[Editor's note: This piece first appeared on Sex Geek, and The Tyee republishes it here with permission.]
There's a scandal breaking in Canada. It's about BDSM -- bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Or is it? I'm not so sure.
Short version: Jian Ghomeshi is a wicked popular CBC host, and the CBC just fired him without disclosing why. He's retaliating with a $50 million lawsuit (unheard of in non-litigious Canada) and a demand for reinstatement. On Sunday, he made a Facebook post which discloses that he's kinky and about to be defamed by an unnamed ex-girlfriend and several other past dates she's recruited, who will insist that his behaviour was non-consensual. A couple hours later, I heard about a semi-recent xoJane article by Carla Ciccone detailing some very creepy behaviour on the part of an unnamed "Canadian C-list celebrity" whom many speculate is Ghomeshi. This article has apparently earned her a serious thrashing by trolls. Later Sunday evening, the Toronto Star posted an article detailing their interviews with four women who are remaining anonymous (for now?), three of whom have accused Ghomeshi of non-consensual sexual violence on dates, and one of whom, a former CBC colleague, has accused him of sexual harassment in the workplace. Read the linked pieces to get the information I'm currently working from here.
Here's where I'm coming from: I know who Ghomeshi is, but I've never seen or listened to his shows so I have zero opinion on him as a celebrity of any letter grade, or on his work, or on his personality. I know nothing about his sex life, his kinks, or his dating habits. As for me, I'm an unashamed, publicly out pervert and a staunch feminist. I'm also someone who keeps a close eye on how BDSM/leather/kink is discussed both within our many community fora and in the wider public. And thus far, I'm noticing a number of things that aren't quite adding up in this whole story.
It says something about the success of the BDSM/kink/leather community's public education work of the last decade-plus that Ghomeshi would take the gamble that the "it was consensual kink" argument would outweigh the "you're a filthy pervert" reaction in the court of public opinion. In a sense, this is a major triumph for us pervs. But in the Canadian context specifically, this strategy is not as risky as it might seem. We pride ourselves as being an open-minded society. The year 2005 brought us both same-sex marriage and a Supreme Court ruling that legalized swinging. These days, we're seeing broad public support for sex workers' rights even from political centrists, despite how the Conservative government seems determined to make a mess of them with Bill C-36. Harper notwithstanding, Canada's pretty hip when it comes to alternative sexuality, and a young, popular and very media-savvy broadcaster knows this.
A danger inherent in this kind of media-message success is that the "don't hate me for being kinky" defence will be used by people who perpetrate non-consensual violence, and that we, as a community, will stand by uncritically -- or worse, cry out in support -- as victims of violence are once again silenced. I don't wish to be complicit in someone's misappropriation of BDSM terminology and codes as a shield for rape and assault. So when this defence comes up, my immediate reaction is to listen very carefully, read everything I can find on a given instance, and hold back on my knee-jerk inclination to side with the "persecuted pervert." Persecuted perverts do exist, absolutely. But we don't know, until we hear the full story, whether that's what's really going on -- or if we're being thrown under the bus by someone who's no friend to sadomasochism.
In this case, Ghomeshi made a pre-emptive strike, setting the terms of the debate: don't demonize me for being kinky, even if you don't like my proclivities. But so far, this doesn't seem to be a scandal about kink at all. From Ciccone to the anonymous accusers, the women who are (or seem to be) complaining about him aren't complaining about his kinks or calling him out for being a disgusting pervert. They're complaining about far more mundane and familiar things: the ex-co-worker is noting unwanted ass-groping in the workplace. Ciccone mentions creepy non-consensual touching at a concert date that wasn't supposed to even be a date, followed by stalker-y behaviour. And the anonymous women who wanted to get involved with him at first aren't complaining about how gross his supposed perversions are. They're making allegations of regular old non-consensual violence. And part of the reason they are saying they won't come forward in person is because they're afraid their pre-date conversations about kink will be used as evidence that they consented to what he did.
