barriers start with institutional sexism and pile on with the almost impossible burden of proof for acts committed in private, the adulation offered to well-paid and well-connected men, the insulation of a large staff on Ghomeshi’s radio show Q, his hiring of a PR company and a team of libel lawyers, the fact that he claims he is a union member now filing a grievance against the CBC, an army of carefully catered-to fans online, the continuing shock of being physically assaulted, and then one of the worst things of all, the terror of being placed in the online bearpit.
A bright and wonderfully talented Canadian writer named Carla Ciccone wrote an online piece last year about a frightening encounter with a stalkerish creep she didn’t name. (She is young and scarcely knew who Ghomeshi was.) The man was presumed to be Ghomeshi. Ciccone, who has not talked to the Star, received hundreds of frightful messages and threats. A video calling her a “scumbag of the Internet” was viewed over 397,000 times. A lot of the abuse came from women. The same is true in this case.
When you read the violence, mockery and hate handed out to the unnamed women online who were already too scared to call the police, you might think feminism had never been invented. “I would break her,” one woman, who I will not name, tweeted of one of the alleged Ghomeshi victims. More than 100,000 people have “Liked” the oozing Ghomeshi Facebook post in which he defends himself and dismisses the allegations of violence as vaguely “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Online notoriety is terrifying. I have endured it. You want to vomit but can’t because you have been unable to eat food. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
But the allegations have nothing to do with the semi-cool world of sexual bondage, a fetish Ghomeshi admits he enjoys, while blaming the scandal on vengeful rejected girlfriends. Search Fifty Shades of Grey and you’ll find no one punched, slapped, choked or near-asphyxiated. Re-read Ghomeshi’s 2012 bestselling memoir of his youth, 1982, and like much relating to Ghomeshi now, you’ll find it eerie in retrospect. The man has a bad case of an illness I call “mentionitis,” in which one cannot stop mentioning the things a smarter man with an interest in “dominance and submission” would not mention.
The book is admirable in its candour, although it does not in any way speak to the truth or falsity of the allegations of violence decades later. Ghomeshi reveals a lot about his carnal interests and how his sexuality was shaped by porn or the lack of it in the Thornhill of 1982, the origins of his relentless posing and preening, his obsessions, his petulance, his semi-tyranny at Q, the things he says to and about women, his recent show framing “rape culture” as a debate rather than a fact of women’s lives. He is a peculiar and perverse man, narcissism’s darling.
I only recall meeting Ghomeshi once. A few years ago, he introduced me to the audience at an NDP fundraiser he was hosting and I stepped onstage to speechify without thanking him. He assailed me later. “Are you upset with me? Why didn’t you thank me? I was worried you didn’t like me.” You’re weird; the event wasn’t about you, I thought, but still apologized.
I read the allegations in the Star Monday morning, chilled and nauseated. But if there is any good news at all, it is this: the Ghomeshi story was uncovered and reported by two men (the great investigative reporter Kevin Donovan and Canadaland journalist Jesse Brown), studied by male lawyers and defended in print by the Star’s editor, who is a man. Many men are speaking out online about the horror of violence against women and praising the CBC’s decision.
This is a moment for men and women to unite, and I hope we seize it.