Valentine’s Day reminder: Consent comes FIRST

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner and the Jian Ghomeshi trial wrapping up (after what seems to have been an absolutely disastrous time for the prosecution), I thought now was a good time for a friendly reminder:

In any sexual encounter, consent is mandatory, and crucially, CONSENT COMES FIRST. It is not something that is implied after.

This means that, say, if a famous Canadian TV/radio personality punches or slaps a woman in the face and then chokes her, without her express consent to this activity as part of their relationship, then it doesn’t matter if she went to a BBQ or a park with him later. It doesn’t matter if she sent him e-mails, or wrote him a love letter, or kissed him goodnight. If she did not give her consent to the violent act(s) he committed on her person PRIOR to the violence occurring, then the famous Canadian TV/radio personality who punched/slapped/choked her has committed assault.

o-sexual-assault-canada-570_0Because that’s how consent works. It’s about making sure that everyone involved in a physical interaction WANTS this contact to occur. Consent is not something you negotiate after the fact, and unfortunately, by focusing on what Ghomeshi’s accusers did and said AFTER he allegedly* assaulted them, the line of questioning pursued by his defense lawyer Marie Henein is setting (or rather, continuing) a horrible precedent and sending a dangerous message to would-be predators: it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Except you don’t actually need to ask for forgiveness either, if you (or your lawyer) can successfully discredit and invalidate the experiences of the other person.

Based on the way this trial has played out so far, in the Canadian legal system, it’s apparently fine to force violent and/or sexual acts on another person without their consent, so long as you can manipulate, coerce, convince, or at least CONFUSE them enough after the fact that their behaviour and communication with you (for example, in e-mails, which Ghomeshi was very careful to keep all these years) may imply that consent was given. Even if you don’t have any evidence that your accuser actually consented to being touched/hit/raped/choked BEFORE you did these things, their behaviour afterwards will provide enough “reasonable doubt” that you will probably get off scot-free, without you even having to take the stand yourself (your complainants, sadly, won’t be so lucky and they will be required to endure days of verbal harassment at the hands of your lawyer while their actions, reputations, and lives are picked apart by the court and the media).

So Ghomeshi’s complainants maintained contact with him after the alleged* assaults. Why is this surprising? Why does this invalidate their claims that he never received permission to touch them the way he did? Is it so outrageous to think that a woman would be so shocked about being hit in the face or choked by a well-loved, intelligent, and ostensibly feminist Canadian celebrity that she would try to convince herself it hadn’t happened, or try to smooth things over by doing whatever she could to “fix” the relationship? Is it any surprise that in a culture that constantly reinforces the idea that women are responsible for maintaining peace in relationships and responsible for the violent actions of others that the complainants may at first have wondered if THEY had caused the problem? In a culture where “negging” (insulting a woman in order to undermine her confidence and make her more likely to sleep with you) is a common tactic used by pick-up artists, are we really surprised that its natural extension (i.e. moving from insults to actual assaults) can produce the same result–a hurt woman who feels the need to redeem herself in the eye of her attacker?

Instead of asking ourselves why Ghomeshi’s complainants didn’t comport themselves like the “perfect victims” after the fact, what we should be asking is this: is it still possible to want to behave politely, even lovingly, to a person who has seriously wronged you?

If you have ever stayed with (or gone back to) a person who has physically, sexually, or emotionally abused you, you know the answer is yes. If you have ever hooked up with a guy after he “negged” you, you know the answer is yes. If you have continued to believe your lying child even though you have blatant proof of their dishonesty, you know the answer is yes. If you have ever given even MORE money to a scam artist contractor because you’ve given them so much already and they’ve promised they’ll actually finish the job this time, you know the answer is yes.

Does YOUR behaviour mean that the abuser wasn’t abusive, that the negger wasn’t insulting, that your child didn’t lie, or that the scam artist didn’t steal money from you? Of course not! So why can’t Lucy DeCoutere’s overtly friendly behaviour towards Ghomeshi AND the idea that he assaulted her co-exist?

Once we’ve stopped obsessing over questions about everything that happened afterwards, we can move on to the only question that should really matter: did Ghomeshi have his complainants’ permission to violently strike and/or choke them before he placed his hands on their bodies? If the answer is no, he is guilty of assault, whether he is convicted or not.


*I use the word “alleged” because at the time of writing, Jian Ghomeshi has not been convicted of assault (and it is likely he will not be). That said, personally, I believe the three women who have accused him in court and I believe the other women, both anonymous and named, who have spoken out about Ghomeshi’s violent behaviour in the media.


