By Virginia Gilbert, MFT
What’s disturbing about Jian Ghomeshi, host of the popular Canadian show Q who was recently fired during a storm of sexual assault allegations, isn’t that he liked kinky sex. What’s disturbing is that he justified his abuse of women by attributing his egregious behavior to consensual BDSM practices.
Each of the eight women who’ve come forward with details of their relationships with Ghomeshi have told eerily similar stories of sexual encounters that were clearly non-consensual and that included the hallmark of exploitive relationships: an abuse of power.
While power dynamics exist in all relationships, healthy relationships take place on a reasonably level playing field. People don’t use age, status, money, or size to control their partners. One person doesn’t feel afraid to communicate thoughts, feelings, and needs. Both parties respect and accept each other’s boundaries.
Signs Of An Abusive Relationship With Ghomeshi
With eight women reporting being choked and struck during sex, Ghomeshi’s consensual sex excuse is rapidly losing credibility. Each of their stories includes these classic signs of an abusive relationship:
The women Ghomeshi groomed tended to be much younger, some by as much as two decades. They were “fans” that were in his thrall and perhaps were more willing to agree to sex acts they would not have agreed to with someone of comparable stature. Ghomeshi also must have realized that fans would be less likely to let the cat out of his bag than more socially prominent women, and less likely to be believed.
The Guardian ran a chilling first-person account by Ruth Spencer, a young woman who met Ghomeshi after she emailed him for advice. According to Spencer, he wined and dined her for five months during which he was alternately seductive and withholding, telling her she wasn’t “ready” for sex. She believes that the only reason the relationship wasn’t consummated was because she moved away from Toronto. Her description of his motivation and behavior is right out of the abuser’s handbook:
“I think he was pursuing and encouraging me because of the existing power imbalance, creating a level of emotional intensity as a preface to his ‘big reveal’ so that I would either acquiesce or never tell. He trained me to feel sorry for him, to feel guilty about not giving enough of myself to him, to believe I was special to him.”
Abusers are notorious for disregarding and violating boundaries. Not only do they not care about another person’s rights, but they often don’t grasp that another person even has rights. With the kind of ritualistic behavior Ghomeshi exhibited, it’s clear that he chose not to, or was unable to, read his partners’ cues.
Sane BDSM relationships involve carefully negotiated rules and expectations. The submissive partner actually has the most power because nothing happens without his or her consent. Healthy men who identify as dominant read their partners’ cues out of respect, not out of manipulation. The fact that Ghomeshi insisted that these women “consented” to have sex so rough that they nearly passed out and vomited demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the meaning of consent.
It’s hard to fathom that Ghomeshi could commit repeated, egregious acts of sexual violence on women and not realize that he was risking his career and reputation. What kind of person goes around raping and beating women, oblivious to the likelihood that at least one woman will eventually out him? The answer: someone who exploits his status and male privilege.
When the culture, and everyone in your life, colludes with your belief that you’re entitled to whatever you want, you think you can get away anything. Judging by the outlandish degree of risk Ghomeshi took every time he groomed and assaulted these women, it’s safe to say that he believed there were “special” rules for him that didn’t involve negative consequences.
Discrediting The Victim
The only way to convince people that the heinous thing you did was really not that heinous is to discredit the victim. A woman who blows the whistle on a wildly popular public figure risks her reputation. It is not something that any thoughtful woman would undertake lightly. To reframe sexual assault as “consent” and to reframe an abuse victim as a disgruntled ex-girlfriend not only discredits her veracity, but minimizes the value and rights of women everywhere.
Starting The Conversation Of Understanding What Sexual Consent Really Is
The only positive thing that might emerge from this horrific case of serial violence against women is that it’s created an important conversation about what consent is and what it’s not.