Rob Ford and Sarah Thomson: What we know and what we don't know

Sorting through the latest imbroglio involving Toronto's mayor

We do not know for sure whether the Mayor of Toronto grabbed one of his female opponents’ behinds at a gala function this week, nor whether he suggested that she should have been with him in Florida on account of his wife being gone. Nor do we know if the mayor is being truthful in his categorical refusals.

When allegations like these erupt, knowing things with any certainty is at a premium. The alleged placement of Rob Ford’s fingers on Sarah Thomson’s body are now the kind of thing that radio hosts are parsing through in detail, as if waiting for a Zapruder tape to emerge. It doesn’t seem that one will.

So let’s talk about what we do know.

Here is one thing I know: This kind of thing happens to women in politics. It’s not news; it’s not scandal; it’s more like background radiation, which many of the women in politics I know deal with as a deadening cost of doing business in that environment.

“When I heard what Ford said about the vacation, my very first thought was, ‘I have heard almost that exact kind of statement more times than I can remember,’” a political staffer on Parliament Hill wrote to me today.

“Ass-grabbing, suggestive glances, sexual innuendo, comments about clothing – it’s all treated pretty nonchalantly, both inside the workplace, and also at hybrid social-professional events,” she said. She described an MP who messages her in meetings they attend together, commenting on her appearance and asking to see her outside of work, to her immense discomfort.

Others tell of hands slipped into hands, hands on hips, hands on thighs, fingers in bellies, enquiries about underwear, enquiries about sex lives; and always, a decision between pushing back or letting it slide. The problem isn’t just the garden-variety lechers: It’s the assuredly “nice guys” who keep their hands to themselves but introduce themselves by asking about boyfriends, or insert themselves into women’s personal lives with solicitousness, pestering and favours.

Is harassment worse in politics than in other fields? Maybe not (another former staffer told me she’d had a worse time in finance, for instance). Does it incriminate Rob Ford by association? Not at all. But it’s the world that both he and Sarah Thomson inhabit.

Here’s the second thing we know: How Thomson’s complaint was received. Inevitably, the complainant became the target.

Let’s first say that if Ford has lied to cover his failings too many times to be given any credit, Thomson isn’t beyond skepticism either. She’s presented her share of contradictions. She lamented the media circus while appearing on nearly every radio and television outlet in town. As she herself tells it, she followed up on Ford’s alleged lewdness by acceding to a mind-boggling plan in which her assistant would pose with Ford to see if any groping could be photographed. (I find this so weird and ill-advised as to actually be credible.) She decided to try this case in the court of public opinion, and public opinion has every right to feel conflicted about this.

But this weirdness wasn’t the nub of the attacks on her. To listen to her critics, her sin was going public in the first place. On talk radio, the hosts of the John Oakley and Jim Richards shows were busy wondering why Thomson didn’t go to police and press charges if Ford laid a finger on her, as if they wouldn’t be screaming “overreaction” if she had done just that. Their callers, as always, were grimly edifying.

“How convenient is this? Sarah Thomson is leveraging the social media and mainstream media to draw attention to her women’s publication on International Women’s Day,” said Mark.

“Big girls keep their mouth shut,” said John, another caller.

“Her colloquialism she used towards her own anatomy was pretty lowbrow for a person who’s considered to be some sort of professional in this town,” said Mike, who disapproved of the word “ass.” Later: “I just wonder about some of the people that try to assume office in this city.”

“Listen, what a joke,” said Bernie. “C’mon, we’ve had a couple pops here and there and if he was feeling good and having a good time – which he should because, y’know what? He’s got a lot of responsibility taking care of the city – and he wants to undo his tie, and if he kinda got a little tipsy or whatever you may wanna call it, no problem.”

If a woman takes an assault seriously, said Christie Blatchford, she should call the police. “If you don’t take it seriously, and you’re not mortally wounded, then you shut up and you deal with it privately,” she spat at Jim Richards. “What happened to that?”

“Just to confirm,” said John Tory, when Thomson finally come round to his show, “that you’d be willing to go to any place that’s agreeable to the mayor… and take a lie detector test?”

To recap, then: Sarah Thomson should have let it go because the mayor is entitled to relax, should have reacted immediately, should not have been ambitious, should have dealt with it privately, should have pitched a fit, should have said nothing, should have called police, and above all should not have said “ass.” Clear?

So I will tell you what I know with confidence. Women in politics have to deal with an appalling amount of garbage. Regardless of what Rob Ford did or didn’t do, it’s safe to say that at this moment, another mayor, or senator, or MP, or senior staffer, or riding association president, or student leader, or blithely bellicose volunteer is busy making a young woman squirm. And if that woman does not deal with said garbage in the exact right way—a way so bizarrely proscribed I’m not sure it even exists—then her honesty, motives, ambitions, maturity and gender itself will get called into question.

I am willing to take Sarah Thomson at her word. But Rob Ford, as ever, is not the real problem.

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