This is a very hard day for thousands and thousands of sexual assault survivors, and for thousands more decent and fair people across Canada who believe in the justice system (at least until now).
Today’s Ghomeshi verdict from Mr Justice William Horkins goes so much further than simply acquitting him (which we all expected). It disparages the women complainants over and over again, and massively reinforces the most primitive myths about sexual violence – about the nature of traumatic memories and subsequent decisions (over contact, over reporting). It will of course ramp up still further the fear that already surrounds stepping forward and making a complaint.
Justice Horkins refers on two occasions in his judgment to the need to avoid stereotypes in understanding the dynamics of sexual violence. He then proceeds to apply the most blatant and banal stereotypical thinking to his analysis of the women’s behavior, which he characterizes as “odd” on four occasions (Excuse me, but how does he know this? Did I miss the expert testimony at the trial?).
Apparently in our current system of truth-finding, a failure to recall one’s hair style on any given day or the make and model of the car one is driving in – an “otherwise innocuous error” (er, yes) are enough to bring down “credibility” following a violent assault. If this is really the case, there is something very wrong with the way our system weighs the evidence in reaching a conclusion.
A few straight words to clear out our heads.
The fact that Ghomeshi was acquitted today on four charges does not mean that these events did not take place – as Justice Horkins himself acknowledges in a rare moment of reality in an otherwise surreal judgment.
The three women who brought forward their complaints against Ghomeshi were very brave. They withstood horrific public scrutiny, hostile character-evaluations by innumerable strangers, salacious Internet gossip, and hostile (sorry David, it’s always hostile) cross-examination. Now they have also had to withstand intense public disparagement by Justice Horkins and the potential for a perjury suit against at least one of them.
There are about a million easier and more effective ways to get positive attention than to be a complainant in a sex assault trial in Canada. In his judgment, Justice Horkins made numerous innuendos about the motivations of the complainants. In doing so, he tragically once again played into the worst of our prejudices and misunderstandings about the barriers faced by sexual assault complainants (in a pattern which is apparent throughout the judgment, he states first that motivation is irrelevant and then goes on to disparage and speculate about it at length).
This decision will be place a chill over women stepping forward. It will also fuel anger among women and others who support them.
Ghomeshi reminds us just how far we have yet to go to reach a place where sexual assaults are no longer tolerated and where woman and men can feel safe reporting them. Let’s take that anger and turn it into action for change.