Why the Jian Ghomeshi story has changed everything

Jian Ghomeshi may just be beginning his legal journey, but already his case has demanded a radical shift in the way we handle sexual assault

Jian Ghomeshi leaves the College Park Courthouse in Toronto after being granted bail. (Photograph by Colin O’Connor)

Jian Ghomeshi leaves the College Park Courthouse in Toronto after being granted bail. (Photograph by Colin O’Connor)

If you managed to ignore the news helicopter hovering overhead and a mob of photogs swarming below, Jian Ghomeshi’s bail hearing this week in a Toronto courtroom was a textbook case of uneventful legal protocol. Ghomeshi, who will plead “not guilty” to four counts of sexual assault and one of choking, sat in the prisoner’s box as lawyers read out charges, negotiated the terms of his $100,000 bail and told the court a publication ban would extend to two of three women laying charges (the third, Lucy DeCoutere, waived the ban; she’d previously gone public with allegations Ghomeshi choked and hit her). Meanwhile, courtroom artists sketched the scene, as if cameras had not yet been invented. And, in another quaint touch, the judge reminded the assembly that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty.”

Outside that legal orbit, of course, a different reality has prevailed. The seismic response to allegations levied against Ghomeshi meant his reputation lay in tatters weeks before criminal charges came down. In the space of a month, the voices of nine women who’d brought allegations against him had risen to a chorus of diverse stories about sexual assault on the hashtag #BeenRaped­NeverReported, stories that didn’t involve the one-time CBC Radio star.

The aftershocks were felt on Parliament Hill. A week into women going public with allegations against Ghomeshi, a woman told the National Post that their example inspired her to speak out about the brutal harassment she experienced as an intern from a staffer in a Liberal MP’s office eight years ago that led to two suicide attempts; when she raised complaints with the Liberal party HR department, she said, she was fired. That wasn’t the upshot when a female NDP MP approached Justin Trudeau to allege a Liberal MP had assaulted a female NDP colleague, and later told a Liberal party whip that she herself had also been assaulted by a Liberal MP. Trudeau quickly suspended Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews from Liberal caucus for “personal misconduct” before any investigation or charges took place (both men deny any wrongdoing).

The “Ghomeshi effect” extended south of the border as well, with a reprise of rape allegations against Bill Cosby, long supressed by the media, as more women came forth this month, bringing the count to 19. Cosby, who has not been charged and who has denied all allegations, was quickly dropped from new projects on Netflix and NBC.

The women who come forward with their names—and the throngs who’ve supported them—have given rise to a new honesty and a steely resolve to confront sexual assault. It was evident this month when the family of Rinelle Harper, the 16-year-old Winnipeg girl who was sexually assaulted and left for dead, made her identity public in an attempt to find the perpetrators. “It was courageous and perspicacious approach,” says Toronto lawyer Brian Rogers: “It helped personalize and dramatize and produce results.”

Bringing the human element into the equation may be the biggest legacy so far of the Ghomeshi case: it put names and faces of accusers alongside that of a high-profile, powerful accused, creating a broader story that typically unfolds in silence and secrecy; in so doing, it forced the issue into the daylight. What we are now seeing is that the system put in place to protect victims can lead to silence and shame. Consider the publication ban imposed on a 17-year-old Nova Scotian who was the subject of international coverage last year after she tragically hanged herself; she had been raped by four boys at a party and then tormented when photographs of the assault were circulated online. The ban, imposed under the Criminal Code to protect victims of sexual assault and minors, literally rendered the teenager, who wanted the media to cover her plight, invisible—in the court’s word, “[redacted].” The ban faced legal challenge from local media outlets, and had been opposed by the Crown attorney as well as the victim’s parents. Earlier this month, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald defiantly violated it. “Solutions never come from silence, only injustice comes from silence,” the girl’s father wrote in an open letter.

A fomenting revolt against systemic attitudes toward sexual assault, a sort of Occupy Main Street, was in full swing before allegations against Ghomeshi landed. It was evident in the roiling debate about “rape culture” on campuses (a topic Ghomeshi tackled on his radio show) and the emergence of #YesAllWomen after Elliot Rodger’s misogyny-fuelled rampage in California that mobilized women to share stories of violence they’d experienced.

