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Rights + Justice
Gender + Sexuality

‘It’s All Messy. That’s the Truth’: A Reporter Takes Stock of #MeToo

Robyn Doolittle’s new book examines a critical moment in our culture’s views on sexual assault.

Dorothy Woodend 14 Nov 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

I remember very clearly where I was when the Jian Ghomeshi story broke. I was sitting in the gym at my son’s high school, watching a girls’ volleyball game and texting a friend. We were both in shock.

The story was hard to believe at first, and as more details emerged, it just kept getting weirder. Our texts fired wildly back and forth — Lucy from the Trailer Park Boys, allegations of rough sex and choking — all involving the CBC’s woke radio superstar.

That moment of goggling surprise came to mind again recently, while I was reading Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle’s new book Had It Coming: What’s Fair in the Age of #MeToo?

Since Ghomeshi, the #MeToo hits haven’t stopped. They’re still pounding the global stage with former U.S. movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was arrested last year and charged with rape and other offences in connection to complaints from a multitude of women. Recently, we’ve seen writer E. Jean Carroll suing U.S. President Donald Trump, former American congresswoman Katie Hill stepping down after her former-husband released explicit photos, and closer to home, the Kelowna RCMP deeming more than 40 per cent of sexual assault reports “unfounded.” With new sagas breaking every day, it’s hard to know where to start, much less where it might eventually stop. It’s question that Doolittle grappled with from the outset in writing her book.

“Where the hell do you start, and what do you cover, what are you even trying to say? That was a challenge, and I was nervous as well. I know what I wanted to say, and I knew people are going to be angry about it.... You even don’t want to say that you have a solution,” she told me over breakfast recently.

It’s hard to see seismic social change when you’re right in the middle of it. The Ghomeshi story is a case in point. When it first came out in 2014, I remember people staunchly taking sides. No one quite understood what was happening, as lurid details spilled out on social media. It’s only with time and analysis that the true shape of the thing becomes clear.

Within the bigger picture of the #MeToo moment, the ground is still moving.

In this context, Doolittle’s incisive, impeccably researched and deeply honest book is a brave attempt to get a sense of where we are now and where we might be headed. There’s some good news and some bad.

To start, the book doesn’t “shy away from the tough questions that the movement has raised,” as Doolittle notes in her introduction. That’s different from how many people operate today — firmly in their silos, immutable in their positions.

Doolittle has been immersed in these issues for a long time. Her 2017 investigative series Unfounded, published in the Globe and Mail, uncovered truly shocking statistics around sexual assault, including the fact that police in Canada dismissed more than 20 per cent of sexual complaints on the basis that they were unfounded.

But in Had It Coming, Doolittle goes much deeper, looking not only at recent events but seeking to understand from where these institutional, cultural and social behaviours first emerged. To be blunt, this shit runs deep, right back to biblical days.

But humans are also constantly evolving, and they tend to change their minds a fair amount. This is especially true in the sexual arena. By way of illustration, Doolittle draws on her own reaction to a 2003 news story.

That year Kobe Bryant, an NBA all-star, was accused of sexual assault by a teenage hotel worker, who claimed that after giving the basketball star a tour of the hotel, she had gone into his room, where she said he choked and then raped her. The details of the case were terrible enough, but what happened afterwards was even worse. The press leaked details of this young woman’s sexual history, painting her as an emotional party girl, diminishing the seriousness of the charges. The case was dropped when the young woman refused to testify, although a civil suit was later settled out of court.

When the story broke, Doolittle was a year younger than the complainant in the case. As she writes in her opening chapter, she was adamant in her dismissal of the woman’s story: “Well, what did she expect going to a hotel room with an NBA player?”

In taking stock of where we are, one has to look backwards and forwards and also deep inside to where humans — both men and women — are hardwired for uncertainty, misunderstanding, confusion and self-interest.

Many of the book’s most fascinating sections are dedicated to the redemption question. Herein Ghomeshi’s story resurfaces with his article “Reflections from a Hashtag,” his abortive attempt at a mea culpa in the New York Review of Books. The words flaming dumpster fire are apt here. The ensuing conflagration around the essay also took down editor Ian Buruma, who explained his decision to publish Ghomeshi in an interview with the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland. “It is rather ironic: as editor of the New York Review of Books I published a theme issue about #MeToo offenders who had not been convicted in a court of law but by social media.... And now I myself am publicly pilloried.”

As Doolittle writes of Ghomeshi’s faux apology, “People didn’t believe that he was sorry about anything except losing his status.” But other people covered in her book undertake more genuine change, including former justice Robin Camp.

