On the so­cial im­pli­ca­tions of the Ghome­shi case The stu­dent re­ac­tionary, then and now Dis­cussing Is­lam­o­pho­bia at Mcgill and in Mon­treal

The McGill Daily - - Table Of Contents - Writ­ten by Rahma Wiry­omartono | Vi­su­als by Sarah Meghan Mah

Trig­ger warn­ing: This ar­ti­cle con­tains graphic de­scrip­tions of rape and sex­ual as­sault

“Cas­san­dra among the Creeps” is the ti­tle Re­becca Sol­nit, writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Harper’s Mag­a­zine, gives her 2014 piece about si­lenc­ing in cases of sex­ual vi­o­lence. The ti­tle al­ludes to the Tro­jan princess Cas­san­dra, to whom Apollo gave the power of prophecy in an at­tempt to se­duce her. Upon her re­fusal of his ad­vances, Apollo cursed her so that no one would be­lieve her prophe­cies. The tale of Cas­san­dra serves as an apt par­al­lel to the re­al­ity that many sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors face. Of­ten, tes­ta­ments of sex­ual as­sault are dis­re­garded, cit­ing the teller’s lack of cred­i­bil­ity. This pat­tern ex­ists within pub­lic purview and its reper­cus­sions echo through­out: on March 24, when Jian Ghome­shi was found not guilty on four counts of sex­ual as­sault and one count of chok­ing, the 90- minute ver­dict cited the com­plainants’ “in­con­sis­ten­cies” and “de­cep­tion” as the ba­sis for Ghome­shi’s ac­quit­tal.

An on­go­ing Toronto Star in­ves­ti­ga­tion has de­tailed al­le­ga­tions against Ghome­shi from 15 women, but only three came for­ward to the po­lice. Dur­ing the trial, which be­gan on Fe­bru­ary 1, the three women tes­ti­fied to in­stances of Ghome­shi’s vi­o­lence, which they claimed had come with­out warn­ing or con­sent. One wo­man tes­ti­fied that Ghome­shi had yanked her hair force­fully and punched her in the head mul­ti­ple times. An­other stated that he had choked her, pushed her up against the wall, and slapped her three times. The third wo­man said that he had choked her. With On­tario Court Jus­tice Wil­liam Horkins claim­ing that “it is im­pos­si­ble for the Court to have suf­fi­cient faith in the re­li­a­bil­ity or sin­cer­ity of these com­plainants,” it’s hard not to see re­flec­tions of Cas­san­dra, the ‘liar.’

The Ghome­shi case is hardly an iso­lated in­ci­dent. Its ver­dict speaks to a broader cul­tural pat­tern of not rec­og­niz­ing or re­spect­ing the tes­ta­ments of those who have ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual as­sault. When the voices of sur­vivors are dis­cred­ited, their ex­pe­ri­ences be­come erased. As ad­vo­cates who work with sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors have said, the trial could de­ter and dis­cour­age sur­vivors from re­port­ing. Lenore Lukasik- Foss, head of the On­tario Coali­tion of Rape Cri­sis Cen­tres, re­ports that re­sponses to the un­fold­ing of the case in­clude com­ments like, “Wow, I’m so glad I didn’t re­port,” and, “I don’t know that I could ever re­port be­cause of this. I don’t want to be treated like this.”

The af­ter­math of the trial has sparked pub­lic out­cry and an out­pour­ing of sym­pa­thy, as well as out­rage at the fail­ure of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to treat sur­vivors fairly. The case res­onated with women across Canada. Its rip­ples were felt on a na­tional level, they were felt here at Mcgill – where a demon­stra­tion in sup­port of sur­vivors was held last Thurs­day – and I felt them in my own per­sonal life. As this wide­spread rip­pling ef­fect makes clear, the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of our cul­ture of si­lence ex­tend be­yond highly pub­li­cized cases. Upon re­flec­tion, I found that they were also echoed in both my friends’ and my own ex­pe­ri­ences.

Lay­ers of si­lence

As it stands, sex­ual as­sault is the most un­der­re­ported vi­o­lent crime in Canada, with only 5 per cent of sur­vivors con­tact­ing po­lice. From that al­ready dis­mal pool of re­ported cases, sex­ual as­sault cases in Canada have a con­vic­tion rate of 45 per cent – the low­est for vi­o­lent crime ex­empt­ing at­tempted mur­der. Sev­eral lawyers who spe­cial­ize in sex crimes state that fear and mis­trust of the courts are ma­jor rea­sons why sur­vivors don’t re­port their as­sault.