Ghomeshi, whom many Canadians invited into their home and car every day, became a lightning rod by becoming the identifiable face for the most common, misunderstood and difficult-to-litigate form of sexual assault—“date rape” or “intimate rape,” to use the oxymoronic terms.

Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Ghomeshi’s remaining star wattage was enough to force klieg lights onto “rape culture” in a way his show never did. Response to the Facebook post he issued in self-defence can now be seen as a blueprint of entrenched attitudes and biases: the reflexive early acceptance of his version of events; his blaming of the victim, which at first went unchallenged in many quarters; his assertion that he alone could prove consent. As time passed, the response to the allegations provided a lesson in the arithmetic of sexual violence: one complaint will be ignored; a pattern commands attention.

Reva Seth, a lawyer when Ghomeshi allegedly assaulted her, instructively spelled out the difficulty and emotional cost of women coming forward to report “date rape” in a Huffington Post column. The aftermath of the allegations also pointed to the importance of male support—seen in Owen Pallett’s  “Jian Ghomeshi beats women” blog post and in the way comedian Hannibal Buress reignited the allegations against Cosby when he called him out as a “rapist” onstage last month.

The Ghomeshi example also bristles with institutional enablement—that the University of Western Ontario warned female students not to intern on Q, and, more grievously, that the CBC failed to go to the police after its executives saw evidence of a woman being hurt by one of their stars. Both institutions simply distanced themselves from what appeared to be a devastating problem, rather than try to address the issue head-on; they were as reluctant to go to official channels as were the women who were more comfortable tweeting about sexual assault.

That the conversation has taken place off the legal grid, and in the Wild West of social media anonymity amid #BelieveAllWomen, has been a source of concern for many. But it also reflects frustration and even contempt for a legal process that failed Rehteah Parsons. As Pallett wrote: “Whether the court decides that predatory men are punished or exonerated does not silence the voices of the victims. It does not make victims liars.”

Social media has paved way to a new openness about discussing assault, says Rogers. “There’s greater comfort with sharing information once considered private and personal.” He’s seeing a greater willingness for allegations to be made public at an earlier stage, not just in the context of eventual trial in criminal court. This is allowed under the law, he says: “The defence of responsible communication does permit, on matters of public interest, a broader availability of information as long as the other side is given the opportunity to respond.”

Workers scrape a wall which had a publicity photo of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi in the broadcasting corporation's Toronto offices on Monday October 27, 2014. (Chris Young, The Canadian Press)

Workers scrape a wall which had a publicity photo of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi in the broadcasting corporation’s Toronto offices on Monday October 27, 2014. (Chris Young, The Canadian Press)

Victims of sexual assault are also increasingly willing to identify themselves, to reject the notion that being a victim of sexual assault is in any way shameful, says Toronto criminal lawyer Jonathan Rosenthal: “You’re seeing a lot more people refuse to hide behind the publication ban.” He points to the recent outing of complainants in the case against Nova Scotia businessman Ernest Fenwick MacIntosh who, in 2007, was found guilty on 17 counts of sexually abusing four boys in the 1970s and 1980s; his conviction was overturned at the Supreme Court on the grounds it took too long to bring him to trial. Six of MacIntosh’s accusers were photographed in an advocacy ad in the Chronicle-Herald this month, lobbying the province to waive the statute of limitations on sexual abuse allegations, as other provinces have: “We are the people who had to stand by silently as the wheels of justice ground slowly, fitfully onward and eventually crushed not the perpetrator of these actions, but the very victims who looked to the court system to provide justice.”

