Five ways Ghomeshi reveals rape culture

– by Nick Montgomery

Edit: most people are tired of Ghomeshi by now, but hopefully all this leads to more engagement in feminism, and an attempt to challenge rape culture and nurture alternatives.  I wrote a second piece about this here: Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

There is a frenzy of activity to find “the facts” about Jian Ghomeshi, the allegations against him, and the women who have shared their experiences. Thousands of fans have flocked to defend Ghomeshi and deride his accusers as vindictive slanderers.

Others have expressed their moral outrage that Ghomeshi could be such a monster.  Others have called for us to wait until there are “more facts.”  These are consistent patterns that arise when discussing rape, sexual assault, and gendered violence. They are some of the jianghomeshipatterns of rape culture.

As Jane Kirby explains, rape culture is “anything that normalizes unwanted, nonconsensual sex. In other words, rape culture is anything that makes rape seem like it is not really rape.” It gets disseminated through jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words, and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people think rape is inevitable.” There is also a pervasive idea that “actual rape” is isolated and exceptional. Responses to the allegations against Ghomeshi (including his own) have reinforced rape culture in at least five subtle and not-so-subtle ways:

1. Promoting sympathy for perpetrators and their reputations

In his recent statement, Ghomeshi says that a freelance writer teamed up with a jealous ex in a conspiracy to ruin his reputation. His fans and defenders have reiterated his argument, framing it as a malicious attempt to slander Ghomeshi.

This is a consistent pattern of rape culture: the promotion of worry and sympathy for those accused of sexual assault. It shifts the focus toward doubt and disbelief, toward how unfortunate it would be if the accusations were untrue. It centers perpetrators as (maybe? possibly? probably?) hapless victims of vindictive slander.

 2. Promoting victim-blaming and suspicion

Ghomeshi himself calls this a “campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend” Some of the most violent patterns of rape culture are made visible by the slew of misogynist attacks on women who come forward.  This is one of the most consistent and insidious patterns of rape culture.  Anna North writes that:

each of the women accusing Ghomeshi cite the case of Carla Ciccone as a reason they desire anonymity. Last year Ciccone wrote an article for the website XOJane about a ‘bad date’ with an unidentified, very popular Canadian radio host whom readers speculated to be Ghomeshi.

In the days that followed, Ciccone received hundreds of abusive messages and threats. An online video calling her a ‘scumbag of the Internet’ has been viewed over 397,000 times.

Those who speak up about sexual harassment or violence have long been subject to public scrutiny and criticism. But an onslaught of online abuse and threats has become a strikingly common response to women’s public statements — see for instance the threats Anita Sarkeesian and others have received when they speak publicly about misogyny in video games.

Blogger Elizabeth Hawksworth unpacks this eloquently:

What I want to talk about is the reactions that I’ve been seeing to his statement. A lot of people have been giving Ghomeshi the benefit of the doubt while full-on accusing the woman of ruining his career. Without knowing anything but what Ghomeshi has told us, people on Twitter and Facebook have been gleefully maligning her without taking into account that maybe there’s more to the story, here… Women everywhere are sexually assaulted by men in power. Many don’t bother to speak up because of reactions and consequences like this: Ghomeshi is a man in power and he is also well liked and well known. Chances are, he will be almost universally believed, while she will be accused of lying to get something from him. And while there is an extremely small percentage of women who do accuse men of sexual abuse in order to get something from them, the majority of women don’t. The majority of women speak up because they want justice. And right now, we don’t know what the real story is – but as someone who never spoke up when a man in power put me through hell, for a variety of reasons – I believe her until further notice.

3. Remaining neutral and waiting for ‘all the facts’

Many have responded to this debate by calling for sobriety and patience. Toronto Star columnist Vinay Menon—while making sure not to condone the “shocking allegations”—expressed regret that “many have already picked sides” before “all the facts” are known.  Menon reminds his readers that Ghomeshi is (legally) innocent until proven guilty.  We should approach sexual assault as judges would, presiding over a criminal trial.  But there is no criminal trial here; no one is pressing charges.  What matters isn’t whether we decide the Ghomeshi is guilty, but the ways we talk about the whole thing, and the implications of that.