Le­gal pro­ceed­ings are an in­her­ently har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for sur­vivors of sex­ual as­sault. Tes­ti­fy­ing means invit­ing an anony­mous crowd to dis­sect and scru­ti­nize in­tensely per­sonal events. In that way, sur­vivors are made to con­stantly re-live their as­sault when most would pre­fer to re­press those mem­o­ries. Their cred­i­bil­ity is also ques­tioned, and they place their ex­pe­ri­ences in the pub­lic eye with no guar­an­tee of re­sults. Un­der­stand­ably, sur­vivors think twice about seek­ing le­gal jus­tice.

In her es­say, Sol­nit de­scribes the mul­ti­ple fac­tors that push sur­vivors to keep quiet as con­cen­tric cir­cles of si­lence. The in­ner­most cir­cle con­sists of in­ter­nal in­hi­bi­tions, like shame, re­pres­sion, self- doubt, and con­fu­sion. These in­ner con­flicts make it dif­fi­cult for a per­son to speak out. How­ever, in the rare in­stance when some­one does voice their ex­pe­ri­ence, there still ex­ists a sur­round­ing cir­cle of forces that at­tempt to si­lence them. For in­stance, fam­ily and friends may try to dis­suade the per­son from speak­ing out in or­der to pre­serve a spe­cific rep­u­ta­tion. If this bar­rier is over­come and the story is voiced, the per­son still risks fac­ing the fi­nal cir­cle of si­lenc­ing: the out­er­most ring in which both the tes­ti­mony and the speaker are com­pletely dis­cred­ited by so­ci­ety at large.

These are the ob­sta­cles that sur­vivors face when they choose to speak out. Do­ing so al­ready re­quires im­mense courage and strength, and it’s rep­re­hen­si­ble that sur­vivors of sex­ual as­sault are sub­ject to mul­ti­level si­lenc­ing forces. I feel out­rage at this sys­tem, es­pe­cially af­ter wit­ness­ing first hand how the con­se­quences have af­fected those close to me.

The men­tal haze and the af­ter­math

“It’s funny,” my friend Anna* be­gins, “how peo­ple aren’t aware of what they’re do­ing.”

She tells her story. “My sex­ual as­sault – every­one has their own story – but mine was that I hooked up with this guy who I had never met be­fore. I didn’t want any­thing per­sonal, so I was fine not know­ing him. Any­way, we did it. Af­ter we fin­ished, peo­ple im­me­di­ately knocked on his door. I thought he was go­ing to tell them to go, but in­stead he leaves and his friend comes in. I was so vul­ner­a­ble – I was in bed, I didn’t have any­thing on me. I opened my eyes and he started to kiss me. I said, ‘ Let’s not do that.’ We strug­gled and cir­cled around the room for about 15 min­utes. He would touch my body. I said, ‘ No, don’t.’ I made it clear that I didn’t want him to touch me. He left the room and a dif­fer­ent guy came in. I was scared. This time, I had noth­ing in me to fight back. All right, okay. He puts on a con­dom and rapes me.

I didn’t think things could hap­pen to me like that. It was al­most like you’re watch­ing a movie. You’re in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing, but you’re not in con­trol of it. You’re just not given the right to any ac­tion. You feel, but you don’t con­tribute to the plot. The third guy left and the sec­ond guy came in. He said, ‘ How come he got to fuck you?’ Fine. I’m not go­ing to ar­gue with you. I don’t even know these peo­ple. We had sex.

I was in bed af­ter. They all came in. One of them said, ‘ Which one of us was the best?’

I was new to sex. It was very novel to my life – I had never done that be­fore, go over to some­one’s place like that. I re­al­ized what hap­pened only later. Af­ter, the three of them asked me if I was hun­gry and gave me some chips. They were ca­su­ally speak­ing. It’s like... they just don’t know what they’ve done. I think they re­garded me as some­one who pro­vided the ser­vice. The first guy said, ‘ I’m go­ing to get up early to­mor­row so you bet­ter leave.’ It was like a busi­ness trans­ac­tion. The sec­ond guy texted me later ask­ing if I wanted to chill. I said, ‘ Do you even know what you did?’ Then he said, ‘ We thought you were hav­ing fun.’ That was the last that I’ve heard from any of them.

I would feel ir­re­spon­si­ble if I didn’t re­port to the po­lice. But at the same time, it felt like it wasn’t right. It was per­sonal, you’re the only wit­ness. There’s no one who can speak for you. Es­pe­cially when you were in it, you don’t re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing that hap­pens – it’s hard to re­call ev­ery­thing. You’re sup­press­ing that part of your mem­ory, and when it hap­pens, you’re in the film.