Yes We Can (Change Our Minds)

Q-program-image_1027091130544_16x9_620x350Like most Canadians (and perhaps some interested folk south of the border), I have been following reports of the allegations made against former CBC radio and television personality Jian Ghomeshi very closely.

There are many lessons to be learned here–lessons about what consent is, lessons about why victims of assault may choose not to report, lessons about our willingness to look the other way when it comes to a person who has star power, and lessons about how we perceive and treat victims of assault. Many of these lessons are disturbing, but necessary.

There is, however, one lesson I am actually glad to be reminded of as I watch this story unfold on social media and through conversations: we can change our minds.

When it was first announced that Ghomeshi had been fired, the CBC was not saying why, and the Toronto Star was keeping mum until its own story was ready. Several people I love and whose opinion I regard very highly are/were huge fans of Ghomeshi’s show Q, and were furious that one of their favourite media personalities had been dropped by the beleaguered public broadcaster whose continued relevance and popularity (such as it is) are due mostly to shows like his. When Ghomeshi published his version of events on Facebook (in an effort to “get ahead of the story”) these same beloved folks, along with many other die-hard fans, denounced the CBC as prude-ish and out of touch.

When the Toronto Star published the allegations they had collected, and as more women began adding their voices to these allegations (some anonymously, some publicly), Ghomeshi’s initial statement was put under the microscope. And then I got to see a beautiful thing: I got to see people examine the new evidence and change their minds. People that I know had been long-time fans of Q and its host were looking past all that and saying, “Something isn’t right here.”

This might not seem like such a big thing to you. You might say, “Well of COURSE they changed their minds! Who wouldn’t in the face of mounting evidence?”, but the fact is that changing your mind is not always that easy. One only needs to look at the case of Steubenville, Ohio, where irrefutable evidence of the 2012 sexual assault of an unconscious teenaged girl was recorded and shared by her high school football-playing assailants. There was no doubt the assault had occurred. And yet, many people of the community of Steubenville loved their high school football team, and could not change their minds about them. The victim received death threats, despite having nothing to do with either her assault or the fact that the evidence of it was willingly shared on the internet by her assailants. Had the rapist been a shady character the town had always hated, the victim may have been believed and supported, no questions asked. But Steubenville loved their football team, and could not change their minds, even after two of the perpetrators were found guilty in juvenile court.

[You’d have a point if you said that it’s harder to change your feelings about people you know personally and that is true. So I will also provide the example of Roman Polanski, celebrated film directer and convicted rapist, who plead guilty to drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl before fleeing the U.S. to avoid his sentence. He is still much loved by many, inside and outside of Hollywood.]

My point is that changing your mind about an issue, or about a person, can be unsettling, and difficult. But often it is the right thing to do. I understand the cynicism felt when certain Republicans (like Dick Cheney and Senator Rob Portman) become suddenly less homophobic upon discovering members of their own families are gay, but the important thing is that these people, who had held very firm views regarding homosexuality, can change their minds. They can think about the person they love and realize that they were mistaken.

When people change their mind in this way it gives me hope. Politicians are often celebrated for being “unshakeable” or “steadfast” in their positions, and sneered at if they are “flip-floppers”, but I’m not so sure that “steadfast” in many of these cases isn’t just another term for “stubbornly and pigheadedly holding to their view of things, regardless of evidence to the contrary”. Much bad policy has been enacted in Canada by governments who wanted to be “unshakeable” rather than adaptable, and “focused” rather than “open-minded”. It’s no secret that I have many problems with Canada’s current “Harper Government”, and much of the legislation I have issue with is a result of this kind of obstinance (scientific or statistical evidence doesn’t support your policy? Why not burn the scientific records, prevent scientists from talking to citizens, or get rid of the long-form census? That’s way better for the country than simply adapting your policies to reflect evidence-based realities!).

Changing your mind, especially if you’ve been very public about your position or beliefs in the past, is uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing. You’d probably feel sheepish admitting you’d gotten it so wrong. And yet, a little change of mind is exactly what we need. Imagine how quickly labour disputes would be resolved if the parties could admit where they were wrong instead of waiting to break each other down. Imagine how much more respect you’d have for politicians if they said, “You know what? The policy we were pursuing no longer works. Upon examining the evidence more closely, it seems that we need to go in a different direction and we will be working towards that.” Imagine if a massive, multi-billion dollar oil company said, “The writing seems to be on the wall and fossil fuels are not the way of the future. We’ve got billions of dollars to spend and we’re going to spend it developing clean technologies.” Imagine the true progress we could make as a species if we could learn to change our ways and change our minds every now and again.

As the late John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” With each good decision, each humble change of heart, we are, I hope, inching a little closer towards grace.