Karlee Kobasiuk is an Edmonton-based masters of counselling psychology student at the City University of Seattle. She has previously worked in Alberta’s Ministry of Justice and Solicitor-General.
Matthew McKnight walked among us.
Throughout the trial of Mr. McKnight, the former Edmonton nightclub promoter who was convicted of five counts of sexual assault and sentenced on Jul. 31 to eight years in prison, his defence lawyers made that reality clear. Here before the judge, they argued, was a normal, everyday, upstanding man, with a privileged upbringing free from abuse and neglect, an intelligence suggested by his 4.0 GPA in university, and substantial business success.
This privilege was intended to be a mitigating factor, reinforcing a societal ideal that sending such a person to jail would be a tragedy, as it would only squander their potential; we would not want to deprive him of the bright future that lay ahead. Mr. McKnight, they argued, “simply went too far.” It was an innocent mistake.
But the defence’s narrative only reminded us that sex offenders are among us, wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are not slobbering freaks who lie in wait in dark alleyways, craven and desperate because of what they lack; they hide in plain sight. Rapists are not rapists all of the time; they have families and friends who know them aside from their offending. And being a privileged white man with the world in the palm of his hand isn’t a mitigating factor when examining the violence he was convicted of; it should have been an aggravating factor. He chose to assault innocent women – creating deep traumatic wounds through psychologically maiming – despite all his advantages.
The defence’s framing, through the institution of the law, highlights just one way in which systems have both failed women and allowed offenders such as Mr. McKnight to get away with things for so long. Without white male privilege, how else would Mr. McKnight have gained access to these women? Without the advantages of being a white, educated man, would he have been able to lure women to his apartment? If he did not have money to spend on rounds of drinks and limo rides, how else would he have groomed his victims?
Systems do not create sex offenders; rather, predators enter these systems because they are founded on pillars that can be weaponized in a court of law when your reputation is at stake. In the bar industry where Mr. McKnight worked, there is a long legacy of this. Indeed, one of the defence’s witnesses, Kyle Anderson, had tweeted that, “There is no such thing as rape, just surprise sex.” During the Crown’s cross-examination, he shrugged this misogynistic statement off as subjective humour – an example of the attitudes that uphold the system that allowed Mr. McKnight to rape women for years. We must not ignore this. The individuals who operated within this system and knew exactly what McKnight was doing should be held accountable for turning a blind eye to the abuse; otherwise, violence against women, especially those who are vulnerable, will only continue to be perpetuated and encouraged.
His lawyers highlighted the fact that these women met McKnight at nightclubs, and not “Sunday church picnics,” as if that means they should have expected the risk of being violently raped. It suggests women should behave in a certain way – that we have some sort of culpability if we are sexually assaulted. Rather than telling women how not to get raped, we should be teaching men not to rape.
When we attempt to understand why sex offenders reoffend, we need to examine the systems within which they exist. Dismantling systems that promote rape culture or protect predators is difficult but necessary work. When friends and family of offenders hold these attitudes, the offender is able to avoid accountability, even when he has been convicted of five sexual assaults. Letters presented by the defence team in support of Mr. McKnight upheld patriarchal ideals, excusing his behaviour and using the bar scene as a scapegoat. In one, Mr. McKnight’s own father alludes to the fact that his son’s party lifestyle “could never end well.” This statement serves to divert blame, likening Mr. McKnight to a ticking bomb: It was only a matter of time, to no fault of his own, before he raped a woman. What else could we have expected?
Mr. McKnight’s own address to the court indicated he does not have remorse – only regret – and that he does not seem prepared to accept the consequences of his actions. That makes sense: Consequences are meaningless when you have an entrenched sense of impunity. If you are privileged, you can bargain to face smaller consequences. This is white privilege at its worst: twisting the narrative to fit the outcome you desire rather than accepting your fate, further supporting the patriarchy and the narratives of offenders.
While the justice system has made strides in protecting victims, this case proves we have a long way to go. The Crown prosecutors fought tirelessly for these women, trying to ensure they were heard. But the defence bulldozed over them, wielding rape myths and antiquated ideas. This was a landmark case and it has set precedent. But it is also one in which the victims’ voices were repeatedly buried by Mr. McKnight’s power and privilege. It has reinforced the widely held notion that victims do not come forward because the process is retraumatizing.
Sexual violence is a national crisis. But for victims of sexual violence, justice is not about just locking up the perpetrator and throwing away the key: That only offers us momentary relief. If you are a victim of sexual violence, justice is about being believed. Mr. McKnight’s case is a harrowing reminder that if you are a white, privileged male, you can always flip the script and find an opportunity to centre the story around yourself – even when you’re in the courtroom for your own criminal sentencing.
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