Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The lesson of 2014: Why we must believe women, always

By Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Well, it's December of a year that feels like it has been dominated by stories of gender-based violence. Of course, gender-based violence was no more prevalent in 2014 than any other year, it just feels that way because stories of domestic and sexual violence that are typically ignored or suppressed have achieved notoriety due to the celebrity of the figures involved.

We have attempted to engage with many of these stories in the inaugural year of the Men's Team blog, from  Isla Vista to Ray Rice. In these pieces we have tried to unpack from a structural standpoint how masculinity, particularly in its more extreme or toxic forms, invites men to perform acts of violence. This is an important project and one we remain fundamentally committed to. Indeed, one might say that spreading awareness about this reality is the reason why the Men's Team exists.

Yet, as the year comes to a close, I want to touch on a different dimension of gender-based violence, one that we have yet to engage and one that relates to perhaps the two highest-profile cases of the year (at least in Canada): Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby. Of course, we could examine the violence performed by these two men over the years through the lens of toxic masculinity and coercive entitlement and it would certainly shed some light on their actions. That, however, is a project for a different day.

Jian Ghomeshi hosting a live taping of his radio show Q in Vancouver, 26 Mar 2009.  Image via Penmachine and has been distributed under the terms of this license. It has not been modified.
I want to end 2014 by focusing not on those who perpetrate gender-based violence, but those who are subjected to its horrors. The most resounding lesson to be gleaned from both the Ghomeshi and Cosby sagas is how remarkably difficult it is for a woman who has experienced sexual violence to speak about it and be believed.

Let us focus on the Ghomeshi case, for it is the most relevant to us here in Canada (indeed, it is particularly relevant to us here on the Men's Team given that Ghomeshi is a former York graduate who once led the York Federation of Students). When the news that the CBC had fired its most prominent radio host first emerged, Ghomeshi released a statement on Facebook exonerating himself of responsibility for any wrong-doing and instead cast aspersion on unnamed women he claimed were about to accuse him of significant sexual misconduct.

Within a day, those accusations emerged in the form of a report by the Toronto Star citing four anonymous women who all stated they had been subjected to sexual violence by Ghomeshi. This is the moment I want to dwell on, for it is the one that says everything about what women who experience this form of violence must endure.

The seemingly-overwhelming reaction online in the press and through social networking platforms was the call to reserve judgement. Let the legal process play itself out, we were told. This was a case of he said-she said. It would be wrong to make any assumptions about what actually happened.

Now, of course, hindsight makes it easy to suggest that this was not the most appropriate or rational response. And, it should be added, there is something deeply damning and disturbing that the word of one man was taken as commensurate with that of four women. Certainly, it speaks to the level of internalized misogyny that remains pervasive in our ostensibly post-feminist society.

But, that's not what I want to focus on either. No, rather, the point that I believe must be underlined repeatedly is this, and it is really very simple: we have an ethical obligation to believe women who say that they have experienced sexual violence. This moral imperative has nothing to do with the particular contingencies of the case in question. Instead, it is predicated on the fact that in the context of a patriarchal society - a society that systematically privileges and empowers men over women -  it is inherently unsafe for women to publicly articulate the harm they have experienced at the hands of men. If we are interested in building a world that is genuinely equitable from the standpoint of gender, we need to begin by acknowledging the systematic nature of women's oppression and the violence men perform against women. We need to believe women when they say that they have experienced sexual violence. Every single time.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we abandon the legal system or the safeguards that exist to protect the innocent from being falsely proclaimed guilty. (I do reject the insidious and pervasive myth of the false rape accusation, one of Hollywood's favourite tropes most recently seen in the film Gone Girl, a myth that distorts the reality that the rates of false rape accusations are no different than those of false accusations of other crimes.) Men deserve a day in court, just like anybody else.

But, when it comes to the court of opinion, impartiality is no longer a legitimate option. Those who are genuinely concerned about the prevalence of gender-based violence need to stand by those who make accusations whenever they make accusations. We need to start believing women systematically in order to counter the systemic barriers to being believed that women face.

So, the next time that there is a Jian Ghomeshi, don't say you don't know who to believe. In 2015, when the time comes, believe every woman who has the remarkable courage required to say what happened to her.

I promise that there will be plenty of opportunities.

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