The focus on innocent-until-proven-guilty shifts the onus back on survivors to prove that a sexual assault ‘really’ happened.  ‘Picking sides’ (or supporting survivors?) is cast as irrational and hasty, with neutrality held up as the ideal.  Due in part to this tendency, survivors of sexual assault don’t think they’ll be believed, or they fear that ‘concrete proof’ will be demanded of them—even by friends and family—and often they’re right.  As Ruth Davenport writes:

Women, it seems, must always have an agenda. We don’t actually slap scarlet letters on them anymore, but thanks to the internet, women who accuse a man of any kind of misbehaviour risk having not only their identities exposed and publicized, but also an eternal water-torture drip-drip-drip of daily character assassination.

Refusing to file a formal complaint – the decision made by approximately nine out of every 10 sexual assault victims isn’t a case of modesty or manipulation – it’s simple survival. And modern rape culture is thriving on it.

This focus on “due process” is linked to policing, courts, and incarceration.  It naturalizes these systems as the only way of responding to sexual assault.  As Vikki Law recently argued, this carceral mindset justifies the expansion of policing and prisons (especially in poor communities of colour), and discourages grassroots, community-based responses and long-term organizing against gender-based violence.  This is not to say that survivors shouldn’t report rape as a crime, or that supporters shouldn’t support them doing so.  The point is that this legalistic mindset gets in the way of supporting survivors, unlearning rape culture, and organizing to dismantle it.

4. Casting the concept of rape culture as alarmist, conspiratorial, or crazy

A few months ago Jian Ghomeshi actually hosted a “debate,” about whether rape culture is “helpful or even accurate,” in which Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute denied the existence of rape culture, claimed that drinking is the reason for sexual assault, and blaming women for being assaulted. MacDonald’s opponent, Lise Gotell, sounded shocked that she was put in a position where she had to explain things like “drinking doesn’t cause rape, it’s the decisions of rapists that cause rape.”  By constructing a debate around whether rape culture ‘actually’ exists, and legitimizing its detractors, Ghomeshi and the CBC framed rape culture as a suspicious idea, creating barriers to understanding rape culture and the ways it can be named, challenged, and dismantled.

This year, the wake of campus sexual assaults and misogynist violence at Canadian universities led to broader discussions about rape culture on campuses, spearheaded by feminists, and this elicited an anti-feminist backlash.  Detractors have suggested that the concept of rape culture is a fanatical misunderstanding of culture and norms. Quotation marks are magical. In the hands of its anti-feminist critics, rape culture becomes “rape culture”—a strange and distorted view of reality, founded on irrationality and conspiracy. The same sentiments are circulating now, in relation to the recent scandal.  Reactionaries understand this tactic all too well, using it to frame issues like climate change: by turning it into a question of legitimate debate (“so-called climate change”), they’ve already scored a victory, because they derail any conversation about collective responses to the problem.

5. Constructing rapists as inhuman monsters

Part of rape culture is the persistent tendency to cast perpetrators of sexual assault as unredeemable monsters, and rape as an exceptional event.  The frenzy surrounding Ghomeshi reflects this: it is dramatic and revelatory, antagonistic and isolated. Either Ghomeshi a guilty monster or a hapless victim of slander.  Sexual assault is terrible, but it’s also pervasive. As Jane Kirby explains:

Young men are taught that rape means jumping out of the bushes, attacking a stranger, and violently forcing her to have sex with him. While this can be true, they often don’t know that 70 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and that they could rape their classmate, friend, girlfriend, or wife. They might not be sure what consent really means.

When sexual assault is understood as an exceptional act committed by monsters, it’s impossible to talk about the ways that it’s happening in our communities and amongst our friends, families, and co-workers.  This is not about policing the way that survivors talk about their perpetrators; they should use whatever words they want to.  Those who see rape as as something perpetrated by anonymous monsters (unsurprisingly) tend to be people who have never experienced sexual assault or supported those who have.  Like the perpetrators, they are usually men.  I used to think of rape this way, and I’m still prone to understanding sexual assault in simplistic, either/or ways.  But hearing stories of survivors makes very clear that rape and sexual assault happens between friends, family, and partners, and it’s complicated and layered.

