No has always meant no in our society
 

No has always meant no in our society

Barbara Amiel on bringing reason to the Jian Ghomeshi affair


 
Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Natalie Behring/Getty Images

In the current hysteria over sexual mores with lynch mobs lurching through all media, I find some solace in Stephen Vizinczey’s book Truth and Lies in Literature. Vizinczey, a Canadian citizen resident abroad, would not bother with so hopeless an endeavour as trying to bring reason to the Jian Ghomeshi affair and medieval arguments about the meaning of consent, but I’m pretty sure he would have imploded after listening to last week’s Giller prize-winner making an impassioned plea to “believe women” in a veiled reference to Jian’s troubles.

Vizinczey might have remarked that when the Puritan minister Cotton Mather was ferreting out witches to be hanged for everyone’s greater good in 1692, his followers were busy going around Salem, Mass., telling citizens to believe the women (and children) making accusations. Mather also believed in the admissibility of “spectral evidence” (victims’ conjectures governed only by the limits of their fears or imaginations) which, in modern form, is an important tool for police, prosecutors and legislators. As Dorothy Rabinowitz documented in her book No Crueler Tyrannies, spectral evidence was crucial in the false imprisonment of men and women in America accused of satanic acts toward young children—another terror of our times.

In “A writer’s 10 commandments,” Vizinczey cites Graham Greene, “who is directed by his obsessions without regard to changing fashions and popular ideologies.” One tries to emulate this, although ignoring the theology of the Ghomeshi affair is a dangerous business. At best, one is simply vilified. All the same, to quote the much lamented late Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?”

I am not suggesting we not investigate Ghomeshi, only pointing out he has had no trial. At this writing, he hasn’t even been charged with anything, though, given the solicitations for accusers, it’s probably a matter of time. I have a sentimental attachment to legal process and facing your accusers in court before magazine-cover stories explaining, “How he got away with it.” We know nothing: Asking us to “believe women” is as wicked as asking us to disbelieve them.

The unquestioned thesis is that women go through hell if they come forward. Well, not exactly. In our society, a female all but gets mugged if she challenges the queue for sexual assault martyrdom. I’m getting unsolicited emails from prominent women claiming sexual assault of years ago and sent to what appears to be their entire contact list. Believe me, I know what one can face in court but does the sisterhood want the accused simply to get, as I wrote decades ago when the madness began, nothing but a postcard telling them where to go for sentencing? Spare the bother of an open trial? There may even be legitimate reasons for silence: a husband or boyfriend, perhaps, when they dated the accused.

It’s not rocket science: Demanding sex for a job is extortion. Demanding it with threats of violence or inducing consent by drugging the victim without her knowledge is rape. Sexual activity with those who cannot give their consent—minors or the mentally challenged—is statutory rape. These actions have always been criminal, and societies have given them, rightly, the strongest possible sentences, including capital punishment. No has always meant no in all our history. The suggestion that we now substitute “yes means yes” is not helpful when we allow that yes to mean no if next morning or a decade later you regret the activity. Demanding consent forms for every stage of the mating game infantilizes men and women and benefits only the legal cartel and the serried ranks of whey-faced regulators.

Some people are born with non-traditional sexuality. We have accepted homosexuality, which was falsely classified as a mental disorder until 1982 in Canada. But given the hell we put homosexuals through, did we learn nothing about the pain of people who are “different,” no matter that their different needs repulse us? If you believe, as I do, that sexuality is not chosen but something with which we are born, how do we cope with those born with a drive that needs violence or underage partners in the way that others need redheads? The sexual impulse itself is innocent and not the fault of its owner. Of course, we cannot tolerate acts that cause harm, but we don’t even permit such people to relieve their need by looking at faked pictures or videos that don’t involve the use of human beings. We can make avatars of anything, so why would it be wrong to look at faked material in one’s own home? The sexual drive is not as necessary for humans as food, clothing and shelter, but it is a strong drive and sometimes it goes wrong. Should we just kill or jail those people?

The sexes crowd together in subways, theatres and parades, largely without problems. If a buttock is pinched or a breast brushed deliberately, is that cause for hysterics? Some women choose their clothes to attract sexual overtures, which is fine, if you like the person and sexual harassment if you don’t. But sexual relations will always be mystifying, possibly ambiguous and can’t be reduced to cut and dried rules. Human beings who cannot deal with ordinary interactions should get themselves to a nunnery.

Vizinczey’s constantly republished 1965 book In Praise of Older Women says a young boy’s best friend, sexually speaking, is an older experienced woman. He writes, “Trying to make love with someone who is as unskilled as you are seems to me about as sensible as going into deep water with someone who doesn’t know how to swim either. Even if you don’t drown, you’ll get a nasty shock.” In our society, those in a position of authority—from maiden aunt to schoolteacher—beware. Help a young man in those deep waters and you don’t drown, you get arrested. Real progress.


