*trigger warning – sexual assault
I’ve been keeping up with the Jian Ghomeshi trial in fits and spurts – sometimes I read almost an hour's worth of articles at a time, and other times I turn away in fear and disgust, knowing that today isn’t a good day to try to tackle this subject – it hurts too much.
Because, you see, these women are ALL women #yesallwomen. These are the girls I talk to in counselling, who tell me of their awful encounters. These are the personal friends I have heard stories from. These women are me. I truly believe there is no woman who has not encountered some form of male abuse, misconduct, aggression, or actual physical assault, whether it be small or large, from a man. I know I have.
So when I hear about women in the trial being ripped apart for their “character” or other actions that “destroy their credibility” as though that makes the assault no longer valid, it breaks me, a little bit more, each time I read about it (summary of the case). Because I also know what it is like to try to tell someone that something wrong happened – to report it to people in charge of watching out for this kind of thing and who are responsible for keeping people safe, and to be dismissed. For no action to be taken. I know what it is like to have a story and feel like you can’t tell it. To be consciously aware that things aren’t always completely black or white but that something very wrong still occurred. I know what it is like. And as millions of other women are watching this same trial, we are learning the same lesson – keep quiet. Don’t talk. It’s not worth it.
And by doing this, we keep empowering men to keep hurting women, because the consequences aren’t real. (Please note that through the rest of this article I am going to be talking about male-to-female abuse/assault situations for simplicity, but that these same ideas can be and should be applied to all gender variations and interactions of this kind, i.e. male to male, female to male, etc.)
So here’s what I’m figuring – something needs to change in the options that women have to take after something happens to them. I see the need for this change in the women and girls that I work with – when something bad happens, it isn’t always black and white. But it’s not right. It is clear that despite the nuances, what happened was not right. And what that means is that so many women find it very difficult to go to the police and hands down lay charges on someone.
Woman after woman has told me they don’t want to “ruin that guy’s life” so they don’t want to press charges, and the alternatives are short of almost nothing. Add to this the fact that at least 82% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim (although I believe this statistic is even higher due to the high rate of non-reporting which is at least 68%), it makes it even harder for these women to press charges on someone they know, and perhaps even care about. The most common action that my girls will take after something bad has happened is to make a report with police that simply goes on file somewhere, so that if any other girl has this happen to her in the future, and they choose to press charges, there is more on file to support her in the future. They have no closure on if this ever happens.
So women only have three choices, really – one, to go to police and make a statement and not press charges, which sits on file just in case any other woman comes forward in the future and it can be used in the future to support that woman’s case. The perpetrator never knows that this has occurred and it is not on record anywhere connected to him. Two, she can go to police and press charges, where there is the very real and very traumatizing possibility of a case like the Ghomeshi trial, which almost no woman I have ever talked to after something like this happens is able to, wants to, is willing to, or is capable of enduring. It literally and honestly is re-traumatising. And three, the most common road that is taken – do nothing, because it’s still too awful to talk about or think about and the chances of anything positive coming out of pressing charges are very small. The women I work with go through therapy with me, and the guy is still out there, no consequences, no learning, no nothing. The guy’s life isn’t ruined, but let me tell you, so often, the woman’s life is.
And here is the additional problem – a lot of the time, I’m not even sure some of these guys truly and honestly know what they have done is wrong. I’ve even had debates with very intelligent, caring, compassionate male friends of mine who aren’t clear where the boundaries are. I think maybe even our whole society doesn’t know, in some cases (for instance, if both the guy and the girl are intoxicated, and sex occurs, then neither one was able to give consent, so what happens then if someone goes to press charges at that time? My answer would be that the aggressor in that situation would be at fault – which is sometimes the male and sometimes the female. Whenever there is an aggressor, the burden of acquiring consent and ensuring the other party is able to give consent lies with them). In terms of education around nuances of consent, the best thing we have going right now is the cup of tea consent video, but even that doesn’t always account for the shades of grey that sometimes occur in these confusing sexual interactions. Women come to me and know something wrong happened and can explain why, but they don’t even feel sure of their own stories a lot of the time (a common psychological reaction due to cognitive dissonance – when your actions that you engage in do not align with your beliefs, your brain struggles to align the two in ways that don’t always feel completely clear).