Making rapists into monsters pathologizes rapists, searching for individualized ‘disorders’ rather than linking sexual assault to misogyny, male entitlement, and patriarchal socialization.  It also discourages perpetrators from being accountable for sexual assault.  Perpetrators are faced with the choice of being seen (and seeing themselves) as evil, inhuman monsters, or existing in a state of denial and doing whatever they can to discredit survivors who come forward.  If more men were capable of unpacking our relationships to rape culture and patriarchy, we could create more supports for perpetrators and be more proactive in addressing rape culture, without putting the onus on survivors and their supporters.  All this shit swirling around Ghomeshi could be an opportunity for more men, in particular, to join the many women, genderqueer, and trans folks who are interrupting rape culture and nurturing alternatives.


This was written by me (a man), but all of these points around rape culture—insofar as they represent meaningful insights—were drawn directly and indirectly from women, genderqueer and trans folks, and a few men. The fuck-ups are my own.



15 thoughts on “Five ways Ghomeshi reveals rape culture

  1. Paul Hockley

    Well … sort of.
    Rape culture is a real thing, but it is poorly defined and articles such as this only make things worse.
    First of all, although predominantly biased against women, rape culture is not entirely gender-specific. Anybody make any light-hearted references to “don’t drop the soap in prison” recently? You just perpetuated rape culture.
    The definition of rape culture is given here as “anything that normalizes unwanted, non-consensual sex” yet two sentences later the author asserts that rape culture presents “an idea of rape as isolated and exceptional” (which would be counter to the narrative that rape is everywhere). Well, which is it?
    Promoting sympathy for perpetrators and their reputations (at the expense of an accuser) is indeed a characteristic of rape culture. That is, unless a well-earned reputation is indeed borne out and the accuser turns out to lack credibility, in which case the broader principle of “presumption of innocence” demonstrates its essential value. And, you know … JUDGEMENT. There SHOULD be a high threshold of proof with regard to serious criminal allegations, to prevent a lifetime of good deeds being undone by unsubstantiated accusations.
    Ad hominem attacks against accusers are a common feature of rape culture. They’re also a feature of virtually every discussion on the interwebs, WHATEVER the subject matter or point of view. So, such tactics alone do not denote rape culture.
    That the author characterizes “remaining neutral and waiting for ‘all the facts’ “ as rape culture is simply wrong-headed and shows contempt for due process. He’s not even distinguishing between those who HIDE behind the process and those who are entitled to it. This is nothing more than a presumption of absolute and unarguable guilt, and due process be damned!
    The author then bemoans the placing of quotations around the term “rape culture” so as to marginalize and dispute the concept. Except that’s exactly what he did while referring to “all the facts”. Because, why let facts get in the way of accusations?
    Now, there are valid insights in this piece. Pointing out that criminal prosecution need not be the sole marker of “misbehaviour” is valid, especially due to the necessarily high threshold of concrete evidence needed to obtain a criminal conviction. But it’s not nothing.
    The piece excerpts Jane Kirby’s insightful comments about acquaintance-rape and consent, which merit particular attention in the context of the allegations against Ghomeshi. There are, in fact, degrees of sexual assault just as there are degrees of homicide. And there can be mitigating factors in all crimes, leading to varying degrees of guilt or innocence. But seemingly not in the eyes of this author. Unfortunately, most of this piece consists of little more than the author stating that “rape culture is whatever I say it is, because rape culture”. That is not helpful.
    So … is Ghomeshi guilty of committing rape? Is he guilty of perpetuating a rape culture? Is he being wrongly accused, and his life overturned based on consensual activities during his private time?
    As of this moment we simply don’t know.
    And articles such as this one do little more than perpetuate the harmful stereotypes that they seek to overcome.
    (btw, yesterday Dan Savage provided an especially useful perspective with respect to BDSM and consent.)

    1. Douglas

      A brilliant reply!

      I was going to make these points, but you beat me to it with your straightforward, thoughtful, and logical comment.

      It IS true that when discussing rape culture, the fact that men are sexually assaulted (by men or women) is pretty much always evacuated from the discussion.

