Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Ghomeshi Redux: Where do we go from here?


Photo by Damien D.

Now that Jian Ghomeshi has been charged with five criminal offences, including sexual assault and choking, what can we learn from this case, and more importantly – what can we do to make sure this does not continue to happen? We know that Ghomeshi was not the first media star to use his sense of entitlement to hurt women. Many white men especially, in all walks of life, use their entitlement, and power and privilege to get what they want from women. About Ghomeshi, we know this: at least four women have publicly condemned Jian Ghomeshi for using violence, sexual coercion and threats against them. Women have revealed that on their dates, he forced them to have oral sex, that he choked and hit them. In the last two months, Ghomeshi’s history and reputation of lewd and violent activities against women (and at least one man) have been exposed. Some of the events took place years ago when he was an undergraduate student at York University.

Many of the women who have spoken out are 15 to 20 years his junior – in their mid-twenties or thirties, often with jobs in the media. Some either wanted a chance to work on Ghomeshi’s top-rated arts program, Q, or wanted jobs or promotions in the media fishbowl of Toronto. Despite the fact that the CBC (and private radio and TV) has shrunk to a shadow of its former self (more than 5,000 jobs lost since 2008, according to the union, the Canadian Media Guild), and landing a full time job is as rare as hen’s teeth – many qualified women continue to flock to work in the media. The jobs are often part time contracts, with rather low wages and no job security but they could be a foot in the door. Women, more than men, tend to be consigned to precarious jobs– even in the media. That is why some women sought the help of a ‘star’ like Ghomeshi to open the door a crack.

Women graduate at record numbers with degrees in journalism, communications and English. Typically, their credentials include having done hundreds of volunteer hours, low or unpaid internships in broadcasting and other media outlets, and experience in script writing, editing and production. But, on the whole, they don’t get the permanent and senior jobs. And when they get older, they frequently find themselves pushed out of their jobs. For example, at the BBC in the UK, leading women journalists with 30 years’ experience are frequently given a severance package and pushed out the door. In a recent front page exposé in Britain’s The Guardian, a leading woman journalist revealed the reality of working for BBC Current Affairs in this way “I saw guys my age thriving. Women were gone. I, too, was being rubbed out.” With 30 years’ experience she was pushed out the door with a severance package. She also had to sign a “gag clause” saying she would never reveal she was pushed out because of her age.

In Canada, women are underrepresented in many skilled occupations in Canada. Only 48% of high school principals in Ontario are women, despite the fact that women account for more than 55% of the teachers; in 2011. Only 32.6% of all full time professors are women, yet more than 46.7% of PhD candidates are women. Only 21.7% of full professors (the highest rank) are women. Fifty-one percent of women become partners in law firms, yet 71% of men ‘make partner’; women lawyers are paid on average 15% less than men during their crucial earning years between the ages of 30 to 40. Women who become medical doctors are concentrated in the lower paying specialties such as family practice, psychiatry and pediatrics.

What has discrimination against women in work got to do with Jian Ghomeshi? He was a media star, who for seven years hosted one of the top-rated programs on CBC radio. He, like many other white guys who feel entitled to their lofty positions, hung around with a lot of other powerful and successful men. Some underemployed women, or those in precarious jobs in the media, became increasingly desperate; some even asked for his help to land a contract, or a job. There is no evidence that Ghomeshi lifted a finger to help even one of the women he tried to seduce or abused. But he led them to believe he would do something. He took advantage, he used and abused simply because he could.

We’ve seen it before. This is the casting couch. Men like Ghomeshi feel entitled; they take advantage by using their positions to get sex, and do what they like to women. It was an open secret that Ghomashi was sometimes violent, and a bit crazy. Some women knew and warned others. But women were still flattered. When he asked them out; they tried to be nice. Ghomeshi, though he could be a charmer, all too frequently turned out to be a bad date, a bad john, a nightmare for women. In fact no woman he dated has come forward in his defence.

Of course he’s not the only one. Since the spotlight has been on Ghomeshi, many talented women have been blogging about their brushes with him, and with other entitled men who wield power. As one actress wrote, years ago when she was a young undergraduate student her harasser was a 45-year-old meek and balding university professor. After insisting she go on a movie date with him and ‘talk dirty’, he offered her a final grade of 100% in exchange for sex with him. Terrified, she dropped the course and ran.

Power propped up by entitlement is what all these men have in common and what they cling to. When was the last time you heard of a man without power – no financial power, no social power, no psychological power, no physical power – wielding the big stick that the professor, and Ghomeshi did?

Ghomeshi maintains he is not a monster, just a flawed human being. But we are all way past this. In fact so way past it, that there is not one job or career I can think of that will employ Ghomeshi – in the medium or long term. He was the darling of the Canadian media world, his program Q had just broken into the US market, but I doubt any broadcaster, or newspaper, or media outlet would hire him now. If he retrains to be a lawyer, a doctor or a professor, there is not one profession that would trust him around women (or men!). No school or college will employ him because he could attack female students – as he did in the stairwells at York University twenty years ago. By now he is so reviled, no institution, no NGO, no government bureau will take a chance on hiring him. Yes, he’s written one book, his premature autobiography. Perhaps a publisher will take a chance on a second book – but that can’t restore his fortune or fame.

I’m not feeling sorry for him. But will making Ghomeshi a non-person correct the fundamental question of entitled men wielding power? I don’t think so. How often do I, as a feminist professor, allow male university students to dominate in classroom debates? Why do I ignore female students when they defer to male students in group work? How often do I raise the issue of women, rights and power in lectures? Do I ever warn women students of what they can look forward to in terms of harassment and discrimination in almost any future job? Do I suggest women students stay away from male business mentors? Do male professors, male teachers, male social workers ever own up to their roles in what is really going on? I doubt it.

