Any woman who’s been abused or assaulted knows how easy it is to go back

Jian Ghomeshi and Marie Heinen

Predictably, the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial has focused far more on what the victims did “wrong” than on the perpetrator’s behaviour. Story after story in the media paints a picture of women who fucked up — who went back, who had sex with Ghomeshi after the assault, who went on second dates, who flirted, who sent “sexual” emails…

“What were you thinking?” Crown attorney Michael Callaghan asked the third complainant. He couldn’t — and presumably, many others can’t either — understand why, after being choked, this woman would meet Ghomeshi again for a date, go to a bar and dinner with him, and invite him back to her place.

Likewise, Lucy DeCoutere’s credibility was attacked after it was revealed that she sent Ghomeshi a number of friendly and sexually suggestive emails, including what is being described as a “love letter,” after he choked and slapped her. DeCoutere defended her emails by saying, in court on Friday, that she was “uncomfortable with having negative feelings about people” and that it makes her “squirrelly.”

The first witness was aggressively questioned by Ghomeshi’s defense lawyer, Marie Henein about a “bikini photo” she sent him, despite the fact that he had allegedly punched her in the head about a year and a half earlier, in 2002.

It’s possible that, to those who have never been assaulted or abused, these behaviours might seem contradictory or suspect in some way, in terms of the legitimacy of the victims’ claims. And it’s possible that, for those who have been so lucky as to have never been in an abusive relationship, they might not understand what feminists have repeated many times over: it doesn’t matter what a woman does after an assault. A woman’s behaviour does not negate a man’s abuse.

But these points seem not to stick. Men and women alike still have a hard time wrapping their heads around women’s behaviour towards the men who abuse or rape them. Margaret Wente compared DeCoutere’s behaviour to that of a “lovesick fan,” saying that “not one of Mr. Ghomeshi’s accusers behaved like people who’d been attacked.”

In Wente’s defense, she acknowledges that “the dynamics of abuse can be complex.” She “know[s] that women can both love and fear their abusers.” But Wente also believes this situation to be different: “These women were not battered wives,” she says. “They were not in relationships with Mr. Ghomeshi. They barely knew him. They had no reason to fear him, and he had no power over them at all — except the power of his charm and celebrity. They could have walked away. They didn’t.”

What she — and others — miss is that Ghomeshi was a seasoned abuser. He was very good at what he did. And while many of us who have known abusive men, intimately, recognize ourselves in the victims — imagining how we would be treated and viewed were our communications with these men to go public — it doesn’t necessarily take another victim to get it.

Journalist Jesse Brown detailed the ways in which Ghomeshi seemed to choose his methods of communication intentionally — ensuring very specific conversations were on record, while others were not. Ghomeshi groomed his victims in the same way many other abusive men do, practically blackmailing them after the fact, telling one victim Brown spoke with: i have text messages… you WANTED it…He pressured them and comforted them all at once, testing the waters, being sure, always, to frame his planned abuse as simply experimental and boundary-pushing — BDSM, not violence. He implied his victims were all those things women are used to hearing when they try to set boundaries around men’s sexualized violence, using thinly-veiled language easily translated to mean “vanilla” or “prudish,” in order to pressure them into complying. Brown writes, “He told them it was healthy to ‘experiment’ and he taunted and challenged them, saying maybe they were ‘not ready’ for a guy like him.”

What’s always struck me about Ghomeshi’s language — his clear, expert emotional and verbal manipulations — is how much it reminds me of my past experiences with abusive men. How my ex had tried to force me to “admit” violence hadn’t happened when we both knew that violence had, indeed, happened. The way men have used my contradictory behaviour — much like DeCoutiere and the other complainants — against me, in order to paint me as dishonest or untrustworthy. I remember an ex telling me outright what he planned to tell our mutual friends and acquaintances about me in order to discredit me and paint me as crazy. Those tactics really work — because, in those situations, you kind of do feel crazy… (Why did I text him? Why did I sleep with him? Why did I hug him when I ran into him that day? Why did I go back?)

Wente may think Ghomeshi’s victims are nothing like battered wives, but she’s wrong. Most women would prefer to pretend as though their rapes or assaults never happened. That that slap was a mistake or even imagined. That maybe they did want sex that night after all… That maybe he didn’t mean to hurt you or overstep his boundaries, but just got carried away. We all want that sick feeling to go away — the feeling that we remember even when all other details are just a blur. We don’t want to be victims — we want to feel empowered, in control, ok. Often it’s not until years later that we realize we were raped or abused and, it’s more than likely, that during that time we were friendly or even flirtatious with our abusers.

None of this is abnormal and none of it is unbelievable. It is how women cope. It is how we respond to a lifetime of gaslighting and pressure to not “play the victim card.” It is how, today, young women respond to being told that “consent” is black and white and that they should push past their boundaries, lest they be called “prudes.” It is a result of being told what “sexually empowered” looks like before we’re even given a chance to figure out what it is we want and don’t want. It is a result of being told we should be cool with the sexualized violence we see in porn. It’s why women go back to their abusive boyfriends and why women go on second dates with their rapists. It’s why we act nice or flirtatious over text, even to men we don’t respect. It’s why we smile and laugh when sexually harassed or catcalled. We’re behaving exactly as we were taught to. And for our cooperation, we are put on trial — punished for, in essence, being women.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.