I waited a long time. I felt that I needed to think it through. Af­ter it hap­pened I went to the clinic to do some tests and make sure I was phys­i­cally okay. There was a so­cial worker there, she was nice. They were all nice. I feel numb. I bear the bur­den of this piece of mem­ory.”

Four months af­ter the in­ci­dent and one month af­ter re­port­ing, the po­lice de­nied Anna’s case.

when “noth­ing hap­pened”

The Sex­ual As­sault Cen­tre of the Mcgill Stu­dents’ So­ci­ety (SACOMSS) de­fines sex­ual as­sault as “any un­wanted act of a sex­ual na­ture.” This de­lib­er­ately gen­eral word­ing leaves room for peo­ple to de­fine their own ex­pe­ri­ences – a con­sid­er­a­tion that be­comes im­por­tant when think­ing about in­fringe­ments that don’t in­clude phys­i­cal vi­o­la­tion.

I in­ci­den­tally heard about an in­stance like this while some friends were over for din­ner. We were jok­ing about how one of us, Enya*, al­ways lands her­self in ab­nor­mal sit­u­a­tions. Some­body offhand­edly men­tioned Café Cam­pus. My cu­rios­ity was piqued – I hadn’t heard that story be­fore.


“What hap­pened at Café Cam­pus?” I ask.

“Oh, it was a while ago,” she says with a laugh and a dis­miss­ing wave of the hand. “There was a creepy guy.”

The af­ter­math of the trial has sparked pub­lic out­cry and an out­pour­ing of sym­pa­thy, as well as out­rage at the fail­ure of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to treat sur­vivors fairly.

We smile, an­tic­i­pat­ing some­thing funny. “How so?”

“I don’t know,” she starts. “He was so weird. I mean, he bought me a drink and then left right away. Af­ter, I was just sit­ting down on the floor and I couldn’t stand.”

Smiles drop and eye­brows fur­row. “Wait, what?”

Af­ter a pro­longed si­lence, some­one asks, “What hap­pened?”

Enya laughs un­easily. “Well, he just ap­proaches me and says, ‘Hey, you want a drink?’ and I say, ‘ Sure.’ So he goes away for five min­utes and comes back with two shots of tequila. We drink it then he just leaves. Doesn’t say any­thing and walks back to the bar. I re­mem­ber think­ing that it was so strange, how he was just watch­ing me. By that time every­one’s say­ing, ‘ Oh, let’s go,’ so we leave for some air. We’re at coat check and I just – I sit down. Every­one’s telling me to stand and I’m like, ‘ I can’t.’ They all laugh at me be­cause they think I’m drunk, but then they re­al­ize that I can’t get up. My room­mate took me home af­ter that, so it’s okay. You guys don’t have to be so weird... I mean, noth­ing hap­pened.”


A sit­u­a­tion like this is dif­fi­cult to ori­ent in the gen­eral dis­cus­sion of sex­ual as­sault, as the term “as­sault” in­nately im­plies a point of con­tact. Not every­one would agree that an in­ci­dent lack­ing the breach of phys­i­cal bound­aries, like slip­ping some­thing into a per­son’s drink, counts as vi­o­la­tion. A non-phys­i­cal trans­gres­sion oc­curs in a dif­fer­ent, less tan­gi­ble sphere. Ex­pe­ri­ences of emo­tional in­frac­tions do not tran­scend to a uni­ver­sal level of un­der­stand­ing, and speak­ing out can rouse com­ments like, “It could’ve been worse.”

This kind of dis­missal is not al­ways ex­ter­nal, but can also be part of the in­ter­nal di­a­logue of the per­son who ex­pe­ri­ences the trans­gres­sion. Like Enya said – “It’s okay… noth­ing hap­pened.” How­ever, the lack of di­rect phys­i­cal as­sault does not ex­cuse the in­frac­tion or make it less se­vere. The “it could’ve been worse” men­tal­ity car­ries heavy im­pli­ca­tions: it in­sin­u­ates that the sit­u­a­tion doesn’t war­rant any re­ac­tion, and thus min­i­mizes the grav­ity of the event. Such era­sure of se­ri­ous ex­pe­ri­ences con­trib­utes to in­ac­tion and the broader cul­tural act of si­lenc­ing.

The in-be­tween

Af­ter a few per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences on the Mon­treal metro, I started to weigh in on the ques­tion of how se­vere a vi­o­la­tion of per­sonal space has to be be­fore it can be ob­vi­ously de­fined as sex­ual as­sault. In the first case, an older man had asked me for the time, point­ing to my watch. Be­fore I could re­spond, he took my wrist and twisted it in his di­rec­tion. On his way out, he pat­ted me on the knee with a smile and a “merci, chérie.” I felt a nag­ging agi­ta­tion that I dis­missed, af­ter rea­son­ing that I wasn’t harmed. I had gone to the clinic with Anna – this was noth­ing in com­par­i­son.

