A brief history of ridiculous things we've been asked to believe after famous men were accused of rape.
A few days ago, news broke that Jian Ghomeshi, longtime host of CBC Radio’s culture magazine Q (for which I was once interviewed), would be taking an indefinite leave of absence for “personal reasons.” At that point, there was no reason for Americans—except perhaps fans of Q on Public Radio International—to give a damn about a Canadian demi-celebrity who sounded like he was probably just headed to rehab.
Those were happier times.
On Sunday, news broke that the CBC had decisively cut ties with Ghomeshi, rather than leaving things open for him to return. Also, Ghomeshi was suing the CBC for $50 million, for “breach of confidence and bad faith.” And then, after consulting with his lawyers and Canada’s answer to Olivia Pope and Associates, Ghomeshi published a 1,600-word Facebook post telling his side of the story—which is that he was fired for his personal sexual proclivities, which include BDSM.
His version of events is that he broke up with a woman with whom he’d had consensual kinky sex, and she was so furious about the rejection, she initiated “a campaign of harassment, vengeance, and demonization” that would come to involve multiple women. Even though Ghomeshi assured us that a major newspaper had looked into the women’s claims and decided they weren’t even worth covering, he apparently still had a strong suspicion that shit was about to go down, and it would look a little like this:
In the coming days you will prospectively hear about how I engage in all kinds of unsavoury aggressive acts in the bedroom. And the implication may be made that this happens non-consensually. And that will be a lie. But it will be salacious gossip in a world driven by a hunger for “scandal”. And there will be those who choose to believe it and to hate me or to laugh at me. And there will be an attempt to pile on. And there will be the claim that there are a few women involved (those who colluded with my ex) in an attempt to show a “pattern of behaviour”. And it will be based in lies but damage will be done.
As the writer Rebecca Makkai said on Facebook, “This is a little like when my 7-year-old runs out of my 4-year-old’s room going ‘I didn’t hit her with a plastic tomato!'”
Indeed, on Sunday night, The Toronto Star posted an article about a long-term investigation they’ve conducted into reports by three women in their twenties “who say he was physically violent to them without their consent during sexual encounters or in the lead-up to sexual encounters.” Ghomeshi is accused of punching, choking, and suffocating these women, who all say they did not consent to that level of abuse.
Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on BDSM, and I will concede that when you get off on choking or being choked, for instance, consent is somewhat more complicated than usual. But that’s exactly why good-faith practitioners of kink make consent their No. 1 priority—and why predators who deliberately choose kinky victims can usually expect to get away with violating their boundaries. As Dan Savage tweeted, “I oppose the demonization of consensual kinksters. I despise abusers who cover for their crimes by claiming to be consensual kinksters.”
I do not know for sure whether Ghomeshi is an abuser or the victim of an elaborate revenge campaign. But here’s what I do know for sure: He is asking us to believe that multiple former sex partners have chosen to accuse him of sexual violence—not the fun kind—in solidarity with one particularly bitter ex.
It’s not just that one woman is so angry about being rejected by him that she falsely accused him of criminal behavior. It’s that she rounded up a bunch of other women, who all agreed they would lie to reporters in an effort to smear an innocent man. He has done nothing wrong, nothing non-consensual, yet all of these women hated him enough to conspire to get him fired and publicly humiliate him. They “colluded” to establish a false “pattern of [nonconsensual, potentially life-threatening] behavior.” Because one of them was rilly, rilly mad.
Can we take a moment to think about how incredibly unlikely that is? That doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be the truth—sometimes, as they say, that’s stranger than fiction. But goddamn, it’s unlikely.
Can we acknowledge this for once, instead of mindlessly furthering the myth that women are so capricious and fundamentally terrible, we’ll gladly ruin an innocent man’s life, working together or separately? Can we pause to consider the deeply offensive implication that such behavior sounds more like something the average woman might do than something a desperate man would dream up to deflect attention from himself? Accusing someone of a crime he didn’t commit is not something a person with a conscience does for any reason, let alone some petty personal grievance. So if you believe it’s something a woman might just do after any given sexual encounter, for the flimsiest of reasons, you pretty much believe that women, as a class, are prone to sociopathy.
