THE BLOG

The Ghomeshi Trial Changed Public Opinion About Victims of Sexual Assault

03/24/2016 07:47 EDT | Updated 03/25/2017 05:12 EDT
getty

The decision today in the Ghomeshi case is a depressing read. Not only did Judge William Horkins find the former radio star not guilty on all five charges, which included sexual assault and choking to overcome resistance, but his verdict reinforced the myths that women who misremember details, omit evidence and contact their abusers are not credible victims.

Today, in addition to feeling re-traumatized, I'm sure the witnesses feel deeply let down. It takes so much strength for victims to enter a legal system stacked against them. To be chewed up and spit out only reinforces why so many survivors keep their assaults a secret. For other victims, advocates and really anyone who has closely followed this case, the verdict is devastating.

But while it's important to acknowledge the uphill battle ahead, it's also important to look back on how far we've climbed since the Ghomeshi scandal first broke in 2014. In the span of two years, this case has shifted public opinion towards believing victims, which is a victory in itself.

The October night the Toronto Star published allegations from three women, who said Ghomeshi punched, choked and verbally abused them, many public figures rushed to his defence.

But since the Ghomeshi allegations surfaced, how the public talks about victims of sexual assault has changed in a real way.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who claimed she only read Ghomeshi's Facebook post about being vilified for his interest in consensual rough sex, tweeted "I think Jian is wonderful ... his private life is none of our beeswax." National Post columnist Christie Blatchford questioned the reliability of "victims" who talk to newspaper reporters before the police and her then-colleague Jonathan Kay defended Ghomeshi's "amazing show," as if talent and sex assault are mutually exclusive.

Social media was littered with Q listeners who refused to believe the man with the honey-smooth voice on the radio could be a monster in the bedroom. My friend who knew him well even thought the accusations could have been cooked up by vindictive ex-girlfriends. As a former Ghomeshi fangirl myself, I was thoroughly confused.

Obviously there are many cases of the public siding with a powerful man or even turning a blind eye when their offences are proven in court. Roman Polanski, the filmmaker who drugged and slept with a 13-year-old in the late '70s has continued to make Oscar-winning movies despite pleading guilty to the crime and then fleeing the consequences. Chris Brown, the hip-hop artist who physically abused his then-girlfriend Rihanna, still makes music that is celebrated at award shows, as does R. Kelly, who has allegedly had sex with dozens of underage girls. There are 44 NFL players who have been accused of sexual or physical assault. That is only the start of an exhausting list of Men Who Got Away With It.

But since the Ghomeshi allegations surfaced, how the public talks about victims of sexual assault has changed in a real way. Maybe it was the sheer number of women, a phenomenon mirrored in the Bill Cosby case. Maybe it was that Ghomeshi's creepiness had been an open secret within the Toronto arts and media scene for years. Maybe it just takes decades of shouting to make even the smallest dent in public consciousness. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Either way, when the story broke, Canadians began to have a real conversation about the very valid reasons victims often don't come forward to friends, family or the police. On social media and IRL people dispelled the myths that real victims report assault immediately and have marks to prove their abuse.

Members of Toronto's arts scene, such as Owen Pallett and Sheila Heti, spoke out against Ghomeshi and signed a petition to support his alleged victims. The hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported empowered victims to tell their stories and #IBelieveLucy shared support for the only witness with a name. During the trial, experts and advocates spoke out about how the legal system is set up to fail sex assault victims, a fact many of us had never considered. If a similar story were to break today, I doubt politicians and pundits would come rushing to the perpetrator's defence.

That might seem like a lot of hot air, but this newfound enlightenment about survivors has affected how the public reacts to sex assault accusations. When pop star Kesha was recently denied a court injunction to break her recording contract with Dr. Luke, who she has accused of sexual assault and harassment, the public outcry was swift. No one but a few Twitter trolls suggested she might be a liar, mad she was no longer Dr. Luke's "favourite." Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help pay Kesha's legal fees and celebrities such as Adele, Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato gave their public support. Almost instantly, the hashtag #FreeKesha went viral.

This February, when beloved Montreal filmmaker Claude Jutra was outed as a pedophile in a posthumous biography and in the press, Quebecers didn't let his fame cloud their judgement. Rather than undergo a Woody Allen-type moral debate, the provincial government called for the late director's name to be removed from a high-profile film awards ceremony, a park and any relevant streets. They believed his victims.

In January, the Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman accused music publicist Heathcliff Berru of sexual harassment on Twitter. Other female artists recounted similar experiences and instead of accusing these women of a conspiracy, people took them seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Berru resigned from Life and Death PR the next day.

Of course none of these examples change the fact that for sexual assault victims, today is hard. Unfortunately there are far too many instances when a survivor's credibility is still attacked. But if any good has come from the trial, it's that the public has begun to develop a more nuanced understanding of sex assault.

More people understand that most victims aren't jumped by a stranger, but coerced into non-consensual behaviour by someone they know or love. More people understand that rigid laws fail to accommodate the counterintuitive behavior that often follows trauma.

One outcome of the Ghomeshi case is a not-guilty verdict. The other outcome--the outcome we should try and focus on--is that more people than ever now believe victims.