Rosenthal doesn’t believe shifts in attitudes will translate into the way sexual assaults are prosecuted or defended. No one for a second believes that Ghomeshi’s notoriously hard-hitting lawyer, Marie Henein, will treat Ghomeshi’s accusers with kid gloves, despite public support for his accusers; her responsibility to her client requires annihilating the women in any way possible. Rosenthal does see one change emerging from the Ghomeshi example: “I think there’s going to be a greater awareness of sexual harassment in workplaces by—and big quotes here—celebrities. I don’t think you’ll see another guy working at CBC who has a well-known reputation, allegedly, of sexually harassing young women get away with it.”Paradoxically, the hoopla surrounding Ghomeshi’s case actually exposes a general lack of concern about sexual assault, Rosenthal believes. He points to the lawyers who came forward saying they’d represent, for free, any women any who made criminal allegations against Ghomeshi: “Have these four lawyers done this for every other victim of sexual assault?” he asks. “Absolutely not.”  Were this a coffee boy at CBC, this would not be in the paper, Rosenthal argues: “It would be a run-of-the-mill case that you see in this country every day of the week.” A double standard is at work, no question. But if Ghomeshi’s “effect” teaches anything, it’s that the story is no longer about a former radio star, now a convenient, media-friendly symbol for sexual assault. It’s so much bigger.


Why the Jian Ghomeshi story has changed everything

  1. I certainly hope it has. Western society definitely needs a tipping point….at 52% we should have reached it.

  2. There is no statute of limitations on criminal charges in Canada. There is a statute of limitations on civil suits, which varies from province to province. This article suggests that the criminal charges in Nova Scotia were thrown out because of a statute of limitations issue. The appeal in the MacIntosh case succeeded because of a Charter issue not because of a statute of limitations. The victims in that case want the ability to bring forward civil claims against MacIntosh, which they can’t currently do under Nova Scotia law. It is very important that victims of sexual abuse know that criminal charges can be pursued against a perpetrator years, even decades later.

    • Unfortunately, here in the states there is usually a statute of limitations on rape, hence, it is nearly impossible to bring Bill Cosby up on charges.

      • What’s a perpetrator? Anything you deem it to be? I can tell you what a victim is – someone who never managed to get beyond the trauma, regardless where that trauma comes from, like slipping on a banana for instance. But never mind all that. We’re too stupid to discuss with nuance the real situations that can arise out of public awareness like this. I’m so sorry to say it, but we’re fucking doomed to get nothing at all done other than crying.

        • And Bill Cosby? Why would a multi millionaire rape women who could destroy his entire life? Why would he do that? He could just pay for a rape fantasy that would even be superior to the real thing.

          • I’m Bill Cosby. I’m funny, but have a dark side. I never pay for sex, but I get what I want. Who will challenge me? I’m Bill Cosby.


            I’m Bill Clinton. I’m the POTUS. Like Kennedy, I get what I want and there are no repercussions. Who’s gonna challenge me? I’m Bill Clinton.

            Tiger Woods? …..on and on the list goes because they’re too damned important and too good at covering their tracks for this to ever be an issue, right?

  3. “Rosenthal doesn’t believe shifts in attitudes will translate into the way sexual assaults are prosecuted or defended. No one for a second believes that Ghomeshi’s notoriously hard-hitting lawyer, Marie Henein, will treat Ghomeshi’s accusers with kid gloves, despite public support for his accusers; her responsibility to her client requires annihilating the women in any way possible.”

    This POS will walk as this will be nothing more than a “he said, she said” trial.

    Unless there is hard evidence or a politically correct judge, I do not see him being convicted of anything at this time.

    Time will tell.

  4. Thank you for violating the publication ban.

  5. The charges are ridiculous. Are you really a victim if more than 10 years have passed?

    • What if you have an STD….or a child? Do they disappear?

      • What does that have to do with anything in this case? The point is, especially for Decouture, is that she obviously didn’t feel like a crime was committed in 2002-2003, and you can’t say her reluctance to come forward was due Jian being a powerful media figure, because no one even knew who he was back then.

        If someone is beaten up at one point in their life, they would have to be a bit insane to claim they are still a victim.

        • The difference between an assault victim and a rape victim is that the rape victim is ALWAYS told she deserved it for some reason by someone. or oh, its just sex. no, she/he did not deserve it, she/he did not ask for it by wearing the wrong clothes or being in the wrong place, and rape cannot be forgotten or made immaterial to the victim. it is as serious a crime as murder and should be treated as such, not as simply a sexual encounter.