Camp was removed from the federal court bench after he asked a woman who’d been sexually assaulted why she hadn’t simply kept her knees together. Doolittle’s interview with him forms one of the most curious chapters in the book. Over lunch and a couple of beers, Camp talks about undergoing sensitivity training that reshaped his understanding in a profound new way. But it’s not entirely a happy ending. “I do think he’s reformed, but the woman in the case isn’t doing better,” explains Doolittle. The second chance question is a thorny one as Doolittle says: “I talk to women who say it’s more work to think about it and be mad. It’s all messy. That’s the truth. Everything in this whole discussion is messy.”

Were there people who didn’t want to talk to her about these issues? Doolittle admits there were a few, but she was more surprised by the people who were willing to speak, including Susan Brownmiller. Brownmiller’s 1975 book Against Our Will was one of the first to talk bluntly about rape and its repercussions. A seminal spokeperson of the second wave feminists, Brownmiller came to public attention again in the #MeToo moment when she stated that women should exercise more caution than men when it came to excessive drinking.

“How is it that this woman, who was viewed as being such a radical feminist, [was] being viewed as problematic? I see her being slagged on social media. I get it, but is it really fair? She’s in her 80s,” said Doolittle. “Can we give space to someone for having outdated views? She’s lived a different life.”

Doolittle explains her own take: “I’ve gotten really drunk at university parties and put myself in dangerous situations. I remember being in my 20s and thinking it was a feminist act to drink as much as my male friends. That is completely unsafe and stupid. How many near misses have I had in my life?”

Alongside our own personal developments, the larger culture is also changing. It’s a phenomenon that you stumble over when you revisit something you once loved only to find it irrevocably altered. In her book, Doolittle writes about re-watching the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin and seeing it very differently in the current moment. It’s an experience that I, along with a lot of other women, have had.

It’s like your vision has changed, but it comes with a huge sense of grief. How do you let go of the things that you once loved, and where do you draw the line? Junk Michael Jackson, but keep Aziz Ansari?

To recap, actor, writer, producer and comedian Ansari was accused of ignoring non-verbal cues and pressuring a young woman into sexual acts on a date. She revealed her accusations in a 2018 article published in Babe Magazine. In the context of her book, Doolittle uses the Ansari story to examine consent, non-verbal communication, and the bone-deep conditioning that men and women are subject to, as well as how people understand and remember things very differently.

In the course of her research, Doolittle interviewed a number of clinicians and psychologists, including Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score, who believes trauma affects memory, as well as the structures of the brain itself.

In illustrating how unpredictable the effect of trauma can be on different people, Doolittle cites a famous experiment undertaken by Dr. Ruth Lanius, one of the world’s foremost experts on brain trauma, where a couple who had experienced a horrific car accident volunteered to undertake a brain scan. The couple were interviewed by Lanius and her team, and then read a script about the accident while in the scanner. Their brains reacted very differently. The husband’s frontal lobe lit up like a Christmas tree showing activation in the areas dedicated to planning, analysis and action. His wife’s brain scan, however, revealed something very different. In essence, her brain shut down, showing little activity at all.

It’s a telling example about how the brain reacts to horrific experiences. As Doolittle points out, the way in which sexual assaults and rapes are investigated is often reliant on the victim being able to clearly articulate the details and tell a coherent story. When a victim can’t voice what happened to her or explain her actions, investigators are often quick to dismiss the case. (As Doolittle’s own work revealed, one in five sexual assault complaints across Canada are dismissed or ruled unfounded, which is a much higher dismissal rate than for any other reported crime.)

As decades of research have indicated, when trauma is too great, the part of the brain dedicated to language often goes offline, hence the term dumbfounded. Memory gapes and sometimes disappears entirely.

I thought about E. Jean Carroll’s story about allegedly being raped in the changing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City by Donald Trump, and her inability to remember certain details, while others were indelibly incised into her recollection. Similar gaps marked the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford about her accusations that she was assaulted when they were both teenagers by Brett Kavanaugh, who despite Ford’s charges succeeded in his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is so much fascinating material in Doolittle’s book that it’s hard to summarize. But all of it makes you question your own ideas and opinions. In light of this, what kind of reactions have people had to the book?

“For the most part good. It’s funny, a lot of this stuff, people talk about in private, but they would never say it publicly,” Doolittle says.

Some critique has centered around the fact that she spent too much time talking about men and men’s stuff. “I understand where that’s coming from, because for decades, centuries, millennia, the views of women have not been heard. This is finally our moment, why are we talking about what men are thinking. But on the other hand, who’s doing the hurt? The men.”

I tell her that I really appreciated the fact that she looked at her own experiences and concluded, “I don’t have a definitive answer.”

“The stance that I’ve come to adopt, is that it might feel good to yell, but I don’t think anyone ever changed their minds after being yelled at,” she says. “The people with power, hold the levels of power, they’re the ones that can change the structure, and the systems in place, that are holding society at this point where this victimization still happens. And if we don’t get them onside, I don’t think anything is going to change.”  [Tyee]

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