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.