And yet, the rush of Ghomeshi supporters willing to propagate this ludicrous—not impossible! But ludicrous!—narrative on social media feels awfully familiar. It seems that every time a male celebrity is accused of rape or sexual assault, people eagerly latch onto any bonkers theory that might explain away the allegations, while ignoring the simplest explanation: They’re probably true.
We’d much rather think, for instance, that the victims are seeking money or fame, not justice. The woman Mike Tyson was convicted of raping—like one of the ones who reported being raped by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the victims of former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall, and the woman who reported that two New York Police officers assaulted her, and a woman who accused college football star Jameis Winston of raping her—was repeatedly called a gold digger. But the stereotype of the lying bitch looking for a payday is as ridiculous as it is pernicious. Putting yourself through the public scrutiny and inevitable harassment that follows accusing a beloved figure of rape, on the off chance that it might lead to a hefty settlement, is really not a super-effective get-rich-quick scheme. Why do we so easily believe that’s the “real story” behind reports of famous men committing sexual violence?
We were just as inexplicably quick to believe that Roman Polanski’s 13-year-old victim “looked older” in the 46-year-old director’s eyes. Football coach Jerry Sandusky was engaging in typical athletic “horseplay,” not molesting boys in the showers. Dominique Strauss-Kahn thought the woman wearing a hotel maid uniform, and identifying herself as a hotel maid, was a prostitute. Cee Lo Green slipped a woman a mickey, sure, but the sex was consensual. Bill Cosby’s been accused of sex crimes, frequently involving drugged victims, no fewer than 13 times, but it can’t possibly be true!
It’s difficult to choose among the many absurd things we’ve been asked to believe about Woody Allen in the wake of his daughter Dylan Farrow’s reminder that yes, she really did report that he molested her when she was 7 years old, and yes, she will reaffirm that report today, even if the rest of us forgot about it in the intervening 20 years. Allen’s documentarian, Robert B. Weide, gave us loads of options for Most Absurd Explanation when he wrote a fawning defense of his friend in The Daily Beast.
For starters, we’re supposed to believe that even though Allen dated Mia Farrow for years and had adopted and biological children with her, we should not consider her other children his “stepchildren” or assume he had any kind of familial relationship with, say, the Farrow child he eventually married. Woody Allen is just so bizarre and antisocial—in a genius-y way, of course—we can’t judge him by the standards we would apply to any other man caught taking nude photographs of his girlfriend’s not-entirely-grown child.
This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that Allen’s having taken nude photographs of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter, and then dated her, and then married her, is completely irrelevant to questions of whether he molested his own oldest daughter. I mean, sure, as far as we know, Soon-Yi was a teen when he took an interest in her, while Dylan was a small girl when he went into therapy to deal with his alleged inappropriate behavior toward her—but are we really supposed to see that as exculpatory? “He couldn’t have done it, because he likes them slightly older, and slightly less related to him”?
In his own statement on the matter, Allen also offered the defense that it would have been illogical for him to molest his child on his “raging adversary’s home turf” while in the “blissful early stages of a happy new relationship” with his raging adversary’s older daughter. If he were going to sexually abuse anyone, he would have shown much better timing, obviously.
But none of these beats the notion—advanced by Weide and hordes of Allen fans on social media—that the filmmaker’s well-known claustrophobia means he would never molest anyone in an attic. Never mind that his hair was found in said attic, settling the question of whether he would or would not ever go in there with actual scientific evidence. People were mind-blowingly eager to believe that it all boiled down to a fucking Encyclopedia Brown twist.
But even that wasn’t as bananas as the internet’s collective efforts to discredit two Swedish women who reported in 2010 that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange violated them sexually. It was a CIA honeytrap from the very beginning, you see! No, wait, the women just wanted to compel him to take an HIV test, and before they knew it, they’d been coerced by an overzealous investigator into accusing him of rape! No, wait, they were both angry and vowed to get revenge when they realized he’d slept with them both in the same week! Maybe it was all of the above! Ugh, women, am I right?
