Consent and the Ghomeshi controversy
The story of Jian Ghomeshi and his lawsuit against the CBC for wrongful firing will unravel itself accordingly. It will, undoubtedly, be the top media story for the weeks that follow.
On Sunday, when the CBC announced that it was ending its relationship with Jian Ghomeshi, it was revealed that the famous Q host had hired Navigator, one of Canada’s leading “high-stakes” public relations firms.
If it wasn’t clear before, the public now knew that honest or not, Ghomeshi’s Facebook status about his private sex life was a well-crafted PR technique. Ghomeshi has been a radio host since 2002 and running Q since 2007. Media strategy isn’t a foreign concept to him; he has used it to his advantage before, and he can use it again.
It is important that Ghomeshi fans don’t blindly follow his words as they might be inclined to. This is particularly tough in situations like Ghomeshi’s, where the man at the heart of the scandal is a famous radio broadcaster, known for facilitating societal debate.
A closer look at Ghomeshi’s status finds many problematic parts – those, too, clearly crafted with a purpose. In it, he calls his ex “jilted,” painting her as a crazy person who was so angry that he broke up with her that she wanted to defame him by “corroborating” with two other women.
This line worked on quite a few people; many comments on Ghomeshi’s post sound like one bro sympathizing with the other over the sexist myth of the crazy girlfriend.
This is not to say whether Ghomeshi is guilty or not. It’s the language he used to describe his ex, the way he decided to paint her character that makes the status seem disingenuous to anyone with some respect for women.
Then he goes on to talk about how consensual his relationship with these women was.
Knowing the definition of the word consent doesn’t mean much more than that. This controversy will hopefully spark a larger debate about consent, one that goes deeper than what we’ve limited ourselves to so far. Our conversations around sexual assault have been about rape on campuses, about no meaning no, or yes meaning yes, if you live in the more progressive parts of North America.
But we need to delve deeper than that.
In the case of Ghomeshi, whether he is guilty or not, there is a lot to be said about the complexities around consent. The women that the Toronto Star interviewed who accused Ghomeshi of sexual assault expressed concern that their consent to one thing over phone or text would be misinterpreted as consent to other, unwanted and violent acts. In this context, a “yes” at some point in their conversations didn’t mean yes to everything, or anything. What the public needs to understand, and what I hope mainstream media will emphasize in future articles is that consent is not transferable, nor is it a one-time deal. Consent is an on-going process that has to make both partners feel comfortable and heard.
Just because Ghomeshi knows when to use the word to incite the most sympathy from his followers doesn’t mean that he knows how to practice it properly, or that he does so at all.
On Tuesday, Lights, a well-known musician from Toronto, came out in support of Ghomeshi, stating that he has been her creative confidante and manager throughout her career. She said that he was someone who preached female empowerment to her, and therefore cannot be someone who would disrespect women in such a gross, offensive way.
This is a harmful and hasty generalization to make. It assumes that progressive people, men or women, cannot possibly be abusive. This sort of claim trivializes the experiences of anyone who has been abused by a partner who identifies as a feminist. It is unfortunate that these messages are being spread by public figures, but on the other side of the spectrum there have been celebrities like Owen Pallett who have refused to take Ghomeshi’s words at face value.
Ultimately, the radio host’s use of consent doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t abuse these women, and neither does his apparent history of support for female artists. Conversations like these are critical and how we approach them will determine how safe people feel opening up about their experiences with sexual and domestic abuse. Ghomeshi should not receive any special privileges because he has a faithful fan base, or because he can hire a company that knows how to shift blame away from their clients.
The controversy should be followed with a critical and open mind. Regardless of whether Ghomeshi is guilty of sexual assault, let’s not cause any more harm to survivors of abuse along the way. We can start by calling out Ghomeshi and his PR firm on their sexist and victim-blaming language.