By Beth A. Robertson
On the evening of October 26th, I found myself staring at a computer screen, dumbfounded and confused. What I had unwittingly come across was Jian Ghomeshi’s bizarre facebook post that told a story of him being fired from the CBC because of his private sex life. He argued that he was let go when the CBC learned of his enjoyment of “rough sex”, and that a jilted past lover was attempting to launch a “smear campaign,” that recast his sexual tastes as non-consensual. A Toronto Star article published shortly thereafter made the story even more bewildering, as it told of an investigation of Ghomeshi over the last several months involving not just one, but four women whose claims ranged from sexual harassment to violent abuse. Within hours, social media was filled with polarizing discussions of whether or not the allegations were true, with many people deciding to “side” with Ghomeshi. This seemed the case even as evidence mounted against Ghomeshi’s version of events, alongside sex activists and thinkers who problematized his claims that he was a sincere practitioner of BDSM.
A total of nine women have come forward since then to tell of violent sexual encounters with Ghomeshi, including Canadian actress Lucy DeCoutere, as well as author and lawyer Reva Seth. A formal police investigation of Ghomeshi has ensued. And now, a number of Ghomeshi’s staunchest advocates have toned down their once vocal support, the most famous being singer-songwriter Lights, who has since severed ties with Ghomeshi.
The unfolding scandal surrounding Ghomeshi has rightly led to broader discussions about women and sexual assault, perhaps the most pressing being how women are systematically disbelieved and even shamed when they do come forward. An important part of this story is the historical gendering of truth-telling and the consequences of this legacy for women, especially for those who experience sexual violence.
Steven Shapin, in his influential work A Social History of Truth, studies how the concept of factual knowledge historically took shape in seventeenth-century England, particularly examining the sort of person who could allegedly be trusted to provide a reliable account of the world. This person was the “gentleman” whom “one could trust to speak truth.” (xxvi) Due to class privilege, this particular type of man was less restricted, and thereby less influenced, by social pressures as a result of the power he wielded in the society more broadly. The gentleman was therefore in a position to speak truthfully, it was believed, rather than be unduly swayed by others. Shapin charts how this sense of trust shifted to institutional expertise in the modern era. Yet, considering how women were marginalized from such institutions (as Ruth Watts describes, for instance) this gendering of trustworthy knowledge never went away.
Much as Evelyn Fox Keller, Donna Haraway, Londa Schiebinger and others have identified, women were consistently placed at the margins of this truth-telling exercise, at best serving as metaphors for the natural world of which men, and particularly the male scientist, needed to explore and probe, even violently so. In fact, the language that was used to describe scientific fact-gathering often invoked misogynist and sexually violent metaphors, such as “the tearing of Nature’s veil,” as Fox Keller tells in her book, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death.
In contrast to the active, diligent and uninfluenced upper-class man, women were positioned as the exact opposite. They were innately subjective and highly suggestible. More so, if women were perceived as not living up to certain standards of feminine respectability, they were construed as even less reliable. In other words, if a woman was sexually active, dressed or behaved in a particular way, or was judged to be too assertive, she was deemed untrustworthy. Not coincidentally, these same characteristics in a woman justified sexual violence against her, as historians such as Karen Dubinsky have illustrated.
With this history in mind, it is little wonder that so many jumped to Ghomeshi’s defense, even when their support implicitly cast his women accusers as liars. Reading Reva Seth’s account of the reasons why she did not go to police, including that she “had had a drink or two, shared a joint … and had a sexual past,” thus makes a bit more sense in light of how women have been viewed over hundreds of years. An historical distrust of women, particularly of women who are bold enough to speak up, runs deep in our society and plays a pivotal role in a culture where sexual violence against women is not only common, but disturbingly normal.
Beth A. Robertson, Ph.D. is an historian of gender, sexuality and the body who teaches with the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University. Her SSHRC funded dissertation, entitled In the Laboratory of the Spirits: Gender, Embodiment and the Scientific Quest for Life Beyond the Grave, 1918-1935, examines a transnational network of interwar psychical researchers from the perspective of feminist technoscience and queer theory.