In other words, these women may have said "sure, some kink sounds like fun" and are concerned that their own stated interest will be held up as evidence of consent to violence. If I am reading this right, these women were either themselves interested in kink to some extent, or at least weren't put off by Ghomeshi's interest, since they each still went on a date with him. This is a very different story than "Ew gross he wanted to use handcuffs what a total sicko!"
Timing is everything
Ghomeshi's timing is everything: he's of course very media-savvy, because he is media. So he's well aware that if he creates a lens through which people should perceive things, that colours the conversation in his favour from go. (The "high-stakes" PR firm may be helping here, too.) As well, he has a massive platform and a large existing fan base who of course don't want to hear that their darling might have done something wrong. All the odds are in his favour thus far.
Ghomeshi says he's into a "mild version of Fifty Shades of Grey." The anonymous accusers say he hit them with a closed fist and an open hand, beat them about the face and head, and choked them to the point of almost passing out, among other things. I'm gonna break out my Pervert Glasses to read what's being said here about kink.
Face-punching and choking to the point of unconsciousness are absolutely some people's kinks. But even among seasoned BDSM players, these acts are widely understood to be things you must do only with the most carefully negotiated consent, with a goodly amount of education and practice, and with the knowledge that they are highly risky. Beginner BDSM this is not. As a BDSM educator, I have been teaching how to do safe body punching for over a decade, and I don't go near the face except symbolically (fake or very light impact for psychological effect). It's just too easy to do major damage. I'm sure someone out there could teach you how to do it safely, but it won't be me. As for choking, it's a topic of massive debate among pervs, with some veteran kinksters even insisting that there is simply no safe way to do it and therefore shouldn't be done at all.
I'm not saying everyone agrees on the absolute-no approach. But I am saying that Ghomeshi's argument that what he does is a "mild version of Fifty Shades of Grey" does not match up with his apparent practice of engaging in very high-risk activities with women he's just beginning to date. If what they're saying is true, that discrepancy alone is enough to make me highly suspicious of his "I'm a poor innocent kinkster" argument. A mild version of Fifty Shades would be some dirty talk (probably with poor grammar) and necktie bondage.
CBC has supported public sexual exploration
Another element of Ghomeshi's pre-emptive strike that doesn't add up is the reason he says he's being fired. It doesn't make sense that the CBC would fire Ghomeshi for being kinky. Remember the openly bisexual Sook-Yin Lee, who masturbated and had non-simulated sex on camera in the 2006 film Shortbus? She's been working with the CBC for well over a decade, and while they initially considered letting her go when the controversial film was making headlines, support for her was so strong that they kept her on. Fast-forward eight years: the CBC knows that their audiences support even the very public sexual explorations of CBC stars.
The CBC is of course also aware of Canada's relatively permissive climate when it comes to sexual freedom. So why would the CBC not only fire the immensely popular Jian Ghomeshi for his supposedly mildly kinky "private sex life," but to go so far as to bar him access to the building after doing so -- and all of this already knowing he would sue? The CBC is not exactly in good shape right now. They don't need another money drain and they certainly have no reason to do anything that would turn public opinion against them, while the Harper government quietly undermines their very existence.
Ghomeshi could be totally innocent. Four women could be making shit up, anonymously, because… well, I don't know, but that itself might be an interesting question. For fun? What exactly would the motivation be for this supposed smear campaign, that four women would take part in it despite having evidence that when a previous woman made much milder accusations that don't even explicitly name Ghomeshi, she was completely trashed on the Internet? Hmmm. This, too, doesn't add up. Only the most hell-bent revenge-thirsty ex would take this on, knowing the likely consequences. Four women? Really?
Like I said… Ghomeshi could be totally innocent. I'm sure his many fans would like him to be. For now, I'm going to keep reading, with my critical thinking turned up high. I suggest we all do the same.