Recently, a mild report in the Toronto Star revealed that more than 20 male physicians in Ontario had been found guilty of sexual misconduct against women patients in their care. As punishment, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons forced the doctors to display a sign at the front desk in their offices which says “Important Notice: Dr (X) may only treat male patients.” These doctors are now forbidden from treating 51% of the population – women! What is this saying?

It is saying that doctors are powerful and respectable, and they deserve to have their cake and eat it too. Just because they treated women indecently and with contempt, does not mean they should lose their livelihoods and their status! They can still practice medicine, but only on men. It seems society won’t easily deprive doctors of their careers—least of all when the offences are only against women.

So what can we do? The usual response is ‘educate.’ But we see that on the university campuses at least, all the education, the anti-harassment policies, and anti-bullying workshops have not had much effect on men. Universities are places where education is supposed to mean something. For instance, in the UK, the men’s rugby team at the ivy-league London School of Economics handed out misogynist leaflets in October at the start of the current academic year. The leaflets called LSE women ‘slags’, ‘birds’ and ‘trollops’. LSE’s women athletes were described as ‘beast-like’. Also this autumn, University of Nottingham first year students were videoed as they sang about rape and sexual assault – here is one verse:

Fuck her standing, fuck her lying, If she had wings I’d fuck her flying Now she’s dead, but not forgotten, Dig her up and fuck her rotten

A rugby club at Durham University did much the same. Last year an event advertised to first year students at Cardiff Metropolitan University included a poster with these words: “I was raping a woman last night and she cried.” Nothing much was done in any of these cases, yet universities are quick to admit there is often a spike in sexist incidents during Frosh week.

In the US, students at a Yale University fraternity freely used this chant, “No means Yes and Yes means Anal.”

At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS where I teach, there was a rape chant singalong for first year students, led by students handpicked (and paid) by the student council. It was posted on Youtube. Students shouted “No means Yes and Yes means Anal” as well as the following:

Y is for your sister/O is for oh so tight/U is for underage/N is for no consent/G is for grab that ass.

If more sexist, outrageous and possibly illegal activity took place during Frosh week no one knows, or no one is telling. But at Saint Mary’s, the student council president was pressured and resigned. Then four months after the university administration issued warnings, mounted training workshops and made 20 recommendations on “cultural changes to prevent sexual violence”, the Saint Mary’s University football team sent out foul sexist tweets. Here is an example: “That bitch bit me last night. Hope your [sic] dead in a ditch, you are scum.”

Just over a year ago, I personally witnessed a hazing ritual in which members of Saint Mary’s women’s soccer team wearing skimpy clothes and short skirts danced on picnic tables in the public quadrangle. They chanted “fuck you” at anyone who walked by. When I dared to question it, the boyfriend of one of the women who seemed to be the ringmaster of the event told me it was none of my business because the women had agreed to do it. Incidentally, the house where one of the Saint Mary’s women’s sports teams lives is called “’HoHouse” – no one’s put a stop to that either.

Late last summer, some male students at Carleton University wore “F*ck Safe Spaces” muscle shirts to show they didn’t agree that women needed a safe space on campus. The t-shirt came to the attention of a female lawyer walking near the campus who, disgusted, alerted the media.

The male students on university campuses are not ‘powerful’ in that they are not rich. But they feel entitled to have status, and position. Somehow they learned that they are or think they will be ‘masters of the universe’ and that they can call the shots. Their mis-education, which began in their families, or in their earlier education, or in their social relationships—and in the university – is evident. They look to male role models, their professors, the top administrators, rich businessmen, and politicians. To those in power, they tend to ‘kiss up and kick down’ to those below – such as women. After graduating, some will receive a serious dose of power through a successful job, earning money, fighting to get ahead, or being well-known or even famous. Like Ghomeshi, it’s the women they will kick.

So what can be done? To address this let’s think about a different situation which required about 50% of adult Canadians to change their behaviours almost overnight. Remember when it was perfectly legal and acceptable to smoke anywhere and everywhere – in bars, in cinemas, in restaurants, in university lecture halls, in sports stadiums, in buses, in shops, in the rear of airplanes and even in hospitals? Suddenly almost overnight, municipality after municipality passed laws banning smoking in any public places. Smokers became pariahs; the rate of smoking fell drastically over the next decades. Now, after 25 years of the ban on smoking, no one would dream of lighting up inside any public venue.

Maybe we need to the same attitude toward men doing power. We don’t have laws, but maybe we need some rules. For example:

  • On TV and radio interviews, on platforms, at political meetings, and at any presentations, if there is no woman speaker, then the event doesn’t take place. The interview is forgone, the political meeting is cancelled. One cannot get around the rule by using a woman as ‘window-dressing’, to host or emcee the event.
  • Any sports team that has one or more members who have sexually assaulted, verbally assaulted, sent out tweets or posted anything misogynist on social media gets banned from playing their sport for a minimum of six months.
  • Any person in public office, if found to have engaged in harassment, assault or another form of misogyny (such as the two Liberal MPs if the allegations are proved against them) has to make a public apology and write an open letter of apology to the woman or women he targeted. The letter also has to be published in a display advertisement in a national newspaper.
  • Women get to speak first, in classroom discussions and in question periods at public events. Men should not be allowed to monopolise these forums.
  • It may be too late to put a stop to what Jian Ghomeshi has done, it’s not too late for the rest of us. We have to make a start to end men wielding power over women.

    Judy Haiven is an Associate Professor in the Management Department at the Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. She is also the chair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia.


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