If there’s one thing I learned from following the first two prominent court cases of 2016, it’s that people carry problematic assumptions about who can be a “victim.”
In January, Gregory Alan Elliott was found not guilty on two charges of criminal harassment after he sent several offensive tweets to two Toronto activists. Although the presiding Ontario court justice, Brent Knazan, acknowledged that the tweets Elliott directed to Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly were “mean, crass and insulting,” he felt the Crown was not able to prove that the women had feared for their safety. Knazan asserted that the Crown could not demonstrate “beyond a reasonable doubt there was a real threat of violence,” even though the women expressed to police that they felt unsafe. The judge also felt Guthrie was unreasonable in expecting that Elliott would not respond in self defence to tweets about him.
This month, the media has been preoccupied with a different court case. Jian Ghomeshi, former CBC employee and Q radio host, is facing five charges: four counts of sexual assault, and one count of choking. Three complainants have come forward to testify about the violence they experienced by Ghomeshi. I’ll spare readers the graphic details, but a basic summary of the trial proceedings can be found here. Throughout the trial, Ghomeshi has sat quietly as the complainants have been cross-examined by his lawyer, Marie Henein. Henein has been described as channeling Hannibal Lecter because of her ability to zero in on an individual’s insecurities and use them to her advantage. Crown attorney Michael Callaghan has called Henein’s cross-examination of the complainants “abusive”. Most notable is Henein’s deliberate attacks against the women’s behaviour after their assaults. One of the women has been scrutinized for sending Ghomeshi a photo of her in a bikini in an effort to confront him about his violent behaviour. Lucy DeCoutere, the only complainant whose identity has been made public, has come under fire for sending Ghomeshi an “affectionate” letter and emails after he had assaulted her in his home.
As I watched these two cases unfold, it became clear to me that the women’s behaviour became the focus of the trials, and overshadowed the actions of the men facing criminal charges. Not that I find this surprising, really, when women are so often taught that their behaviour is what provokes or exacerbates a situation.
In the first case, Guthrie and Reilly had not been passive victims; they were vocal in their criticism of Elliott, and called him out for his actions. Did this mean that they did not feel unsafe? No. It means that they were not going to silently submit to Elliott’s harassment.
In the second case, the behaviour of Lucy DeCoutere and the other two complainants have been central to the trial, rather than Ghomeshi’s actions. On day one of the trial, the first complainant was questioned about her ability to remember the incident. After Henein accused her of lying, the complainant stated, “I did not lie, […] That’s how I am with memories – that’s how most people are. The longer you sit with the memory, the more clear.” On day five, the defence questioned the third complainant about email communication she had with DeCoutere before the trial. The content of their correspondence became the focus of Henein’s cross-examination, where Ghomeshi was the “target.” Since when did Ghomeshi become the victim?
I want to address a couple issues here. First, networks of communication, whether on Twitter, through email, or among groups, can be a safety net for women. According to Statistics Canada, for every 1,000 sexual assaults only 33 are reported, 6 go to trial, and 3 lead to a conviction. The odds are stacked against survivors from the beginning. Legal court battles can retraumatize survivors. Intimate details of a survivor’s life can come into the public eye, and their validity can be criticized. As a result, many women do not report the violence to police, and choose to seek support in other ways. One approach has been to develop informal communication networks that allow them to talk about their experiences within safe spaces, and to gather wider support from other women and allies.
When the Crown attorney asked the third complainant in the Ghomeshi trial about her communication with DeCoutere, she replied that they had “forged” a “bond” and a “support system.” These support systems are essential for everyday survival, for coping with the trauma of sexual assault, for knowing we are not alone in this. They are measures we have put in place because our social systems and institutions continue to fail us each and every day. To question the use of these support networks, as Henein has sought to do, reflects a broader system of gendered violence that works to isolate women from speaking about their shared experiences. There’s a dangerous message here: be silent and don’t “play the victim card,” or you will be broken down.
Tied to this is the second issue I want to address: when the focus becomes centered upon the actions of a survivor after she experiences an assault, that is not OK. Whether a woman decides to engage with her harasser by calling him out on Twitter, or sends a letter to her abuser in an effort to “normalize” the violence she has experienced, these actions do not discredit the fact that she has been harassed and assaulted. Her actions after the incident do not excuse the abuser’s actions.
During the second week of Ghomeshi’s trial, the third complainant was questioned about why she did not report the assault when it occurred:
The woman told court she buried the event in her subconscious. There were reasons she did not come forward, she told court. She was unsure if it was something the justice system would consider serious; she was worried about how an allegation against Ghomeshi would affect a family member involved in the cultural scene; and she was worried about what people would think of her.
Women cope with the gendered violence they experience in multiple and complex ways. Some of us share homes with our abusers, and risk facing homelessness and financial insecurity if we try to leave. We may move in the same social networks as them, and feel that coming forward could affect our relationships with others, or damage our own reputations. We may choose to play down the violence as if nothing happened because it’s a horrible realization to come to terms with if we do. The realization can make you feel like the ground is crumbling beneath your feet.
It took me a long time to come to grips with the violence I experienced. When I was assaulted by someone I had trusted, I still maintained contact with him. At first, I was confused about what had happened because I didn’t want to believe that someone who I cared about had done this to me. The assault replayed in my mind. It affected my health and my self-esteem. I was a full-time undergraduate student on the honour roll who was actively involved in campus groups. To fully realize what had happened would have sent me into a depression. I focused on what was good in my life and tried to ignore it as much as I could. I told no one about being raped because I was ashamed and blamed myself.
A few months later, after having conversations with my abuser where he acted like nothing had happened, I grew angry. He invited me to one of his music gigs and I decided to go. A friend and I slipped in through the back of the venue, and made fun of his band as they played. It was a petty thing to do, but it made me feel better. After the first set, he came and sat down at our table. We made small talk before he left to talk with his band. Why did I do this? I needed to face him again so I could feel less afraid. I didn’t want to feel numb anymore – I wanted to feel like myself again.
Claudette Boulanger, a staff member for the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, discusses why these responses are common for sexual assault survivors:
Why would anybody want to deal with the feelings that would be coming up if you really accepted the fact that you had just been assaulted? That’s the rest of your life you’re going to be dealing with that, […] So if for ten minutes or two years or a day you pretend this didn’t happen to cope, that makes sense to me.
We do what we need to do to survive in our realities.
So where do we go from here? Elliott’s and Ghomeshi’s trials have prompted many types of conversations – ones about online harassment, cyberbulling, consent, and gendered violence, to name a few. People are coming forward about their experiences of gendered violence, and we need to support them. Farrah Khan has prepared a great list of five ways we can support survivors of sexual violence during this time. I believe this is at the heart of what we need to do in our communities. We need to recognize the complicated, messy ways that sexual violence intersects with other realities, including (but not limited to) colonialism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, fat-shaming, and poverty. One of the best ways to do this is to listen to survivors when they choose to share their experiences, and respect the ways in which they have coped with the violence. This means setting aside judgements about “right” and “wrong” behaviour of what it means to be a “victim,” and validating survivors’ experiences as they are. If we do not do this, we become complicit in the violence.