      Cases in which men are assaulted by women are also treated much differently in the public eye. I remember an incident in Canada in which two women entered a taxi cab (one in the front seat, the other in back). The woman in the back seat pulled out a gun and forced the cab driver to receive fellatio from the woman in front seat. Discussions of that case all over talk radio provoked giggles and obtuse statements such as: “Man, if that would have happened to me, I would have whipped it out and said: ‘Hey, have at it!’… (yuk, yuk, guffaw)”

      It IS true that presumption of innocence, when the alleged perpetrator is male, goes right out the window. In this case ALL we have to go on right now is a Facebook statement by Ghomeshi (filtered by Navigator) and a recounting of anonymously made allegations (filtered by the Toronto Star’s Jesse Brown). Both of these accounts of what happened have not been subjected to any independent verification by any legal or law enforcement authority. And yet, with no substantiated information one way or the other, SO many people are expressing opinions defending/convicting either side, filling in the blanks in the story with elements tainted by their own personal biases. Some even feel they are able to already grant blanket credibility to either self-declared aggrieved party: the fact the accused is a man is enough for some to claim: “Well ya know, bitches be crazy!”/the fact the accuser is a woman is enough for some to claim: “Well he MUST have done it! After all, he’s a man!”.

      Both these extremes are… well… extremes!

      The blatant double standards when it comes to gender — men FIRST are assumed to be guilty/women FIRST are assumed to never lie — are an ugly aspect rape culture.

      For example: There is always a rush to defend an accuser’s right to anonymity in such cases due to potential for Internet harassment, but rarely is there ever a rush to defend an accused’s right to similar anonymity, on the same basis, until any investigation is concluded.

      At present, those accusing Ghomeshi are being shielded from potential Internet hate (say from rabid Ghomeshi fans and misogynists). So why must Ghomeshi, given that we are ONLY at the stage of allegations, be subjected to potential Internet hate (say from rabid misandrists) and having articles written about him in which some have already tried and/or convicted him?

      The rush to deny one their basic civil right to a presumption of innocence and due process are the rule, not the exception… and that too is an ugly aspect of rape culture.

      The recognition that lives can be, and have often been, ruined by malicious/vengeful allegations of assault (ex: The case of the swim coach in British Columbia) is rare. Sometimes, even the mere suggestion that this could be a possibility at play in any given case generates a massive pile-on and leads to cyber-bullying.

      In any on-line discussion about sexual assault, you will see: on-line pile-ons and accusations of “raping them all over again with your words” when one points out issues of breaches of civil rights/due process or lack of concrete information related to the accused (i.e. Was it OK to fire Ghomeshi at this time given the tiny amount of information available?), OR potential holes in the story of the accuser (I’d give an example, but we don’t have enough info about the allegations being made), OR a legitimate question about the potential motives of the accuser (i.e. Is this a case of revenge/retaliation after a relationship ended badly, or against the wishes of one of the involved parties?), OR a legitimate question about the manner in which the accuser has gone about making allegations (i.e. Why go anonymously to the press rather than file an official complaint?).

      You will also see on-line pile-ons and cyber-bullying, if one should commit the cardinal sin of “daring to express an opinion other than: ‘He did it! Hang him by his thumbs!’ ” while having a penis”.

      When you say: “That the author characterizes “remaining neutral and waiting for ‘all the facts’ “ as rape culture is simply wrong-headed and shows contempt for due process.”… I got whiplash from emphatically nodding in agreement. In what universe is a call to reserve judgment on guilt/innocence until even ‘SOME of the facts — if not ‘all the facts’ — are out equivalent to promoting rape culture?!?

      If rape culture is defined as: “anything that normalizes unwanted, nonconsensual sex. In other words, rape culture is anything that makes rape seem like it is not really rape”, there is a HUGE leap of logic required to state that standing for respect of one’s civil rights = making rape seem like it is not really rape.


      IF Ghomeshi did do that of which he is accused, I’d be first in line to say he must suffer the consequences. But IF Ghomeshi’s claim that this is a revenge thing is true, well it doesn’t matter because the revenge has worked: He has already lost his job and his reputation has already been dragged through the mud.

