Author Archives: deterr

Intro to Joyful Militancy

Joyful Militancy

by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman


There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.

—Audre Lorde[i]

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints—such people have a corpse in their mouth.

—Raoul Vaneigem[ii]

Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be a militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.


This book is an attempt to amplify some quiet conversations that have been happening for a long time, about the connections between resisting and thriving, about how we relate to each other in radical movements today, and about some of the barriers to collective transformation.

There is something that circulates in many radical movements and spaces, draining away…

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Prison abolition meets food justice

In her article, “Radical Farmers Use Fresh Food to Fight Racial Injustice and the New Jim Crow,” Leah Penniman draws connections between the incarceration of black people, police violence, and the systematic use of hunger and malnutrition as a weapon wielded against black communities, pointing to the importance of food and land:

If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land. I believe that black people’s collective experience with slavery and sharecropping has created an aversion to the land and a sense that the land itself is an oppressor. The truth is that without good land and good food we cannot be truly free. The Freedom Food Alliance represents one important voice among many insisting that the senseless deaths of our black brothers and sisters by all forms of violence—police shooting, diet-related illness, economic marginalization—must end.

Penniman shows how these connections are being made by grassroots organizations that link the fight for food justice with the fight against the prison-industrial-complex and the new Jim Crow.  Penniman profiles folks like Jalal Sabur of the Freedom Food Alliance, a prison abolitionist who helped connect farmers, prisoners, and their families together in networks of self-reliance and resistance.

I won’t bother summarizing or excerpting more: read the article!  It’s short, accessible, and shows how these groups are drawing lessons and inspiration from past movements, and bringing together struggles and alternatives that often remain separate.

Summary of ‘Urbanizing Frontiers’ by Penelope Edmonds

Penelope Edmonds: Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th Century Pacific Rim Cities

urbanizingfrontierspicThis is a summary of a new book by Penelope Edmonds, comparing two settler colonial cities—Victoria in Canada and Melbourne in Australia—to reveal the operations of British settler colonialism in the 19th century, and its implications for settler colonialism today. She focuses on the ways that both cities increasingly regulated bodies and spaces in attempts to create civilized, British subjects, and to dispossess and discipline indigenous people and control and police indigenous bodies.  I drew heavily on Edmonds’ work in a recent piece I wrote about the acknowledgement of territories by Victoria’s newly-elected mayor, Lisa Helps, her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, and the racist backlash that followed.  Edmonds wrote an article called “Unpacking Settler Colonialism’s Urban Strategies,” which unpacks a lot of the book, especially as it pertains to Victoria, specifically.  It’s available here.

Victoria vs. Melbourne

I live in Victoria, so in this summary I focus in particular on Edmonds’ work on this city, with less of a focus on Melbourne. Compared to Melbourne, the dispossession and violence perpetrated in Victoria against indigenous peoples was more subtle and less overt. In Melbourne, pastoralism meant that indigenous people were quickly targeted for removal and elimination, whereas in Victoria, the mercantilist economy of resource extraction (especially the fur trade) meant that indigenous people were necessary, and they were much more a part of the emerging colonial city:

During the fur trade, there was great violence, but land was largely under the control of Frist Nations, because mercantilism left Aboriginal peoples on their land. Settler colonialism, by contrast, sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their land and denied or extinguished Native title. In the Australian pastoral frontier, land, not labour, was the primary object. It was an object that was pursued with rapidity and violence. (33)

Colonial Frontiers

Edmonds suggests that the ‘colonial frontier’ has been conceptualized as “a distinctly non-urban geographical space that sits somewhere out in the country or borderlands” (5). She shows how frontiers exist within urban spaces (through the segregation and contestations around spaces) and in intimate/bodily relations (through attempts to maintain the racial purity of whiteness and concomitant attempts to police indigenous bodies). These frontiers are “mercurial, transactional, and, importantly, intimate and gendered” (6). This is a counterhistory of Empire, which challenges the amnesia of settler colonialism, which makes its own processes seem natural and normal (to settlers, at least). This historical amnesia is political, writing out the dispossession of indigenous people, and the political processes and struggles that attempted to make Victoria into a white, propertied, bourgeois space. In this context, Edmonds explains that she seeks to “indigenize historical understanding of the settler-colonial city by focusing on human stories and individual lives transformed in the context of British colonizing structures and urbanization in the Pacific Rim” (9).


