It’s been a year. Well, it’s been a number of years, but for victims and survivors of sexual and intimate violence, the last year has been a dumpster fire of triggers, (un)surprising revelations, and all too familiar narrative arcs that end in disappointment.
As someone living in overlapping communities that include writers, academics, progressives, and folks in electoral politics, it feels like we’ve had more than our share of eruptions.
Almost a year ago the United States electorate chose for its president an admitted sexual predator accused of raping multiple women and at least one child.
A week later a star studded list of the nation’s Literati, including Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood, released an open letter to UBC about its treatment of writer and former Chair of the Creative Writing Program, Steven Galloway.
A few months later we watched Casey Affleck, accused of sexual harassment and possibly sexual assault by multiple women won an Oscar. Brie Larson, a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault, was tasked with presenting him the award.
A couple days later a judge in Halifax declared that a “drunk can consent” to sex and acquitted a cab driver of assaulting his blacked out passenger.
Over the summer, Bill Cosby was tried for one of sixty or so incidents of alleged sexual assault or rape. The trial ended in a hung jury and Cosby’s release.
In September Wab Kinew was elected leader of Manitoba’s NDP by two thirds of voters, just days after electors learned of his charges of assaulting his then partner 14 years earlier.
Two weeks later, Jagmeet Singh was elected leader of Canada’s NDP, having continued to embrace Kinew’s endorsement. Asked about the allegations facing Kinew, Singh said he believed Kinew’s former partner that he had assaulted her, but that he was now an advocate against violence against women (despite Kinew’s continued denial of the assault).
Later that week, after a decades-long whisper campaign about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a number of his victims came forward with their experiences of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
Last week a judge ruled that because an Ottawa man didn’t know it was illegal to rape his wife, he is not guilty of sexual assault.
Today Hollywood director James Toback was outed as allegedly sexually harassing 38 women.
This week, in the midst of the #MeToo campaign and the breadth of participants taking part in this conversation, I keep thinking about the role of bystanders of sexual and intimate violence. Many of us have experienced violence, and many have perpetrated it, but all of us have been bystanders. And it’s not a role we can opt out of.
We are approaching the one year anniversary of the UBC Accountable letter. Galloway was dismissed from his tenured position after an investigation into allegations of sexual assault and harassment of students, and other unnamed conduct. Many members of the Literati had feelings about the way their colleague was treated. I don’t begrudge their feelings. As someone who works in labour and believes strongly in due process for workers in cases of alleged misconduct and potential disciplinary action, I also had strong concerns about the way Galloway’s case was handled. (As well as the ways the university treated the complainants in the case.) Galloway is fortunate to be represented by a union, and entitled to grieve his case. An arbitration process had already begun when 80 members of the Literati called for a review of his firing – a fact that the signatories of the letter even acknowledged in the letter. Right after noting the upcoming independent investigation through labour arbitration, the Literati go on to demand an “independent investigation” into the case. It is the letter’s sole demand.
The backlash to the letter was swift. Victims and survivors of sexual assault and harassment highlighted the letter’s dismissal of complainants in the case, as well as the broader message it sent to those who may experience such abuse in literary and / or academic communities and how they may be received if they came forward. The only nod to complainants’ experiences is a single line near the end of the letter: “We, the undersigned, respect the principle of protection for individuals who wish to bring complaints.” Let’s consider that statement for a moment. First off, it’s an abstract principal that is to be respected – the potential impact of their actions on the actual lives and wellbeing of complainants are apparently not necessarily worthy of consideration or respect. Secondly, the chosen language suggests that bringing a complaint of sexual violence against a famous, highly influential, tenured department chair is a matter of desire rather than imperative – a fun Sunday activity or something. I try to shy away from generalizations, but I’m confident no one “wishes” to make such a complaint. For most people who experience such violence, the decision to report is agonizing, and often involves weighing a variety of horrible potential outcomes against the slim possibility of a “positive” outcome. Even the best possible outcome to bringing a complaint like this is hardly a sunny day: best case, you’re believed by authorities, an investigation supports your experience, the offender is disciplined appropriately, and you’re given support to deal with the impact of your injuries. This is so rarely the outcome, and even when it is, you will likely need to sacrifice your privacy, and be subjected to those who doubt the veracity of your experiences, or even if they do believe them, will argue that whatever punishment was issued doesn’t fit the crime, and that the abuser is the real victim for having to endure said punishment. Trust me: coming forward with a complaint of this nature is no one’s “wish”.