Still, the single looniest rumor came from a now-deleted AOL News article by Dana Kennedy, in which she quoted an Assange defense lawyer’s claim that the charge was something called “sex by surprise,” and it would only carry a fine. Assange had reportedly just “surprised” a woman by not wearing a condom when she’d asked him to, and she was a bit miffed about that, and it just became this big thing, ho ho.
A quick look at the Swedish penal code reveals that there is no “sex by surprise” law. And a quick look at the charges against Assange, for which an international arrest warrant was issued in late 2010, reveals that they were: Unlawful coercion, sexual molestation, and rape. Actual rape! Not just fake, weird, radical Swedish feminist rape!
But why let the truth get in the way of a good rumor?
This rumor—that Sweden has a law against “sex by surprise,” which has something to do with whether you used a condom—kept getting passed around and worn down until any semblance of logic was obliterated, and we were left with this bit of pure nonsense: “The term ‘rape’ in Sweden includes consensual sex without a condom.”
Keith Olbermann happens to be the one who said it in precisely those words, but he was far from alone. People really believed this, that unprotected sex is illegal in Sweden, even though a quick look at the existence of Swedish babies would disprove it. That’s how much we’re willing to mangle our concept of what’s realistic, if the alternative is admitting that someone we admire might truly have done a terrible thing.
Every time, we ignore the single most likely reason for someone to allege sexual assault or rape—to wit, that it actually happened—and grasp at any other explanation, no matter how implausible, that will save us from having to reconcile our positive feelings about Celebrity X with the distinct possibility that he’s kind of a monster. We prioritize maintaining our own comfortable, familiar image of a person we’ve never met, and probably never will, over treating someone’s testimony that a crime occurred with the seriousness it deserves.
I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will: Taking reports of sexual violence seriously doesn’t mean denying anyone due process or chasing the accused down with pitchforks. I’m not talking about punishing people at all right now; I’m talking about forming educated opinions, by weighing up what evidence we’ve been allowed to see and deciding what we think of it all. We do this every day when we take in the news, except when the news is about rape, in which case we act like “innocent until proven guilty” means no one—preferably not even investigators and prosecutors—may legally suspect that the guy might actually have done it.
Let me tell you a wonderful secret about the U.S. and Canada: If you’re not on a jury, you are allowed to hold any opinion you like of an accused criminal’s guilt or innocence, regardless of whether he’s been prosecuted and/or what the prosecution can prove! You are not required to wait until some vague future date when “all the evidence” has come in, nor to withhold judgment until a jury has decided the matter, nor even to accept that a jury verdict is necessarily correct! So far, there are no actual thought police—isn’t that terrific news?
So you can go ahead and believe, even deep down in your heart, that O.J. did it. Or that Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown in cold blood. You can believe Oscar Pistorius knowingly killed Reeva Steenkamp, George Zimmerman did not fear for his life when he shot Trayvon Martin, and yes, Drew Peterson killed his fourth wife, even though her body has never been found. And by the same token, you can believe that any given celebrity accused of sexual violence probably did it.
You don’t have to believe that—you don’t have to believe anything—but you are not actually prohibited from arriving at that conclusion, based on your own impressions of the publicly available evidence. Your personal opinion isn’t going to hurt any of those guys or deprive them of any legal or human rights. You cannot, of course, present those opinions as fact in a public forum, but why would you want to do that, anyway? Facts are facts and opinions are opinions. There’s a time and place for each.
The fact is, I do not know if Jian Ghomeshi had consent to choke, hit, and suffocate those three women, or if Woody Allen abused his daughter, or if Ben Roethlisberger assaulted any of the women who have reported that he did. But my opinion is, it’s outrageous that we so readily take implausible claims from accused criminals at face value, while being hyperskeptical of anyone who reports a rape. Given all we know about the behavior of sexual predators, the low incidence of false reports, and many victims’ well-founded fear that coming forward will only subject them to disbelief, scorn, and harassment, my opinion is that our typical reaction when celebrities are accused of sexual violence is fucking bullshit.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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