        • You do get that these charges aren’t just for “being beaten up”, right? They’re for sexual assault. Until you have experienced sexual assault, you don’t get to decide what the statute of limitations on being a victim is.

      • What if you have a flotilla of disenfranchised men with sorrow and loathing for life etched in the lines on their face? Do they just murder themselves? Maybe they can squirt cyanide into the top of their spine and go away just like that.

    • You are a victim even if 50 years or even 90 years have passed! Because the feelings of shame, because of the world knowing what happened, because of the pain for families of the victim, and the list goes on and on, time does not make a victim any less a victim. Ridiculous to some maybe, some
      that have never been victimized.

        • Really? That is what being a woman is? Crying about something forever?

          This totally makes sense, actually. Take veterans. Who gives a fuck about veterans? No one cares about shellshock, and PTSD, and if this disrupts them from being a citizen. They’re men, so they can fucking die.

          But women, we are so sorry that you are women! We are so fucking sorry about this! We’re so sorry that you can do what-ever-you-want-to-do-regardless.

          • You’re the real misogynist here.

          • Did anyone say they don’t care about veterans? I for one think the Conservatives’ treatment of veterans has been appalling. And I think you exposed your misogyny when you assumed all veterans are men.
            This issue is not about men vs. women. It is about every individual having control over their body. No one here is saying all men are horrible. Men can also be the victims of sexual assault. The fact of the matter is that you obviously have no understanding of the horror that a victim of sexual assault endures for days, months, and years after the attack. You can hide behind your computer screen and argue that anyone who supports these women who have come forward is a man-hating feminist. But that only makes you a woman-hating misogynist.

      • Please no, in this case that is self-induced suffering. It’s a lot different than a child raped by a priest etc. It’s insulting to even consider it in the same league.

        • Only to men with a guilty conscience….or fear of being found out.

          • Hardly.

          • Excuse for what?

        • You tell me. You’re the one keen to take someone off the hook.

          • Oh, it’s just too long ago, and if found not guilty his career is in tatters. What do the complainants have to lose? Nothing.

        • Well I’d certainly prefer that a woman could get justice immediately….but if she can do so eventually…

          However, she also loses ….is that your big worry?

          • Your argument may resonate a little more if you were to include the other half of the population in your calculus. As it is, it sounds like just another rant. If you want to be a leader in all this, try to understand that men are people too. Thanks.

    • I see the exact same comment here in states when it comes to Bill Cosby. Why so many rape apologist?

      • Because of logic. Why would Bill Cosby rape anyone when it could turn his entire life to hell when he could just pay for it. I have a better idea: I hear that Bill Cosby is a douchebag. Maybe that’s the only reason behind it – everyone wanted a douchebag to get hurt.

        • Why did Clinton do it, hmmmm?

          Because he could, that’s why.
          Why is that so hard for you to understand? Because you can’t get away with it, that’s why.

        • The reason Bill Cosby could rape those women and get away with it is because he counted on misogynists like you defend him.
          Let’s ask another set of questions:
          What do these women have to gain by lying about Cosby raping them? Fame? Do you really think that many women, including some already in the public eye, are going to claim a celebrity raped them just to get their name out there? If you do then your opinion of women is even lower than my opinion of you.
          What does Cosby have to gain by lying about raping these women? EVERYTHING.

  6. This is a very good article EXCEPT for the statement that the American press suppressed the Bill Cosby story. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ms. Covington filed a police report against Cosby in March of 2000 and Constand filed a report in 2005. Both stories were published in various news organizations. Further, at least two women went on the Today show and the interviews are still online. No one suppressed the story, for some unknown reason, no one seem interested.

    I’m American, what is an MP?

    • I’m still not interested in the Bill Cosby case. Who cares?

      • Obviously someone cares otherwise your magazine wouldn’t have mentioned him.

    • Rape is part of the culture….and ‘stars’ get more leeway than most. Cosby is the beloved ‘America’s dad’ figure so people don’t want to hear anything bad about him…..especially something like this.