While several of the signatories to the letter doubled down in their defence of Galloway and the letter itself – Margaret Atwood took to Twitter to opine about “witch hunts” – many offered statements that glossed their motivations and views on the Galloway case and their choice to sign the letter. Some of these statements expressed apparently genuine regret at signing the letter and included apologies to those affected by their actions. Many more said nice things about complainants, but ultimately reiterated their prioritization of voicing their support for due process for Galloway that was already underway, over concern for the way their words would affect victims and the broader community.
Reflecting on this year’s events and rereading the letter almost a year later I’m stuck with this question: what were the signatories trying to accomplish? What did they even want?
The obvious answer is their stated demand: “an independent investigation into how this matter has been handled by the Creative Writing Program, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and the senior administration at UBC”. But as noted above, the letter explicitly acknowledges that an independent investigation was underway through the contractually mandated process laid out in UBC’s collective agreement with Galloway’s union. So what was the purpose of this letter? And why did the signatories think that purpose so important that it was worth disregarding the likely impact of such a one-sided letter on their communities? What did they think would be the impact of their actions on people who had or may in the future be subjected to sexual assault or harassment from a professor, mentor, or beloved writer?
One of the shitty things about the way we talk about and treat sexual and intimate violence in our society is that it makes every story about sexual or intimate violence into a story about your experience. If it’s her fault it was my fault. And apparently it’s very frequently her fault. Or maybe it’s just that her pain just isn’t as important as his reputation / work / life.
The UBC Accountable letter exemplifies a frequent narrative arc that plays out when a woman accuses a man – especially if prominent – of sexual or intimate violence. While a woman is probably more likely to be believed these days, there remains a hyper vigilance to protect the theoretical rights of the accused. I say theoretical, because I find people bring up this concern even when no one is actually being accused, i.e. when no one’s rights or reputation are even at risk.
Earlier this week, in the midst of #MeToo playing out on social media, I saw a number of people call for victims and survivors to name their abusers. The call was to shift the focus to the root of this problem, onto those who enact such violence, rather than expecting those who experience it to shoulder the burden of publicness and vulnerability. I support such calls, while recognizing that asking people to name their abusers can be dangerous for a number of reasons. In response to one such call KS, a friend of a friend, noted “I think that’d be considered a ‘violation of privacy’ legally speaking”. I asked him (he later identified himself as a man) to clarify what he meant, noting that it isn’t illegal for someone to name a person who has assaulted them. He responded that sure, it was fine if they were convicted, but otherwise it wasn’t allowed. The friend of a friend was presumably gesturing to the fact that someone who publicly named someone who had abused them could be sued for defamation by the person they named. This is a real possibility, and there are several cases of women being penalized by courts for naming their alleged abusers publicly.
But again, I was left asking myself: what was KS’s motivation? What was he trying to accomplish with his intervention about the rights of the accused? Those who’ve been assaulted by someone they know are continuously reminded of the risks associated with naming them publicly, particularly if they have not been convicted of the violence. Did KS genuinely think we didn’t know that this risk existed? I suppose it’s possible, but that presumes a recklessness and ignorance that insults the intelligence and experiences of victims. Did KS want to impart some specific knowledge or guidance on the topic? Perhaps, but he was obviously alarmingly ill-equipped to do so, given his confusion about the very basics of the laws involved (he kept citing privacy law). His confusion is especially concerning given that he seems to confuse the alleged perpetrator’s rights and interests for those of the state’s. A defamation suit is brought by the allegedly defamed – not the state. The only effect I can see of KS’s comment is one of inciting fear. The comment was vague and inaccurate, but its message was clear: it’s dangerous to name your abuser. It’s dangerous to come forward. Think about your abuser before you act.
