Sexual assault

Why Ghomeshi could walk

Sexual assault survivors are still treated roughly by the media and in the court of public opinion
Photo: Derek K. Miller

As day two of the Jian Ghomeshi trial wrapped up, I laboriously sifted through the countless tweets of journalists covering the cross-examination of the first witness.

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Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein, relentlessly drilled the witness with questions, and the answers spawned more questions — both from the defence and from people following the trial closely.

Why did she see him after the assault? Why the 3 a.m. email? Why the inconsistencies in her story? Why come forward after all this time? Is she looking for (rattle off your preferred choice of motivator) money, revenge, fame?

The notion that accusations of rape are an effort to exact revenge or profit through the legal system should easily be dispelled by following one day of these court proceedings. Who in their right mind would willingly subject themselves to brutal public scrutiny, merely for the slim possibility of justice? And why does society continue to be so inclined to deny accusation after accusation when the alleged perpetrator is famous?

When one of the accusers tried to hint that the stigma facing sex assault victims was one of the reasons she hadn’t come forward earlier, Henein objected that it wasn’t relevant.

But stigma is the most relevant factor in choosing not to report, especially when every court case hinges on attacking the survivor’s credibility.

As defence lawyer, Henein will go out of her way to paint these women as star-struck and fame-hungry, willing to do anything and say anything to get a little of the Ghomeshi spotlight.

In reality, however, fame isn’t the determining factor in false sexual abuse allegations. Fame protects perpetrators and helps seduce their victims. You only have to look at Bill Cosby to see how the cult of personality and hero worship can shield.

Ultimately, what’s strange about a person who has accused Ghomeshi of physical abuse saying that her memory “is kind of blurry?” Wouldn’t yours be if someone had repeatedly punched you in the head, or are you made of sturdier stuff?

What’s unbelievable about a woman contacting her attacker after the assault? In most sexual assault and domestic abuse cases, the victim knows the attacker. On average, domestic abuse survivors return to their attacker seven times before they permanently leave. A relationship and dynamic has formed, and sometimes it takes time to absorb and understand what has happened.

Why wouldn’t there be some inconsistencies between a woman’s initial police statement and testimony in court, given the trauma, stress, humiliation, nerves, and paralyzing fear of being relentlessly judged and revictimized by the police, the legal system, the general public, and even the people who love and know you?

What’s irrational about a woman not reporting to police because she doesn’t want her sex life and personal decisions publicly scrutinized in court and splashed all over TV screens and the front pages of newspapers, while pundits sit around debating the authenticity of her accusations?

As women’s rights advocate Julie Lalonde aptly reminded everyone on Twitter, “Nobody is suing Jian for money & the victims' names are under publication ban. There is no ‘incentive’ to lie.” And yet it’s the first suspicion people have, the first hesitation they voice.

Rape and sexual assault continue to be the most underreported violent crimes in North America. According to research, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada, an estimated 33 are reported to the police, 12 have charges laid, six are prosecuted, and only three lead to a conviction. That leaves 997 assailants to walk free.

Ghomeshi will probably not be the exception. Those who optimistically believe that he will be found guilty and that this trial will encourage more women to come forward are likely to be bitterly disappointed. Most of the women’s rights advocates I know expect he will never face a day in prison. All his lawyer has to prove is reasonable doubt. The constant questioning of witnesses’ motivations in coming forward, and society’s easy dismissal of sexual assault accusations, will help move that narrative along.

If anything, the visibility of this trial and the incredible amount of live-tweeting taking place across the country and internationally will perhaps make people momentarily pay attention to how ruthlessly women are treated in sexual assault cases. Despite the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag and the national conversation on consent that the Ghomeshi accusations initially launched, we continue to make slow progress in the way sexual assault survivors are treated by the media and the court of public opinion.

And regardless of the outcome in this high-profile court case, our ill-chosen words, our public perceptions, and our attitudes in talking about these witnesses will inevitably have both short- and long-term repercussions on the message that survivors everywhere take home. And that message won’t be hopeful.

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