Nicole Pietsch is co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, which works toward the prevention and eradication of sexual assault.
This week saw two witnesses testify in the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Both witnesses are women who shared their descriptions of being romanced – and then suddenly, allegedly slapped, choked or otherwise assaulted − by the former radio host. The locus of the attention has been the women’s reactions and continued relationships with Mr. Ghomeshi after the alleged abusive incidents.
Whether or not Mr. Ghomeshi is innocent or guilty of these assaults, of course, remains to be seen. But it’s important not to dismiss the victims because of their behaviour after the alleged assaults occurred. In fact, their actions – dismissive reactions of the event, and a desire to maintain contact and continue a relationship – are common.
“Kissing the man who just assaulted you and tried to choke you and slapped you was inconsequential?” defence attorney Marie Henein pressed accuser Lucy DeCoutere. Apparently hoping to process, normalize or better understand the out-of-the-blue and violent episode, she said she persevered through the date, met up with Mr. Ghomeshi again over the next few days, and resumed a positive rapport. Following this – like the first witness testified – she agreed that she initiated e-mail contact with him.
In most sexual assault cases, a victim’s apparent lack of resistance commonly becomes the focus of assessment and intervention. Of course, it’s Ms. Henein’s job to probe the witness – especially in a he-said-she-said case, and witness credibility is important. But it is unlikely that the witnesses here ever imagined that the extraneous minutiae (Were you wearing hair extensions? Did he slap you first and then choke? Or choke first, then slap?) or socialized human nature (“I felt sorry for him,” one witness said) would become such near-algebraic tests of memory, implied complicity, implied consent – or worse, implied dishonesty – before the courts.
Add to this that, like most sexual assault cases, the accused here is known to the accusers. This conflates violence with normalcy and rapport, affecting a victim’s capacity to resist or react to what happened – or even, for that matter, define it: “All I could register was not being able to breathe, and shock; surprise,” Ms. Decoutere told the court: “It’s pretty shocking when someone hits your face,” but she didn’t think what happened qualified as an assault.
I’ve learned that some survivors will maintain contact – reasons can include being uncertain about whether the violent incident was in fact violence, wishing to improve the relationship, feeling responsible for improving the relationship, or seeking clarification or explanation for the behaviour.
The witness in this case shared a poignant reflection that many survivors I’ve worked with, who are victimized by a highly-respected or loved offender could likely also relate to: that this was a redeemable relationship.
It’s not only the witnesses we’ve heard from who wanted to share this perspective: Many Canadians initially joined in the hope that these allegations were not all that serious.
“I was thinking maybe this assault was a one-off,” Ms. DeCoutere said. “Everyone makes gaffes.”Report Typo/Error
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