• What the Jian Gomeshi acquittal can teach us about victim blaming

    Yesterday former Canadian Broadcasting Company host Jian Gomeshi was acquitted of sexually assaulting three women. This morning one of Gomeshi’s accusers, Lucy DeCoutere, told The Guardian newspaper how the acquittal had affected her:

    [Gomeshi’s defense attorney, Marie Henein] told the court that I enticed him; that I had always been an attention seeker; that I was coming forward as an excuse to get interviews with the press… Henein’s barrage of questions sought to whittle away at my allegations by undermining my credibility. Her main argument was to show that the nature of my relationship with Jian after he assaulted me proved that I was an unreliable witness, and that my testimony couldn’t be counted on…

    Everything Henein asked me came back to one big question: why did I keep in touch with Jian? The answer is that it was my way of processing what happened to me, of neutralizing a volatile situation he created. But for her and the judge, it turns out, that wasn’t enough… All of the build-up, my 12 months of preparation, had come down to this: a letter I didn’t remember writing…

    I thought about how my own words, written 13 years ago, were now being used against me to argue that I had been complicit in my own assault.

    Much of what she said reminded me of my going public last year about how on New Year’s Eve 1975, the manager of my band, The Runaways, raped me and violated me with a hairbrush. He did so in front of a roomful of people, including several of my then-bandmates. It was an event I kept silent about for almost 40 years for fear of things like what happened to the Gomeshi accusers.

    DeCoutere calls the defense’s strategy “whacking.” But I know it by another name: “victim blaming.” And there’s a reason why even people who aren’t being paid to defend an alleged perpetrator do it. Most of the time, they aren’t  consciously aware that they’re doing it.

    As humans, we are hard-wired to prefer feeling good to feeling bad. When we have a choice about how to interpret an event, we unconsciously favor the one that lets us feel good—or at least less awful. Social psychologists call this the “wishful thinking” bias.

    There’s a corollary to this bias. We want to believe we live in a world in which actions have logical consequences and that those consequences are fair. Fairness makes life seem worthwhile and meaningful. The idea of random bad things—including sexual assault—upsets us. So unconsciously we look for ways to “balance the scales.”

    Psychologists have a name for this, too. They call it the “just world” fallacy. We feel better when karma seems to be at work–when good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. So even when we believe an accuser, we look for ways in which he or she was at fault or was otherwise not credible or simply not likable.

    My rape differed from what allegedly happened to the Gomeshi accusers in that I had multiple witnesses. But even some of them tried to “whack” me.

    One of the witnesses who originally confirmed to the Huffington Post that I’d been raped later said she thought I had been looking for attention on the night I was assaulted. Later she said I’d just gotten a little too loose with our manager and regretted it afterward. Eventually she said I’d orchestrated the whole thing—that I’d instructed my 36-year-old assailant (I was barely 16) how I wanted him to **** me.

    So I know something about what it’s like to be accused of being complicit in one’s own sexual assault. And DeCoutere is right—in many ways it’s more traumatic than the original assault.

    And like DeCoutere I, too, was accused of seeking publicity. Even people who had never met me felt entitled to call me a “media whore.” Others cited as “proof” I was making things up the fact that I stayed in the band–as if I was the one who should have quit the music industry rather than the man who raped me.

    But aside from the fact that I wanted to be a musician and it was men like my rapist who held the keys, there was another reason I stayed in touch with my assailant. I wanted to prove to both him and myself that he hadn’t broken me. It was my way of saying, “you tried your best to humiliate me—it didn’t work.” I was lying to myself, but it was what I needed to do to survive. It took me almost 40 years to admit just how devastating that night had been.

    Yet people expect sexual assault victims to understand this about themselves in the immediate aftermath of trauma. They expect such victims to make the decision they think they themselves would make, under circumstances most of them can’t imagine.

    They also expect sexual assault victims to maintain perfect recall of things that don’t really matter much after you’ve been assaulted—ordinary things most of us never pay that much attention to in the first place. Oh, you can’t remember what kind of car he drove that night? What else can’t you remember? You must not be credible.

    Yet I can’t fault the judge’s decision in the Gomeshi trial. He was bound by Canada’s law that alleged sexual assaults—no matter how similar–cannot be considered together. In this respect Canada is different than many U.S. jurisdictions, in which evidence of other assaults is often admissible to establish a pattern of behavior.

    It’s a rule of evidence Canada really should consider adopting. Serial predators rely on their victims’ shock and embarrassment. In cases in which alcohol or drugs are involved—as in many recent high-profile cases—victims’ inability to remember all the details clearly is just one more reason they don’t come forward. Often allowing evidence of other assaults is the only way to stop predators who might otherwise go free.

    My biggest takeaway from the Gomeshi trial, however, is that prosecutors need more training to understand what happens to people who are sexually assaulted. To expect someone to understand her own mind under the pressure of testifying is asking a lot of a person who has been traumatized. The psychology of trauma isn’t something they teach us in law school. Perhaps they should.

    The real problem with the Jian Gomeshi verdict, however, is not that Gomeshi was found innocent. It’s that Lucy DeCoutere was right when she says she never had a chance.

    Without that chance, what victim of sexual assault will ever want to come forward? But if victims never come forward, the unconscious biases about victims never get altered.

    And so the vicious cycle continues.