 

No has always meant no in our society

  1. There is plenty in this article that is the antithesis of reason:
    “If you believe, as I do, that sexuality is not chosen but something with which we are born, how do we cope with those born with a drive that needs violence or underage partners in the way that others need redheads?” People are not usually born with a sex drive that needs violence or children! These behaviours are most often the result of being abused.
    Your last paragraph is confounding — having sex with underage children is illegal in this country Barbara.
    The only thing I can agree with here is that it’s dangerous to take any serious accusations at face value, and that ultimately the law and the courts should serve justice – not people on Twitter. But the police and the courts are obviously failing an astounding number of victims.
    I watched a trailer for a documentary called “A Better Man” http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-better-man. I think this approach is an important step forward. The people who commit abusive acts need to be a part of this dialogue. To merely punish and shame them does nothing to address the root of the problem.

  2. As per usual with Amiel, a lot of crap with one or two gems.

    “Some women choose their clothes to attract sexual overtures, which is fine, if you like the person and sexual harassment if you don’t.” Misplaced comma aside – very true. The clothes you wear in public is like posting something to Twitter; it’s out there for everybody to see. The message will be received by a far greater audience than you may have intended; if the message you choose to send is one of overt sexuality, be prepared for a wider range of responses than just those you want to hear from. And no, that’s not “blaming the victim”; that’s an expectation that people be both self-aware, and aware of others – i.e. showing a little common sense. If you are going to be offended when a guy you find unattractive comes up to you in a bar, rather than the one you were eyeing, then accept that maybe that’s because you were dressed to provoke a response from males in general and – like a tweet – it reached more than just those you wanted it to.

    “In our society, those in a position of authority—from maiden aunt to schoolteacher—beware. Help a young man in those deep waters and you don’t drown, you get arrested.” If that young man is under age, then rightly so. It should be no more acceptable for a woman to take advantage of a teenager than for a man. Yet, as a recent Macleans article pointed out, that’s not the reality we live in.

    As for the headline: that’s probably truer today than it has been in the past, but there have been, and probably still are, women who play the “no-means-yes” game. I dated one in my youth; every time we would get so far, she would say no and I’d stop. One night, after avoiding each other for a good bit of the evening, we finally met and agreed to break up. Our reasons, strangely, were the same: We wanted sex but weren’t getting any. When I raised the fact that she kept saying no, she said “Everyone knows no doesn’t mean No.” As I told her then, women like that muddy the waters and contribute to confusion that may lead to date rape. How is a young, relatively inexperienced guy to know what to do if he gets a message like that? Push harder with the next woman and end up in court? For my own part, I continued to assume no means no – but I could see how encounters like this could result in a different outcome with someone else.

    What I’m saying is, things aren’t always black and white. Yes, if a woman is assaulted, she absolutely should report it. Yes, she should expect a proper trial: There is a legal presumption of innocence. But she ought to refrain from making a media event out of it as some seem bent on doing. And I’m about to say something that will probably raise hackles in certain quarters: Just as victims are protected with anonymity, those who are accused should likewise be protected until and if found guilty. A public accusation like that never goes away, especially in this day and age, and if innocent the accused has been damaged for life.

    And yes, though it may be rare, some truly are innocent. Remember when we used to believe it better that some guilty go free, than an innocent person be convicted?

    Finally, on the whole “rape culture” meme: Yes, overall there needs to be an improvement with the way the sexes view and treat one another, and I think the media (and I’m talking advertisers, movies/TV, etc – not just news) makes things worse in the way they objectify women and – increasingly – men. But the rape culture meme seems to imply most men behave this way – and I just don’t see it. Maybe I just know the wrong guys (my circle is admittedly small), but most that I know treat women with respect. But “rape culture” seems to be about blaming all men. And so I think it may be alienating men who otherwise would be very supportive of women and opposed to the behaviour of those who treat women badly. I know I tend to tune out whenever someone uses those words, as I feel a bashing coming on.

    It occurs to me that maybe a small number of men are assaulting a relatively large number of women, because they get away with it. Looking at how many have come forward in the two celebrity instances currently in the news, there is certainly evidence that may be so. So, women (and men, also, who are assaulted): Come forward. Right away. Your bravery may save untold others.

  3. Am I reading the last paragraph incorrectly. It seems to be lamenting ‘our society’s’ criminalization of statutory rape. But hey, if Vizinczey advocated it in 1965…

    “Vizinczey’s constantly republished 1965 book In Praise of Older Women says a young boy’s best friend, sexually speaking, is an older experienced woman. He writes, “Trying to make love with someone who is as unskilled as you are seems to me about as sensible as going into deep water with someone who doesn’t know how to swim either. Even if you don’t drown, you’ll get a nasty shock.” In our society, those in a position of authority—from maiden aunt to schoolteacher—beware. Help a young man in those deep waters and you don’t drown, you get arrested. Real progress.”