It’s an old story. He is powerful. They are not.
In this case, “he” is Jian Ghomeshi.
When news broke last Sunday that the former CBC Radio Q host had been fired for what he claims was a “moral judgment” that his admitted practice of a bondage-sadism sex life was wrong, his enormous fan base was gobsmacked.
In a Facebook posting Ghomeshi flatly denied engaging in non-consensual sexual acts. He said he participates in “adventurous forms of sex that include role-play dominance and submission.” He claimed he had “done nothing wrong” and is the victim of “harassment, vengeance and demonization.”
“They” in this distressing story are nine women who have come forward to allege that he violently assaulted them without — despite his claim — their permission or even a warning.
Not one of them went to police. And only two have stepped forward to identify themselves, including Lucy DeCoutere, an actress on Trailer Park Boys and a captain in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who told her story to the Toronto Star, and Reva Seth, an author, who wrote an account of her experience for the Huffington Post.
No one aside from Ghomeshi himself and the women involved can know for sure exactly what happened in these encounters. But taken together, the stories offered independently by these women speak volumes.
Just as important, their silence in the face of allegations of violent, non-consensual acts – including slapping or punching, biting, pulling them aggressively by their hair, and choking them – speaks volumes about the power imbalance that women feel they face when they allege assault.
It’s a culture of fear that needs to change.
The anonymous complainants told Star reporters that they didn’t feel comfortable identifying themselves because they feared retaliation from Ghomeshi, online harassment, and a negative effect on their careers.
Indeed, one former CBC employee said she decided not to complain after Ghomeshi allegedly took her to a hotel room, threw her against the wall and was very forceful with her because she feared he was too powerful. “I felt like Jian was (a) CBC god.”
Her fears may have been founded. An ninth woman, another former CBC employee, alleges that Ghomeshi told her he wanted to “hate f---” her and on another occasion approached her from behind and cupped her buttocks. She complained to her union rep, who brought it to the attention of the executive producer of Q. She says she got no effective response from that manager.
CBC management does not come off lightly in this story. The corporation was aware for months, according to Ghomeshi, that he would be the target of allegations of non-consensual rough sex. Yet until at least last Friday the CBC was content to let Ghomeshi go on an unexplained leave of absence; only on Sunday did it sever its ties with him. It’s far from clear that the CBC investigated these ongoing allegations with nearly enough seriousness.
The fears the women have expressed to the Star also highlight a cultural trend known as “victim blaming” that discourages women from pressing charges. It suggests women are to blame for assaults because of what they wear, how they behave, where they were, or for simply being with the man who attacks them.
In this case, at least, the women are now receiving online support. Canadian authors, artists and musicians have signed a petition, called Gesture of Love and Support. The authors write: “You should know… there are so many of us who believe you. We understand why you fear coming forward, and want to offer a counterbalance of public support and understanding.” As of Thursday more than 5,300 had signed the petition. And an online post by Montreal musician Owen Pallett supporting the alleged victims has been shared more than 6,000 times. “Anonymity does not mean these women do not exist,” he wrote.
Lucy DeCoutere and Reva Seth broke through the bonds that silence women, though it took each of them more than a decade to do so. Their courage may inspire others to speak out as well.
Women should not have to feel ashamed or fearful in 2014 to come forward with their allegations — or even to press charges. It’s a sad reflection on Canadian society that many still do.