Edmonds notes how dominant histories create a top-down view of power, privileging narratives of individual white males and military engagements in a supposedly linear process of colonialism (6). These condition the idea of Victoria as it’s marketed to tourists, as ‘more English than the English’ which erases the way that space in Victoria was transactional, heterogeneous, and contested. Furthermore, Edmonds argues that geography and urban planning has tended to understand colonialism in functionalistic ways, focusing on the circulation of products and goods, omitting “the important human and cultural aspects of empire’s urbanizing landscapes: the displacements and transformations of peoples and ideas” (50).

Crucial to this counter-history is a conception of space and race as a processes, and an attempt to reveal the lived realities of these cities. Whereas race and urban space tend to be understood as natural or given, Edmonds draws on Henri Lefebvre’s work to show how space “is a process of uneven power inscription that reproduces itself and creates oppressive spatial categories” (10). In this sense, spaces are always contested: “the unequal distribution of power in social space becomes naturalized and its operations forgotten. That is, spaces obscure the conditions of their own production” (10). To write counterhistory and reveal the production of spaces, then, requires tracking the “generative processes” that make spaces work in the ways they do (11). In the case of both settler-colonial cities, these crucial processes included the “regulation, partition, and sequestration of Aboriginal peoples and attempts to control so-called mixed-race relatiosnhips” (12). Indigenous peoples were systematically constructed as nuisances and prostitutes, and indigenous spaces in the city were represented as bedlam, chaos, disease and filth. Edmonds argues that these categories are key to understanding the production of space in Victoria, and to understanding the process of settler colonialism more broadly.

Victoria was constructed as a white (initially Anglo-Saxon) space. Edmonds suggests that whiteness needs to be understood not simply as a skin colour but “as a strategy of power or a set of political relations” which is associated with property and the segregation of bodies (17). She explains that “shoring up a white settler population became a priority in both sites, especially after the 1860s” (45). This involved engineered immigration schemes to encourage Anglo-Saxon migration and discourage Chinese immigration.


The supremacy of settler society and the backwardness of indigenous peoples was legitimated by stadial theory, in which four various modes of production (hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce) conceptualized as hierarchical and successive forms of human progress. Specific to stadial theory was not simply the concept of different modes of production, or their hierarchy, but the linear telos: “pastoralists were not merely superior to nomads; they were so because they had once been nomads but were no longer” (58). This meant that indigenous lands were conceptualized as ‘wastes’, waiting to be improved by European agriculture and industry, and “the precondition for the highest stage of progress and commerce was the absence of Indigenous peoples in the city” (61).

The Douglas treaties were modeled on the idea that Indigenoups people had “the right of occupancy but not property”—their claims “extended only to their cultivated fields and building sites or villages” (42). These cultivated fields had to be enclosed to be considered cultivated, so this did not extend to camas fields. Legally, indigenous people could ‘pre-empt’ land within the terms of colonial law, by clearing it, fencing it, and building a house. Edmonds doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s striking that owning land requires clearing, fencing, and dwelling like settlers.

Edmonds only briefly discusses the cultivation of camas in and around Victoria (90-97) and notes that colonizers immediately saw camas meadows as future sites for agriculture (94). Edmonds traces early settler imaginings of land to show how they followed stadial accounts of “two modes of subsistence—the uncultivated inviting land and the land transformed by European agriculture” (96). The land that Douglas described as a ‘perfect Eden’ was most likely Meegan, or “Beacon Hill Park.” Settlers systematically appropriated these camas fields: wherever Europeans sought to settle on the islands of the Puget Sound, they looked for these open meadows… these fields that in fact had been cultivated by Coast Salish peoples” (96).

Edmonds suggests that the enclosure of these fields were closely linked to broader processes of dispossession and dominance:

the balance soon tipped in favour of the newcomers as the gradual encroachment of fields for cultivation, the grazing of livestock, and the allotment of lands pushed Lekwammen people off their lands and threatened the camas bulb fields on which they subsisted. A growing cadaster of European-style fields began to overcode Aboriginal land (98).

This encroachment was resisted by indigenous people, who “retaliated against the invasion by harvesting the settlers’ cattle” (98). When these tensions escalated, Lekwungen people threatened to attack the fort, and the HBC fired a cannon into the chief’s house (which was empty) as a demonstration of military strength. As Edmonds explains, this display of “sheer firepower” and outright violence “would be used repeatedly in Victoria and the surrounding area to elicit co-operation from local peoples” (98).