A few weeks later I was on my way home, cut­ting through the post- rush hour empti­ness of the Lionel- Groulx sta­tion. A man’s arm reached out as if to grab the edge of the door, yet ended up wind­ing around my chest. I froze in shock, not re­al­iz­ing what had hap­pened. There was a lag be­tween my men­tal pro­cess­ing and the phys­i­cal con­tact. By the time I pro­cessed what had oc­curred, he had al­ready dis­ap­peared down the es­ca­la­tor. I laughed – an ab­surd re­ac­tion, in ret­ro­spect. It struck me as bizarre how he was merely on his way, go­ing through the rest of his day.

When I got to my room af­ter­ward, I stared at the ceil­ing for half an hour to sort through the dis­ori­en­ta­tion that trailed be­hind me on my way home. The state of not know­ing what to feel echoed the pre­vi­ous in­stance, with the watch and the knee. I re­al­ized that both ex­pe­ri­ences left me in the same place emo­tion­ally, de­spite the fact that one was clearly more se­vere than the other. How­ever, I tried to dis­miss this in­ci­dent too, be­cause I couldn’t jus­tify the in­dig­na­tion that I felt: the sit­u­a­tion just didn’t seem grave enough.

The con­cen­tric cir­cles of si­lence are such that we ques­tion our most in­nate re­ac­tions. Am I over­re­act­ing? Is it ap­pro­pri­ate to feel vi­o­lated? Are my feel­ings valid? The con­fu­sion that fol­lows can lead to a pat­tern of dis­missal. If it seems like cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences aren’t enough to de­serve a strong re­ac­tion, then the ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion is to brush them aside. How­ever, dis­missal be­comes a form of self- si­lenc­ing.

Re­pres­sion never fully works: lin­ger­ing ef­fects still man­age to sur­face. It’s as if the con­fine­ment that be­gins from the en­closed set­ting of as­sault grad­u­ally evolves into the con­fine­ment of the mind. Push­ing these things down means in­di­rectly al­low­ing them to keep hap­pen­ing, since per­pe­tra­tors con­tinue to get away scot- free.

Con­fronting our cul­ture of si­lence

The to­tal im­punity en­joyed by per­pe­tra­tors serves as the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in all these cases.

It’s ab­hor­rent that in only our first year of univer­sity, my friends and I, along with count­less oth­ers whose sto­ries re­main un­voiced, have al­ready ac­cu­mu­lated these ex­pe­ri­ences. There’s no deny­ing the cul­ture of si­lence when we live in a world of its con­se­quences.

How­ever, just be­cause this op­pres­sive cul­ture is so deeply in­grained does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that it’s im­pos­si­ble to over­come. The world is shift­ing in re­sponse to the sheer ex­as­per­a­tion of those af­fected by sex­ual as­sault and their sup­port­ers. The na­tion­wide out­rage in the wake of the Ghome­shi ver­dict shows how peo­ple are dis­cussing sex­ual as­sault and draw­ing at­ten­tion to the is­sues at hand, de­spite so­ci­ety’s in­sis­tence on cloak­ing these ex­pe­ri­ences. Last week was SACOMSS Sex­ual As­sault Aware­ness week. Ad­dress­ing and dis­solv­ing the si­lenc­ing cloud sur­round­ing sex­ual as­sault means un­mut­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of sur­vivors. By rais­ing the sub­ject into an audi­ble, vis­i­ble sphere, the voices of sur­vivors gain the weight and trac­tion that they de­serve. This is a nec­es­sary step toward be­liev­ing sur­vivors and treat­ing their ac­counts with re­spect and sym­pa­thy.

At the demon­stra­tion held by Mcgill stu­dents in sup­port of sur­vivors last Thurs­day, speak­ers em­pha­sized the dire need to sup­port sur­vivors and change the struc­tures that al­low for acts of sex­ual as­sault to con­tinue in si­lence. Re­gard­ing these struc­tures, speaker Sadie Mcinnes stated at the demon­stra­tion, “We are an­gry and we are sad.” Most im­por­tantly, we are not quiet.

* Names have been changed.

Dis­missal is not al­ways ex­ter­nal, but can also be part of the in­ter­nal di­a­logue of the per­son who ex­pe­ri­ences the trans­gres­sion.

Demon­stra­tion in sup­port of sur­vivors. Courtesy of Steven Chua

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