On Ghomeshi, our conversation needs to extend beyond ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’

Jian Ghomeshi arrives at a Toronto courthouse March 24, 2016 for the verdict in his trial. (Image/Canadian Press)
Jian Ghomeshi arrives at a Toronto courthouse March 24, 2016 for the verdict in his trial. (Image/Canadian Press)

This morning, Jian Ghomeshi was found not guilty on all charges — four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. This verdict, unfortunately, is not particularly surprising. Not only are men rarely held to account for the abuse they perpetrate on women, but the witnesses were not adequately prepared or supported before the trial. Typically, the trial was rife with victim-blaming, as Ghomeshi’s lawyer worked to destroy the victims’ credibility.

Ontario court Judge William Horkins said he could not rely on the three complainants: “What is troubling is not the lack of clarity, but the shifting facts from one telling to the next.” Putting aside the fact that it is doubtful any victim of assault will remember the exact incidence[s] clearly and that mistakes will almost always be made in retelling our stories (and that this reality should have no bearing on whether or not we are believed), it’s fair to say that mistakes were made during the trial that, in the end, hurt the victims’ case.

What we know about Ghomeshi — that he is sadistic; that he is a classic abuser, grooming and manipulating his victims, painting them as jealous liars after the fact; that he is a bully and a narcissist — unfortunately didn’t come into play in terms of Horkins‘ decision. My opinion is that, whether or not the judge was able to determine, without a doubt, that the stories told by the complainants were wholly true, Ghomeshi’s behaviour shows, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is an abusive man. It is perfectly clear that, despite discrepancies, the women aren’t lying about the violence he perpetrated against them. Even Horkins understands that “not guilty” does not necessarily mean “innocent”: “My conclusion that the evidence in this case raises a reasonable doubt is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened,” he said.

To me, and to most other feminists in Canada, the small details don’t matter. What Ghomeshi’s victims remember, what they discussed with others, and what their responses to Ghomeshi’s behaviour were don’t make a shred of difference in terms of our understanding of both what the victims went through and continue to go through, as well as in terms of our opinion of Ghomeshi.

It is for this reason that I didn’t feel particularly gutted this morning, when I heard the verdict. In part, because I was prepared for this — the trial had not gone well and I have low expectations in terms of justice in these kinds of cases — but also because I don’t fully believe this decision lets Ghomeshi off the hook.

What was most traumatic about my experience coming forward about abuse was not that my abuser wasn’t jailed (I didn’t file a report and, had I, there’s no way he would have been charged. The abuse I experienced, for the most part, wasn’t the kind of vicious and obvious violence the police and courts like to see, in order to fit their definition of “abuse.”) — it was that I was not believed by those around me. It was that my abuser was supported by my community and continues to be supported. That he continues to bully and manipulate and abuse with no repercussions, as far as his social privilege, status, and acceptance go. He is free to do what he wishes and will, as far as I can tell, always get away with it.

While I hoped and would have loved to see Ghomeshi be charged and serve time for his crimes, I believe it’s equally as important that he be held to account by society. That is to say, that he not be allowed to move freely throughout this world, unstigmatized for his behaviour, that he not be allowed back into media circles, that he not be celebrated and accepted by his peers, that he acknowledge his behaviour, and acknowledge that it was wrong.

There is more than one way to hold men accountable and, while I am continuously appalled at the unwillingness of our justice system to do so, I think there is more we need to do, as a society, in terms of effecting change.

Yes, Ghomeshi committed a crime, but he is guilty of much more than punching a woman in the head “without consent.” I mean, had she consented, would he suddenly become not an abusive, entitled, sadistic man?

“Guilty” or “not guilty” is not a good enough conversation, in this circumstance. If my ex hadn’t backhanded me across the face one night, how would I describe his abuse to a police officer or to a judge, in court? What would he have been found “guilty” of?

The answer, of course, is: nothing.

Not only do we not understand that psychological, verbal, financial, sexual, and emotional abuse are always at play when there is physical abuse, but it also isn’t acknowledged that these things are generally unprovable to outsiders. We don’t understand that men manipulate women into “consenting” to abusive, traumatic sex all the time, to the point that we feel we “chose” it willingly and tell ourselves we enjoyed it.

“You kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to f**k your brains out,” Lucy DeCoutere had said to Ghomeshi in an email. What does that tell us? Not that Ghomeshi isn’t abusive, but that women are socialized and manipulated, in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, into believing they enjoy their own degradation.

So when people like Brenda Cossman argue that the issue of “consent” is the key issue in this case, she creates a very small box within which women are allowed and able to discuss their experiences of male violence and misogyny in our culture.

Without the things women are expected to provide in order to “prove” abuse — pictures of injuries, hospital records, DNA — we are already not believed. In fact, “believed” is the wrong word — we are not understood. It is not understood that “consent” does not negate male violence and it is not understood that abuse comes in all sorts of forms, most of which are unprovable in court. It is not understood that pornography grooms women to accept abuse and that gendered socialization teaches women to politely absorb sexual harassment. It is not understood that the limited “sex-positive” discourse pushed by liberals gaslights women into believing they are “prudish,” “uptight,” and “anti-sex” if they don’t accept a male-centered vision of “sexuality.” “Believing women” is not the only thing we must do in these circumstances.

I understand the anger women across Canada are expressing at this unjust verdict. I can only imagine the pain Ghomeshi’s victims are experiencing today. But I don’t, for one minute, believe that a guilty verdict is enough, in terms of holding men to account and changing the public’s view of male power and abuse. We, as a society, are responsible for having that conversation and for effecting real change, in terms of ending male violence against 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.