      An MP is a Member of Parliament….like a congressman. A Representative.

      • Thanks, I’m American and I never subscribed to Cosby as “America’s Dad” nor did I believe that Lance Armstrong never drugged. Cosby’s M.O. is groom, dose and rape.

        • Well, Boomers always struck me as an exceptionally gullible lot….wide-eyed and naive, like millions of Beaver Cleavers.

          So they believe all the stories and Cosby fit the bill as ‘dad’.

          Some of the stories of the older stars….Bogart, Sinatra, Sophia Loren are coming out now and curling toes….maybe we shoulda heard them earlier.

          Anyway…Life is not a fairy tale.

  7. Sadly I disagree almost completely with the point of this article. I do not believe that the JG (or the Bill Cosby) case will have a significant impact on the laws and actions to address violence against women.

    (1) I think most will see this as a celebrity case, something that will not impact their world.
    (2) the Canadian media has placed too much significance on the ”impact” JG had on Canadian society. This is CBC Radio not Netflix. The BBC with their two pedophile cases led to zero changes in terms of how British society addressed pedophiles. Certainly the impact of the two BBC TV broadcasters were larger and longer-lasting (approx 30 yrs) than JG’s relatively short run on radio here.
    (3) The trial by media, brought on JG himself, has confused the facts, bringing in opinion and supposition before the law even entered the picture.
    (4) The extremely belated TO Police investigation seems more spotlight grabbing than even the Rob Ford investigation. Also the TOPS need for a complainant prior to investigation seemed woefully inadequate an excuse for lack of initiative. Did TOPS take the same aprpoach in the Rob Ford investigation?

    I hope in my lifetime violence against women will diminish, I do not believe it will ever be eliminated. But I do not see this relatively minor celebrity case being the paradigm shift our society requires.

    • So a person can be utterly destroyed by mob rule without any system of law and you consider that a step forward? There are serious problems with the prosecution of sexual assault, but that does not mean that ‘innocent until proven guilty’, THE fundamental legal tenant of a free society, is somehow a beacon of the entirely fabricated idea of ‘rape culture’.

      • I do not agree there has been any step forward.

        A woman went to the media last week and alleged she was raped by a liberal MP. I am not saying that is true – I do not know if she is telling the truth, nor do I think it was responsible of her or the media to publish the allegations in that format.

        However, what she alleged was a rape – sex without consent. Instead, the focus has been on the fact she apparently provided this man with a condom before sexual intercourse. So many people who should know better have grabbed onto that tidbit to support their view this was not a sexual assault. Except, according to the Canadian justice system, it is.

        I am appalled by the total ignorance displayed by many in the media on the law on sexual assault in this country. It would be really helpful if someone could set the record straight.

      • By which I mean this complainant has been totally destroyed by mob rule, and all kinds of other victims will be hesitant to come forward once they see how she has been vilified by the media and public, just because in the course of being raped she gave the rapist a condom.

        • She gave him a condom AND she did not say she didn’t want to have sex. That is what people are having a problem with in her story. Does a woman have absolutely zero responsibility as to what happens in a sexual context? We’re getting to the point where a woman can claim rape every time she has sex with a man.

          • The law in Canada is that there has to be express consent. There is no such thing as implied consent. It is the obligation of both parties to ensure there is consent.

            Here, if she’s telling the truth, the man did not obtain express consent. She says she did not consent. That is rape.

            I understand where people are having a difficulty, but that is my point. That difficulty is based on a lack of understanding of the state of the law in Canada.

  8. What is obvious here feminism is struggling under new pressure to be relevant. For feminism to exist it needs to portray women as victims even if it goes out and fabricates those victims – as is clear with those women who receive threats via twitter (where they actually benefit the most from those threats, and real threats never start on twitter), the Bill Cosby fiasco who i think is innocent – its clear from revelations that BC had loads of groupies, and SOME of them must have felt that “cosby needs to pay” for using them, and now this Ghomeshi, who i suspect has engaged in consensual activities though theoretically illegal. This is feminism fabricating victims so that it can remain relevant.

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