I think many of the signatories of the UBC Accountable letter had the very best of intentions. I think they saw their colleague’s treatment and they considered it unjust, so they thought they should speak out about it. It apparently didn’t occur to them that their public speech was not necessary. Was not needed to accomplish the stated goal, and might do more harm than good. I genuinely think some of the signatories simply didn’t exercise the critical thinking necessary to recognize that their letter was merely a performance, let alone to go one step further to consider who would be impacted by that performance. I’m sure many of the signatories didn’t recognize that in signing this letter they were casting themselves in the role of policing claimants in this case, and in any future cases. The stated message of the letter was due process for Steven Galloway. The message that so many of us heard was: it’s dangerous to name your abuser. It’s dangerous to come forward. Think about your abuser before you act. We protect our own.
A function of the letter wasn’t to get an independent investigation of the case – that was already underway.
A function of the letter was clearly to express support for Steven Galloway. But they could have chosen to reach out to Galloway privately, and reserve comment on the case until the arbitration was concluded.
A function of the letter was clearly to express displeasure with UBC’s management of the situation, but that could have been achieved by writing to the administration privately. While it would not have created the same level of public response, if a similar letter signed by the Literati had gone to the administration in confidence, it would no doubt still have been given due consideration. Particularly given the fact that several signatories are prominent writers and alums of the institution, their images and personas used by the university for marketing and fundraising purposes.
So why write a public letter? More importantly why write this public letter? Why were the experiences, feelings, and wellbeing of victims of sexual assault and harassment, current and future, so disposable in the decision-making process around how to deal with what many saw as an injustice? Why was virtue-signalling about Steven Galloway’s right to due process so much more important than cultivating a literary and academic community that makes clear to its young / emerging and / or vulnerable members that there is space for them, that they have a right to be respected by their teachers and mentors, and that if they are abused, there is space for them to come forward?
When we encounter violence and abuses of power in our communities we all have responsibilities. Most of us are not police officers, or lawyers, or judges, or jury members. That means it’s not our responsibility to play the punishing role of the state. We are not responsible for conducting our own mini-trials based on whatever details we happen to know, or think we know. To adopt the role of policing victims is to volunteer for a job that isn’t yours, and that you don’t have the skills or information necessary to perform.
This doesn’t mean you need to automatically believe anyone who says they’ve been abused. Personally, I start with believing. I start with believing because we have overwhelming empirical evidence that victims are usually telling the truth. I start with believing because if a victim chooses to make a formal complaint to some kind of authority (employer, school, police, etc.), that authority has a process that will require significant evidence for the victim to be believed, and given the nature of sexual assault and intimate violence, there’s a good chance there won’t be enough evidence for an authoritative finding that the abuse happened.
In other words, victims don’t need extra help being disbelieved. There are plenty of people and systems of authority that will likely not believe them, either on a personal level, or at a structural level due to “inadequate evidence”. No extra bodies needed on the don’t-believe-victims front!
But this piece isn’t about asking you to start from a place of believing people who tell you they’ve been abused. (I think you should, but that’s not my point today.) What I’m asking is that you not abdicate that responsibility I spoke of. When choosing how to respond to the epidemic (yes, it’s an epidemic – the numbers are clear) of sexual and intimate violence in our society, recognize the impact of dismissing victims, no matter the case or the accused. This is not to suggest that the signatories of the UBC Accountable letter should have ignored their concerns about due process in Galloway’s case. It’s to suggest that the possible mistreatment of Galloway in the process did not eclipse the reality of sexual assault and harassment in the literary and academic communities. It’s to simply ask that when we try to right a specific injustice, we don’t sacrifice justice for everyone else.
The analogy of the “witch hunt” as trotted out by Atwood in Galloway’s case, and most recently by Woody Allen in Harvey Weinstein’s case is a compelling one. We can all imagine the terror of being publicly accused of doing something we didn’t do, and being subjected to a trial that’s stacked against us. The problem with the analogy when it comes to sexual assault allegations is that the facts are all wrong. For one, if you’re accused of sexual assault the trial – both literal and metaphorical – is stacked in your favour. But perhaps more importantly, witches – at least the kind they were searching for in Salem 325 years ago – aren’t real. Sexual assault is very real. Some of the accused actually are guilty. Although few of them seem to be in any real danger of burning.
Note: This piece reflects my personal ideas about the literary community’s response to Steven Galloway’s firing. As stated above, I firmly support the rights of all workers to due process around alleged misconduct and disciplinary action. All of my knowledge about this case derives from publicly available documents and the extensive media reporting.