      When you think about it, if one was really hellbent on revenge and wanting to destroy someone’s life.. making an anonymous charge of sexual assault, in the media, without filing charges (so that one never has to be accountable for the claims being made, and so that one’s claims are never subjected to any rigor or real scrutiny) is a pretty genius way of going about it. The risk/reward ratio makes such a move quite attractive.

      Yet, even the idea of entertaining that though is equivalent to promoting rape culture.

      The best line of your reply, in my opinion: ” Unfortunately, most of this piece consists of little more than the author stating that “rape culture is whatever I say it is, because rape culture”. That is not helpful.”


      Especially when the only thing we can say for sure at this particular moment, given the lack of ANY substantiated facts, is that this thing is one big hot mess!

    2. confused

      I was also confused by the criticism of remaining neutral. This post states equates supporting survivors with picking sides, which I think is false. While neutral you can support the accusers and take their accusations seriously, but you should also support the accused by considering their rights and testimony until all the facts are in.

      The public simply doesn’t know enough about the accusers and the personal life of Jian Gomeshi to pass judgement yet.

  2. M K

    Paul Hockley – re: rape culture in prisons. Totally true. Rape culture in prison/jail, on sports teams, and in other male-only venues is often disregarded by joking away the discussion. The promotion of the “strong male” archetype obvsiously leaves some men vulnerable to silencing around their own trauma. Men are actually less likely than women to report sexual violence against themsleves (like, 4/5% compared to 6%, but still). But to get some perspective:

    StatsCan cites that women are 11 times higher than men to receive sexual assault.
    And instances of assault in jail average around 3%, with the highest at around 6%, compared with general rates of sexual assault against women being placed around 20-25% (again by Statscan).

  3. sjmcclelland

    I found this to be a thoughtful discussion of “rape culture.” There are some inconsistencies in the analysis, but it reveals a critical thought process, which I find is lacking in some discussions. There are also strong class/economic stereotypes at work in the Ghomeshi situation – witness the lack of support for the members of the University of Ottawa hockey team who were not, even after charges were laid against 2 players and the reaction to Honey Boo Boo’s mother’s new boyfriend – are jocks and poor people really more likely to be sexual predators than educated, well-off white guys?

  4. ohnwentsya

    Reblogged this on Spirit In Action and commented:
    This is very useful information-trigger warning for those with ptsd or similar issues though. I’m grateful to see people openly discussing and picking apart the deeply screwed up aspects of colonized patriarchal culture that mostly (lime white privilege) remain unconscious and hidden, therefore much more dangerous and destructive.

  5. The Urban Daddy

    Reblogged this on The Urban Daddy and commented:
    Very good post! It’s amazing the number of people who believed Jian’s PR written press release without giving a moment’s thought that there might actually have been a victim or multiple victims.

    Looking back know, as more women come forward it prompts me, and many others to think that he thought he could get in front of this… again, because of his celebrity / notoriety.

    This post is worth clicking through to read!

  6. Nathanael

    Don’t be so sure it isn’t a crime committed by unusual monsters. They’re slick monsters: more sociopathic liar than boogeyman. As such, they’re always embedded deep into your community.

    Rape culture means that even when we have multiple *independent* accusations, witnesses, etc. — well beyond a reasonable doubt — people still make excuses for the serial rapists. Seriously, this is like making excuses for arsonists (who usually seem like nice friendly people too).

  7. Gaby

    I’m a woman, and a mother of 4 daughters, so I definitely don’t want to promote rape culture or defend rapists or blame the victim, but I have a serious, honest question: if a man walks into your room at night, unexpected, and tries to force himself on you, why wouldn’t you a) run away; or b) lock herself in her bathroom; or c) scream your head off, throw things at him, kick, punch, bite, scratch and otherwise fight back? This is something I really want to understand.

  8. Pingback: Rape Culture | Whisper

  9. Bethany

    I recently read the book ‘The Passion of Artemisia’ about Artemisia Gentileschi who lived back in the renaissance as one of very few female painters at the time. Her experience of rape by her father’s assistant made her realize very quickly that the aftermath of rape for women (especially in that time period) is often much more traumatic than the incident itself. The glares, the social ostracism, the outright torture by those in power, and the distrust of any woman who admits to her debauchery. It’s amazing to me that human behaviour in the western world hasn’t really moved forward in women’s sexual rights since her time.


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