Settler-colonial cities

Edmonds points out that transnational colonialism made metropolitanism possible: the grand metropoles of Europe were produced through the exploitation of Europe’s colonies. The city was the epitome and consummation of colonialism as a complex assemblage, involving “specific styles of architectures, certain kinds of transport and communications, hygiene and the regulation of bodies” (61). This corresponded to the ideal subject of colonialism and universal history, Civis Britannicus: “Defined by and made through his global entitleemtns, civis Britannicus could make tranglobal journeys between British settler colonies, where he (not Indigenous peoples) would be configured as native” (64).

Abjection of indigenous spaces and bodies

A central focus of Edmonds work is the representations of indigenous peoples by colonial newspapers, authorities, and settler subjects. They were part of settler fears and anxieties about indigenous peoples. Crucially, they were connected to property values: indigenous peoples were represented as “nuisances” and their existence “render[s] property in their quarter useless” (191). The Native camps were inscribed with European medical ideas about racial hygiene, and posed “as the antithesis of the ordered, rational civil space of the gridded city” (197). This was part of a new set of regulations around contagious diseases in colonies, which “identified female prostitutes as the main source of contagion” (220). Indigenous womenThe medicalization and pathologization of indigenous people helped to erase the complicity of settlers in the theft of land and the policing of indigenous people, positioning settlers as virtuous, moral, and law-abiding (200). This went hand in hand with ongoing attempts to control space and increasing encroachments on the Lekwungen reserve, along with efforts to get control of it and remove indigenous people. Settlers fought about different strategies: missionaries and assimilation, expropriation, purchase, or ‘waiting until they became extinct’ were some of the options discussed. This finally happened in 1911, when a select number of families were paid ten thousand dollars each and forced to relocate (205).

The bridge between the reserve in Esquimalt and the fort in Victoria was a particularly prominent frontier, constructed as “a liminal space, a border between civilization and savagery” (202). Colonial authorities used surveillance and curfews in an attempt to enforce this partition, in an effort to keep indigenous peoples on the other side of the bridge: “they decreed that an Aboriginal person found on the wrong side of the bridge after 10pm could, at the discretion of the police, be searched and detained” (202). The reserve thus increasingly “became a space of confinement within the cityscape” (202). Edmonds also shows how vagrancy was largely a charge reserved for settlers who entered indigenous spaces: the partition was enforced on both sides, though settlers were always punished less severely (213).

This was part of a broad regime of surveillance and control in Victoria. Edmonds reveals the way that Douglas deployed the “civilizing power of the grid. The grid plan, with the help of police surveillance on every corner, he hoped, would both organize and discipline First Nations subjects and reshape their subjectivities (209). This was part of the shift to increasingly modern, disciplinary forms of power in settler colonial cities, relying less on overt and explicit violence, and more on policing and surveillance, including a formal pass system. At the same time, she notes that this disciplinary power was “backed by the exceptional violence of sovereign power” (209). If indigenous people didn’t conform to the grid and the regulated spaces of the city, there was always the possibility of execution, lashings, and other forms of violence.

In addition to its racialization, this violence was also gendered. Edmonds explains that “violence by European men against Aboriginal women was frequent and stunningly brutal” (215). In fact, her evidence is drawn primarily from police reports, which means she is documenting a high level of reported gendered violence, let alone that which was not reported, or ignored by police.

Edmonds sums up her argument about bodies and spaces:

As has been shown, in the early streeets of Victoria an dMelbourne, Indigenous peoples were routinely described as ‘inconvenient,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘nuisances,’ ‘vagrants,’ or ‘prostitutes,’ but to varying degrees. These categories, I propose, take us to the heart of the socio-spatial relations that are distinctive to settler colonialism and reveal how law and property served to racialize the streetscape. Racializations were not only amplified in these colonial contexts, they were also particular to the urbanizing settler landscape. In Malbourne and Victoria, Aboriginal peoples’s amps were not natural entities but spaces produced through colonial relations; likewise, colonized Indigenous bodies or subjects were materially produced as abject, unnautrual, and inconvenient entities. These productions, I argue, were directly related to the settlement phase, when the taking of First Nations land became a key objective (217).

