By: Annie Dilworth, Queen’s University
Have perspectives on sexual assault and culpability really progressed?
Without a doubt, one of the biggest Canadian news stories in the past two years was when numerous women came forward with allegations against CBC Radio Host Jian Ghomeshi. Since then, discussions of sexual assault, harassment, consent and power have led the conversation. While allegations began as early as 2010, Ghomeshi was not “let go” from CBC Radio until October 24th 2014, when the case fell under the public eye. As more and more women came forward with their stories, more and more people began to doubt his story. After his first trial’s conclusion in February, the resulting anticipation for the verdict led to discussions concerning victim blaming and questions about how the Canadian Judicial system handles cases of rape and sexual assault. These discussions are not, however, limited to the larger Canadian stage. Cases of sexual assault and harassment are also prevalent problems found on university campuses. When looking at past issues, within the Queen’s community, and the more recent attempts to address these issues, it is evident that there are still problems in how sexual assault is addressed, despite attempts to progress. This issue begs the question of how general attitudes contribute to widespread discussions.
When the news first broke, over a year ago, initial responses were overwhelmingly in support of Ghomeshi. One article, from October 2014, highlights this support by stating; “a lot of Canadians agree that if a popular broadcaster likes kinky sex, so what? Thousands of fans told him to stand his ground. I was rooting for him, too. I too wanted to believe that in this new Victorian age of sexual prudery and the demonization of male desire, the lily-livered bureaucrats at the CBC were running scared”. Initial reactions almost framed Ghomeshi as the victim, seemingly ignoring the actual victims’ outcries. This changed, however, when “within a week, nine women had come forward to accuse Ghomeshi of violence and sexual assault”; his most staunch supporters were compelled to begin doubting Ghomeshi’s version of events. In early 2016, despite larger opinions that condemned him as “perhaps the most widely loathed man in Canada”, the conclusion of the trial implied that a conviction, coming March 24th of this year, would be unlikely to happen as “all three complainants were cut to ribbons for varying degrees of misleading and incomplete testimony”, while “the Crown [looked], at best, hapless, and [appeared] to have failed miserably in preparing the witnesses for the rigours of trial”. Whether due to incompetent trial preparation, or the complainants’ own failings on the stand, the trial questioned the victims’ behaviours, not Ghomeshi’s. The outcome will, like countless trials before, rely on the perceptions of the victims and not their assailant. While we cannot be sure what the outcome of the trial will be, the case shows that it is not always the perpetrator on trial, but the victims.
The subsequent responses to the events of Ghomeshi’s trial vary. Besides countless personal opinions of Canadians, there are diverse opinions from journalists’ based on their examinations of the trial and the events leading up to it. Anne Kingston sees the flaw in trial preparation, arguing that complainants require more rigorous preparation for the adversarial nature of criminal prosecution, which “begins with basic understanding of both the definition of sexual assault and consent”. Kingston argues that complainants can be better prepared for the confrontational court system. Despite issues with the testimony that Ghomeshi’s lawyer was able to zero in on, there was a failing in preparation. Rick Salutin argues that, due to the linearity of legal thinking, “courts are terrible venues for illuminating human behaviour”. He suggests that the problem is not in the inability for complainants to understand the legal system and its definitions, but rather how the system fails to understand the intricacies of individuals. Both authors veer away from outright victim blaming, which, in 2016, should be rightly eschewed.
When discussing aspects of sexual assault and consent in Canada, we cannot ignore its place on university campus. Just last year, Queen’s University looked into and amended its Sexual Assault Policy. Its one draft was released in January of 2015 and provided information regarding services for people who have been sexually assaulted. It described “the university’s commitments for victims, such as they are to ‘be provided with non-judgmental and empathic support,’ ‘be treated with compassion, dignity, and respect’ and ‘be the final decision-makers about their own best interests’”. This protocol focuses on empathy and respect; any semblance of victim blaming is excluded, just as in social responses to the current trials.
The university’s history of sexual assault and harassment issues has been a continuous issue. A 1974 “Rape Preventative Tactics”, acknowledges the presence of victim blaming by stating that while “no woman is ever asked to be raped”, the police “will put a lot of blame on [the victim]”. However, despite the attempt to acknowledge this, the onus of avoiding rape is still put on women; they are advised on how to protect themselves and to be “extra aware of what’s around [them]”. By constantly emphasizing the ways to avoid rape, it enforces guilt and humiliation; women question their own behaviour and not the actions of the rapist. In the 1990s, a number of Alma Mater Society (AMS) pamphlets similarly attempted to help students deal with rape. One emphasized the notion of consent, writing “LISTEN, ACCEPT, RESPECT: Three simple words that can insure everyone’s dignity”. This demonstrates a different perspective on responsibility as the pamphlets emphasize consent and respect, rather than the need to be “extra aware”, stepping away from the tendency to victim blame and towards a more progressive perspective. These steps reflect the journalists’ attempts to avoid victim blaming, and the prosecution’s assertion that the complainant’s behaviour is not in question. However, the events of the trial are contradictory to this, as, in the end, it was the victims’ behavior in question and not Ghomeshi’s.
Universities continue to deal with issues of sexual assault that mirror Canada’s social climate in regards to the Ghomeshi’s trial. The question of responsibility still almost always comes up, despite attempts to move away from victim blaming. Ghomeshi’s trial also causes one to question whether it is possible to truly move away from the victim blaming problem, when the legal system intrinsically questions the complainant; the defendant remain silent. While steps have been taken, there have not been enough, and it is difficult to say what changes can be made to truly benefit those that have been sexually assaulted.
Went, Margaret. “Ghomeshi-gate: a bad day for everyone.” Theglobeandmail.com. The Globe
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Kingston, Anne. “Jian Ghomeshi: How he got away with it.” Macleans.ca. Maclean’s, 6
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Wente, Margaret. “The biggest losers in the Ghomeshi debacle.” Theglobeandmail.com. The
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Kingston, Anne. “What really went wrong in Jian Ghomeshi’s trial.” Macleans.ca. Macleans,
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Salutin, Rick. “If the Jian Ghomeshi trial were a film.” Thestar.com. The Star, 12 February
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“Queen’s University releases new sexual assault protocol.” Cbc.ca. CBC News.19 January
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“Rape Prevention Tactics”, 1974, Rape Action Group of the Kingston Women’s Centre,
Papers of the Queen’s Women’s Centre, Locator 1001.67, Box 3, Queen’s University Archives.