Focusing On Sexual Assault Victims Helps A Perpetrator Disappear
Many assumptions have been made about the contact that all three complainants initiated with Jian Ghomeshi following their alleged assaults, which they neglected to mention to the police or the Crown. Henein, Ghomeshi’s counsel, has implied that this means the victims were never assaulted, a suggestion which both women deny.
In sexual assault trials, evidence is often brought forth of victims communicating with the perpetrator or making statements that seem to downplay what went on. Such actions are in fact consistent with how victims often rationalize what was done to them.
While Christie Blatchford suggests that the lesson to victims is to report early, a 2011 study conducted by Karen Weiss shows that it is not that simple.
Weiss analyzed how victims sometimes turn the crimes committed against them into something innocuous, thereby neutralizing them into something not worthy of being reported. In fact, DeCoutere explained that she remained with, and even kissed, Ghomeshi after he allegedly attacked her as a way of neutralizing the situation.
According to Weiss, the specific ways victims reframe a crime are “denying criminal intent, denying serious injury, denying victim innocence and rejecting a victim identity.” These behaviours appear in the Ghomeshi trial victims’ testimonies.
“Making the perpetrator disappear is the point of focusing on victims in sexual assault cases. We focus on their responsibility, which makes that of the perpetrator harder to see.”
Denying criminal intent minimizes the perpetrator’s blame or perceives his/her actions to be unintentional. Often, battered women act this way.
DeCoutere, too, testified how she thought “it wasn’t Jian’s fault” and that she continued to contact Ghomeshi because maybe “this assault was a one-off.” She even likened her behaviour to “someone being assaulted by her husband and staying married to them.”
Denying serious injury minimizes the severity of the harm, for example when DeCoutere testified that she “thought assault meant that you were beaten to pieces.” She therefore did not go to the police because she “didn’t think this qualified.”
This is very common in acquaintance rape where victims fear police will not take them seriously, and the first victim testified that she did not go to police in 2003 because she thought no one would listen.
Denying victim innocence occurs when victims blame themselves for precipitating the event. DeCoutere testified that the letter she wrote to Ghomeshi after the alleged attack had a “weirdly apologetic tone like I had done something wrong.”
And she begins an email to Ghomeshi by saying that she fears she has pissed him off. Furthermore, she testified “I was blaming myself for putting myself in a dangerous situation. I went to his house.”
Rejecting a victim identity is when victims reject the vulnerability that comes with being a victim. Both victims only turned to police after reading that they were not Ghomeshi’s only victims.
Even so, DeCoutere testified that she had difficulty defining what happened to her. She thought that “to go to police you had to be broken and raped.” What would follow is a similar difficulty in defining oneself as a victim.
Nevertheless, rejecting a victim identity emphasizes victims’ strength and perhaps this is why DeCoutere chose to go forward publicly, bravely revealing her identity. Unfortunately, people often do not feel sympathy for victims who reject a victim identity because they do not perceive these victims to be vulnerable.
It is clear from their testimonies that the victims knew little about the criminal justice process — about how to report, when to report or how much they needed to include in their report. It is also clear that they could not recall many details of their post-assault contact with Ghomeshi.
As many have already explained, trauma does strange things to memory. When they gave their statements to police, the victims were most likely focused on the details of the alleged assault and the crime they were reporting, and not on how frequently they were in touch with Ghomeshi afterwards.
If the victims were not able or willing to recognize that the crucial elements of a crime had happened to them, because they neutralized or normalized them for so long, being in touch with Ghomeshi would not seem so strange.
But the details of the alleged assault which the victims focused on in reporting to police is the very thing Henein avoided asking them about. Instead, she remained singularly focused on their continued contact with Ghomeshi.
Making the perpetrator disappear is the point of focusing on victims in sexual assault cases. We focus on their responsibility, which makes that of the perpetrator harder to see, and we focus on their credibility, expressing doubts about their account.
As Vinay Menon put it, Ghomeshi seems to have vanished at trial.
Understanding how victims interpret sexual violence from their perspective also sheds light on how the perpetrator disappears in the process, and why the victims may have contacted the man that allegedly assaulted them instead of contacting police.