Contact zones and resistance

Part of Edmonds’ counter-history entails revealing not just the dominant constructions of space, but also the ways that early settler colonial reality looked very different from the idealized, white, ordered spaces of the colonial imaginary. Edmonds seeks to “counter scholarship that posits colonialism as a unilnear projection from the metropole by denying the interactivity and subversions of the urbanizing frontier” (15). Settler colonial cities were (and are) “contact zones” which were contested and transactional. She also argues that indigenous women’s bodies were contact zones, and that “paying attention to indigenous womens’ bodies as particular sites of anxiety in the streetscape can tellus much about imagined colonial orders that were both imposed and defied” (16).

Indigenous people also resisted police authority. Among other incidents, in 1860, the newspaper reported that when police accused an indigenous man of stealing a watch and attempted to take him prisoner at an indigenous encampment, the police were “set upon by about one hundred men and women armed with pistols, knives, and clubs who demanded his release” (207).

Indigenous land-based education and embodied resurgence

Just listened to this interview with Leanne Simpson and Glen Coulthard about Dechinta, an indigenous land-based education course in Dene territory. The Decolonization journal has a whole issue out this month on land-based education, available here.

Here is an excerpt from the interview, where Coulthard points to the limits of Western education and analysis, and the transformative power of indigenous land-based learning: “We’re trying to make these reconnections with students and our traditional territories in order to formulate a critical analysis of our colonial present and its effects in Denendeh and in the North. And it’s through those practices that we come to understand what’s wrong with the forms of colonial economic and political development in the North, insofar as they obliterate those relationships of reciprocity that dictate our understanding of land.

You can get only so far teaching in a primarily cognitive sort of way through ‘traditional’ sources and literatures that you use in university. I found as an instructor – who also learns so much every time I go – that I didn’t really get, for example, the critique offered by the Dene of capitalism in the seventies, until I started that experiential kind of relationship with the land through these land-based practices. I had learned as much as I could in the archive, talking to people, and reading about that history, but it was only when I started to commit myself to re-learning those practices and re-embedding myself in those social relationships with place, that I understood in a more concrete and embodied way, what was wrong with the forms of economic development that have come to be dominant in the North and elsewhere.”


This is the edited transcript of a conversation that took place in Edmonton, AB on October 18, 2014. You can listen to the full conversation with the MP3 above, or read the transcript below!

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What You Mean By #AllLivesMatter

From Black Millennial Musings:
“#AllLivesMatter is a capture of colorblindness that goes against the purpose of #BlackLivesMatter. As Black Americans in the racial justice struggle and promoters of the roots embedded in #BlackLivesMatter, we already know and agree that all lives matter. But we also know that injustices stemming from police brutality and the conglomerate criminal justice system, does not marginalize against all lives … but Black lives, almost exclusively.”

Black Millennials

Following the death of Trayvon Martin, three self-identified Black queer women created #BlackLivesMatter. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi gave birth a social media call to action, where people from all demographics and walks of life hone in on the obvious truth that the criminalization of Blackness is entertained as just and acceptable.

Alicia Garza penned “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” In it, she poignantly showcases how the labor of Black LGBTQ women has been shamelessly hijacked by others who promote various adaptations and recreations of the necessary hashtag. Garza details how a number of organizations curtailed the herstory behind #BlackLivesMatter, and instead used some form of the expression without giving credit.

“Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions.  Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different…

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Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

Most of us are tired of hearing about Jian Ghomeshi. I am. This is not about him, though it’s partly inspired by responses to what I wrote about the whole thing.  The debates about him have opened up space to talk about rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and how to deal with gender-based violence in our everyday lives (because it’s happening around us, whether we experience it or not).  It’s an opportunity for men, in particular, to take a more active role in all this, because if we’re not the perpetrators, we’re rarely active in preventing violence or supporting survivors.  As a man, I’m learning about a bunch of this for the first time, primarily from women who’ve been dealing with it because they have to. I think the public debate is an opportunity to notice some patterns and look around for alternatives. Here are three:

We are in rape culture; it’s in us

There are a lot of statements beginning with “I’m against rape culture, but…” People (usually men) then go on to say all kinds of things that reproduce rape culture. We don’t have all the facts, the women might be lying, this is someone’s private life, etc, etc. When these are pointed out and linked to rape culture, there are all kinds of contortions to explain how we really meant something else, and we’re all really against rape culture.