And to add to the confusion for men, when women don’t feel safe in situations, they don’t speak up and aren’t always able to say a clear “no” (which hopefully I don’t have to explain why that is, but if it’s not clear, it has to do with fight, freeze, flight responses to unsafe situations - please read more on this here). So it may seem quite probable that some of these guys don’t even know when they’ve done something wrong, which may also account for why the girls I see have so much trouble with the idea of pressing charges when something like this happens, and especially when the perpetrator is someone that they know – at least 82% of the time and probably more than that.
Now add to this that because we all watch movies and read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or see scenes in movies where the male is the aggressor and the female “really wants it” and he “pushes through her walls and boundaries to reach her in a way no one else ever has,” and they live happily ever after – then a lot of men think they have to play this role in sexual interactions, and they need to have “game.” When they took that woman home, and they were both a bit intoxicated from the bar, and he pushed and pushed for oral sex until she agreed, and then she left immediately and went home – maybe that man truly doesn’t understand that wasn’t real consent. It wasn’t “hot.” It wasn’t okay. She was just trying to get out of the situation in the only way she felt was safe and felt like she had to agree to perform in case she enraged him as he was showing signs of aggression and there was no one around to help if he became upset. He grabbed her head and pushed her down and hurt her and she didn’t feel safe enough to push him away (This is a story I have actually heard more than once from real women in counselling).
What this all means is that really, unless clear fight happens, a loud “no,” or date rape drugs are involved, I wonder if maybe many of the men involved don’t even know that what they have done is wrong or that the girl they were involved with is suffering. The guy never hears from or sees that woman again (because the woman is too traumatized to talk to him so she avoids any interaction with him at all costs, sometimes moving away or even dropping out of school), so the men walk away from the experience thinking nothing really that bad happened, it was just like in the movies or in porn. And I most certainly never see those men in my office trying to make sense of these kinds of interactions the way women do.
So we have women who feel they can’t speak up about what happened because they don’t feel they have any options, and they don’t want to “ruin his life” and men who probably don’t understand when they have acted inappropriately and also do not have to take any responsibility for their part in the interaction.
This all boils down to the fact that we desperately need a middle ground for possible actions to be taken. Something to help both the men and the women involved in these interactions, and we need it sooner than later. Changing the legal system doesn’t seem like an answer that is coming around the corner any time soon, and even if it does, the amount of time that would take to put into action is unacceptable for the women I will undoubtedly see in my office again next week.
Here is my proposal. A middle ground. An alternative that allows some action to be taken by the women that “doesn’t ruin the guy’s life.” Something that allows for men that may not have understood the interaction to actually learn and make a positive change in their actions for the future. And something that protects men who may honestly be wrongly accused from having their “lives ruined” as a protection from the court of public opinion (although Chris Brown still seems to have recovered…but that’s a discussion for another time). Here’s what should happen.
A woman should be able to go into a police station and make a statement. This should not sit in a folder unused and untouched if she chooses not to press charges. It should be followed up with anonymously where the woman no longer has to be involved in the contact with that man. (One option on how to do this can be found through Callisto with a TEDtalk about how it works here.) The man indicated in the assault/misconduct/abuse/lack of consent situation should be contacted by the police, and be required to take a multiple-session course on consent, abuse, psychological outcomes and effects, and alternatives ways to ask for and receive consent from a partner, and other information.
Any first time attendance to this course would not go on any public records that could be accessed by police check – the kind that are asked for by employers or educational institutions. This would be a learning experience and treated as such (the woman always can skip this step and press formal charges if the situation calls for that and a regular court proceeding would take place – which I would still argue needs revamping as well, but that is a discussion for another time). If, and only if, a man has attended this course and in the future is contacted again by police to attend this course for a second time, the previous record would be able to be accessed by police at that time. The man and woman involved in the situation would then be offered a police mediator, and privately would be given the chance to each explain to the mediator the details of the situation, and depending on the outcome of this mediation, there would be a succession of higher penalties for the accused man – these are the details that would have to be ironed out by people in this field with qualifications I do not have and don’t claim to have.
This is the only answer that I can see fitting the immediate needs of both the men and women who find themselves involved in these situations. It needs to be addressed differently than it currently is – it needs to be safe for women to actually report, but not open a door for men to not be able to defend themselves against false accusations (although these are incredibly infrequent at only 2% of cases). Men need greater accountability for their actions and at the same time opportunity for education, and women need another answer to turn to in order to find resolution and closure for these experiences other than to either “do nothing” or to “ruin his life.”
We need change – and we need it yesterday. Please share this article and help raise awareness for this idea, and maybe, just maybe, change will happen.