For a long time now I have been increasingly frustrated and enraged by the discourse that’s happening around sexual assault, consent, violence against women. As a conflict-avoider, I have been afraid to step into the conversational battlefield. As a short-fused person, I have had to remove myself even as a spectator to avoid jumping into a battle I wouldn’t feel equipped to handle. But honestly, I don’t know how to do this anymore. I don’t know how to come to terms with the sheer ignorance and gleeful hatred with which some people are responding to the Jian Ghomeshi verdict that was released yesterday.
I don’t know that any of us could have been surprised by that verdict. If you followed the trial even loosely it was clear that the judge was going to have rule in Ghomeshi’s favour. I think that makes us have to ask the question – what is wrong with this system in which the judicially correct result is to find innocent a man who freely admits to choking women and punching them in the head?
Yes, we have to talk about what consent really means. That’s a huge problem, partly because consent usually comes down to a he-said/she-said scenario — sorry for the hetero norming, I fully acknowledge this can happen in any relationship dynamic — and in a patriarchal society which defaults to giving men power and voice, the ‘he-said’ part of that equation always holds more weight. So let’s be clear…
Consent does not mean ‘you said yes to going out with me so now I get to do whatever I want to your body’. Consent does not mean ‘you sent me a bikini photo later so you were obviously ok with what I did to you before’. Consent means that in the moment, in every moment, both parties are each individually fully capable of making the decision to engage in a behaviour, are freely choosing to do so, and are fully capable of withdrawing/ending that interaction without fear of personal harm/retribution. When you’re on a fun date with a guy and he suddenly and unexpectedly assaults you, that’s not consent.
But this case in particular wasn’t really about consent since it’s pretty clear the women couldn’t have consented to those assaults, so it became all about the women’s behaviour after the assaults occurred. So, let’s set aside consent for a moment, because we really need to talk about the system itself.
We have a system that requires traumatized people to behave in untraumatized ways in order to be believed. A system that doesn’t take any responsibility for understanding what ‘normal’ behaviour is following an assault, or years of abuse, but has full power to rule on that behaviour. A system that seems to require victims to prove that they didn’t somehow invite the assault rather than focusing on the fact that an assault occurred.
We have a system that requires victims to find strength in the exact areas they’ve been wounded – confidence, clarity, consistency – none of which are compatible with the symptoms of trauma in people who have experienced abuse. It would be like asking someone with a broken leg to prove it’s broken by jumping on it over and over again – they just can’t do it, but that doesn’t mean the leg’s not broken. A woman traumatized by assault can’t remember details with 100% fullness or precision, that doesn’t mean the assault didn’t happen. A woman traumatized by years of abuse can’t explain why she didn’t leave after the first time he hit her, that doesn’t mean he didn’t hit her. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean she consented to being hit.
This system supports abusers. Yes, there has to be presumption of innocence, but there also needs to be understanding of reality and what can be considered to be reasonable behaviour in the context of trauma. The system favours the abuser from the moment a woman is asked to tell her story while she is still confused and trying to make sense of what has happened to her, to the moment much later on when every detail of her initial report is being examined under a microscope and questioned.
‘Why did you talk to him after he suddenly punched you in the head? That doesn’t make sense.’ Neither does somebody suddenly punching you in the head.
‘Why did you make him breakfast in the morning after he raped you the night before? That doesn’t make sense.’ Neither does being raped by someone you had previously always been able to trust.
Assault and abuse don’t make sense, so of course victims are going to be confused and it can take a long time to sort out realities. There is a process called cognitive dissonance by which a person tries to reconcile mutually exclusive pieces of information – inevitably one thing has to stop being true but it can often be excruciatingly confusing to figure out which one.
If you’re on a fun date with a ‘nice guy’ who then assaults you, you have to try to make sense of that. Is he a nice guy or is he a violent guy? Which personality that was presented to you on that fun date is the right one? Taking it further, if you have years of established trust with someone who then rapes you, you are trying to reconcile a large amount of data (years of trust) with one piece of directly conflicting data (the rape). How long might it take to make sense of that?
To an outsider it may seem black and white, but imagine a trusted person in your life did this to you right now, would it be so clear to you? Imagine through your whole life you have been conditioned to believe that if something bad happens to you, it’s probably your fault – you asked for it, you made yourself too pretty, you laughed too much – would it be so clear to you? Imagine everyone else thinks this other person is such a great person and they suggest that maybe it was all just a big misunderstanding – would it be so clear to you then? How hard would you work to try to find some answers, to make it all make sense somehow? Would you talk to other people? Would you try to talk to or see this ‘trusted person’ again, to try to gather more data? Would you be confused?
Until you’re in the situation yourself you can’t possibly know how you’d react, but if you listen to the stories of people who have been there, and if you read some of the studies that have gathered information from large groups of survivors, you can start to get an idea that ‘normal’ takes on a whole new meaning after abuse.Normal isn’t what outsiders would judge it to be, it’s shifted and confusing and messy. Don’t judge what you don’t know, and if you want to judge, then learn what you don’t know.
Our broken system needs to be fixed.
We need in-depth training for everyone from police officers to judges so that they can understand the impact of trauma on survivors of violence. We need society to stop blaming victims, and start deciding that it is simply not acceptable for men to abuse women (physically, sexually, financially, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually). We need women to stop competing with each other for men’s attention and start supporting each other to create a stronger, safer society for all of us. And we need men to recognize that we’re simply asking for fairness and safety and the right to control our own bodies, which are not unreasonable demands.
I believe that most people fundamentally support the ideas of safety and fairness for women and accountability for crimes committed, but I think some people are afraid of what change would look like and what that might mean for them. In the absence of knowledge and understanding, these people are resorting to extremist illogical arguments to try to protect the status quo. I get it, change is uncomfortable, but change is also necessary.
I would like us all to be able to work together, to have open and respectful discourse to try to problem solve our way to a reasonable solution for this serious problem. But if that’s not possible, then I just want to be very clear: no matter how many generations it takes, no matter how many insults and personal attacks are thrown at us along the way, we will not stop, we will not be silenced, and change will come, whether you like it or not.