But if I admit that rape culture is pervasive, then (especially as a heterosexual man socialized into patriarchy), rape culture is something I’m struggling with and hopefully against, some of the time, not something I can oppose because I say so.  A lot of these conversations start and end with these debates and contortions, so they don’t feel very productive, and this is often taken as proof of the inadequacy of feminism. But this is the inadequacy of our engagement with feminism.  Feminism isn’t a stance, it’s a complex array of habits, behaviours, ways of thinking, and collective practices.  How can men welcome criticism?  How can we allow ourselves to be implicated?  How can we have more of these conversations with each other, more often, so that we don’t derail other conversations about supporting survivors or preventing sexual assault?  This is men’s work, a nascent movement to engage men in conversations—and action—around patriarchy and gendered violence.

Neutrality is not complexity or nuance

Another common pattern shares anxieties about the insistence that we should believe survivors.  Others have felt it important to remind everyone that false accusations of rape do exist.  There has been lots of analysis that shows how these sentiments are connected to rape culture.  But something else is going on here too.  When these statements are confronted, feminist analyses of rape culture are cast as simplistic and vicious.  Believing survivors is often contrasted with a more ‘complex’ stance that could productively deal with the conflict.  This ‘more complex’ stance is almost never elaborated, and when it is, it’s usually the simplistic fence-sitting stance, either filled with anxiety and indecision, or with cold neutrality.

The fetishism of law

This ‘neutral’ stance usually falls back on the law. It either assumes that perpetrators will be prosecuted (innocent until proven guilty!), or it takes on the mindset of a judge within the Western legal system as a way of seeing conflict. Judges seek a place of neutrality, with the assumption that they’ll eventually parcel out blame and punishment. Believing survivors gets conflated with rushing to a legal judgement. It’s true that believing survivors is a barrier to neutrality, and that’s why legalistic approaches tend to retraumatize survivors and enact new forms of violence. Feminists such as Andrea Smith have challenged this fetishism of law, pointing to the ways that law continues to uphold genocide, dispossession, exploitation and violence.  “Rather than uphold the law,” she argues, “indigenous feminism demands that progressives work against the law.”  In this sense, believing survivors isn’t a barrier to complexity; it’s the beginning of actually being able to address sexualized violence in our communities.  So what would collective, compassionate responses to sexual assault look like?  What would it mean to move beyond individualistic, principled stands?

Alternatives exist

There are already a bunch of collective responses to these questions, and unsurprisingly, they come out of feminism.  More specifically, they come out of queer, indigenous, and anti-racist feminism. Genderqueer and trans folks, communities of colour, and indigenous communities have spearheaded most of these experiments, often with the recognition that cops and courts consistently compound violence in their communities, rather than alleviating it, so there’s less willingness to rely on the law and legalistic thinking.

The Revolution Starts at Home is a compilation of insights from folks who have confronted intimate partner violence.   Numerous communities have developed collective responses to violence, which involves establishing alternatives to policing and incarceration while building supportive communities in the process, and reducing reliance on the legal system, often under the mantle of transformative justice.  INCITE!, a collective of women of colour, has organized around this for over a decade, and has developed an extensive set of accessible resources.  In some places, men are also taking more initiative to work with perpetrators and unpack rape culture amongst themselves, while trying to figure out how to be accountable to those most impacted by gender-based violence.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are already nascent alternatives to rape culture; we don’t have to start from scratch.  We can learn from them, nurture them and proliferate them.  In recent days, I’ve seen some men (and women) set themselves apart from feminism, claiming that it lacks complexity, nuance, or kindness.  I’ve done this a bunch.  But when I perceive feminism to be lacking complexity, I’m consistently reminded that this is my own failure to engage with feminist movements in more complex ways.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t simplistic analyses written by feminists.  Feminism isn’t a monolith, and there are plenty of contradictions.  But men (especially white, heterosexual, middle-class men) consistently position ourselves the ones who see complexity, nuance, and other possibilities, casting feminism (and feminists) as inadequate.  We rarely approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.

The real complexities—and concrete possibilities—have been developed by those who are resisting the interconnected systems of rape culture, incarceration, heteropatriarchy, policing, ableism, colonization, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and environmental degradation, among others.  Feminism is plenty complex.


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.