In french, you call a person you love your “pomme de terre” which literally translated means your “hold on the earth,” or the one who keeps you here on earth, the one who keeps you grounded.
Lots of trigger warnings on this one. I want to talk about Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian musician and broadcaster who abused women. When a number of those women began to come forward about his having assaulted them, Ghomeshi was fired from his job at CBC, sued them for fifty million dollars, and posted a defensive manifesto in which he attempted to claim, more or less, that he was being kink-shamed out of the industry.
The reaction from many people has been to point out that Ghomeshi was not engaging in the kind of BDSM activity we all hold up as an ethical standard: private, safe and consensual. That’s true. The reports of abuse consistently point out that he acted by surprise, engaging in violence first–serious, dangerous violence–and then attempting to use pressure to steer the interaction toward sex and further violent acts. It’s clear that he believes that insufficient objection is the same as consent.
So the BDSM community has largely rejected his line of defense and attempted to separate themselves from him. Fine. That’s what you should do when a sickening person tries to take refuge in your ranks. But the next thing you should do is question why he tried to hide among us in the first place.
In his Facebook post, Ghomeshi used variations on the word “consent” nine times. (He used the word “safe” only once.) He’s clearly looking at his own activity from some kind of pseudolegal standpoint, where his right to privacy supersedes all others and pre-agreement is the highest standard of ethical behavior. This is a pretty common tactic among people who would like to simplify complex situations until they resolve in their own favor: insist that if you display perceived agreement to anything, the responsibility for what happens afterward lies entirely with you. This ignores the fact that silence or lack of knowledge is not consent. This ignores the fact that consent can be withdrawn. This ignores the fact that, in the real world, all negotiation takes place in a complex web of pressures that are often equivalent to duress. This is one of the roots of rape culture.
Informed consent has long been the Holy Grail for scientists, kinksters and armchair ethicists. Here’s the thing about the Holy Grail: it doesn’t fucking exist.
Ghomeshi claims he has evidence that he obtained consent from at least some of the women speaking out about him. I am vastly more inclined to believe the people he assaulted than I am to believe him, but even if he has bulletproof contracts drawn up and signed by every one of them, it doesn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t the case that people who say they were attacked deserve the benefit of the doubt over their attacker, it doesn’t matter. Because in his own words, in that tragic victimized narrative of a Facebook post, Ghomeshi never displays one bit of empathy for the people he claims were his willing partners.
He describes himself as “in deep personal pain,” “harassed,” “demonized,” “smeared,” “defamed,” “damaged,” “piled on,” “hated” and “laughed at.” He writes in the hopes that he can “bring an end to the nightmare.” That’s his nightmare, to be clear. He describes the first woman to come forward about him, and the journalist she worked with, with words like “jilted,” “upset,” “her anger,” “colluding” and “vengeance.” The part where he describes her as “painting herself as a victim” displays a stunning lack of self-awareness.
He never once gives a moment of consideration to the idea that anyone has a reason to be traumatized by his actions, and Jian, buddy, that alone disqualifies you from the ranks of people who can ethically participate in dangerous sexual activity. That disqualifies you from being able to participate in sex with other people at all. People who cannot conceive that their actions have consequences are not allowed to take those actions. You can’t understand another human being if you can’t understand another human being.
Years ago I read a moving, brutal piece by the amazing journalist Mac McClelland called “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This.” More trigger warnings for rape, mental illness and violence on that one (and, notably, some appropriation). You should read the whole thing, if you can.
The conclusion of the story is about McClelland engaging in violent nonconsent roleplay with an ex-boyfriend that, at her request, involves him choking her and punching her in the head with a closed fist. This is the kind of activity Ghomeshi engaged in with unwilling people, then “joked about” as “being like a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey.” That’s not how McClelland describes it.
I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful. My body felt devastated but relieved; I’d lost, but survived. After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.
Isaac pulled my hair away from my wet face, repeating over and over and over something that he probably believed but that I had to relearn. “You are so strong,” he said. “You are so strong. You are so strong.”
When I draw this comparison, I’m not saying there’s no fun to be had in rough kink. I am saying that there is a huge difference between a dominant partner wanting to inflict pain and a submissive partner wanting to receive it. I am saying that sexual violence is always close, in one way or another, to trauma. If we are unwilling to acknowledge that connection, then we’re complicit in its exploitation. If I, the person writing this, don’t address that first with empathy, care and humility, then Jian Ghomeshi and I are the same.
I’ll never completely relate to people who grew up with both parents.
I’m over the whole concept of the infallible dom. The whole strong man stereotype who is always right and never messes up and is suave every moment of every day. Men who demand that sort of esteem are a little absurd, and a culture that perpetuates that role is harmful to both these people and the people that love them.
Bottom line: I love that he trips. I love that she smirks. And I love that he is sometimes that domineering presence and sometimes, yeah, he’s a guy who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of a punching bag just yet.
So let’s talk about this. A few things have been rattling around in my head ever since Ivy posted her (perceptive and valuable) take.
- Dominance and submission are, to my mind, deeply valuable as ways of being understood.
- You can only understand a human by understanding a human.
- Asking someone to understand you is asking them to see your flaws as well as your gifts. This is scary, and carries risks.
- So dominance and submission are expressions of vulnerability by everyone involved.
“The sub has unstated power over the scene” isn’t exactly groundbreaking kink theory, but it has implications like these that maybe don’t get examined as much. When you top you can get hurt or exhausted, emotionally or physically. You can be pressured into doing things you wouldn’t normally consider, just like a sub. I’ve topped in consensual nonconsent scenes that left me shaking and kind of fucked up afterwards, and I’m fortunate that I had a (submissive!) partner who was really good with aftercare for me. When I asked her to understand me, in a moment when I was fallible, she said yes.
So as fun as it is to write and fantasize about implacable, aloof or flawless Dom-monsters, it’s a little silly–and counterproductive–to try to bring that into real life. Inhabit the character when it suits and leave it behind when it doesn’t. Being vulnerable with the right person is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life, as I think many subs would agree. Opening up your own humility and humanity in a dominant role will pay you back over and over, and I think seeing more representation of that experience would be a really good thing.
Six years ago this week she and I met for the second time. Three years ago today she IMed me out of the blue. Two years and ten months ago, she sent me a blushing picture after getting off to a story I’d written for her. The next morning she sent a video of herself shouting at the sky about how much she liked me. We talked all day every day, to the point where I put my job in jeopardy. We had a world of secrets and code words and in-jokes.
Two and a half years ago, she asked me to delete and purge everything we’d ever sent each other, blocked me, and more or less never spoke to me again.
I am older than most of my readers here. (An uncomfortable number of you are about half my age, in fact.) I had plans for my life at this stage, and I still want the things I planned for, but now they seem as distant as they ever have. You fuck up, is the thing. You fuck up, and you tell yourself you’ll learn from it, but then you fuck up the same way over and over and realize all you’re learning is how to ride out the pain.
My memory has never been very good. I’ve relied on bluffs and tricks and devices to cover that ever since I was a kid. I carry a pen with me everywhere, to write notes on my palm; I wash my hands and then squint at them, trying to remember what they said a moment ago.
I have calluses on my hands and feet from beating ache into exhaustion. I have scars whose stories I don’t know anymore. I collect marks on my skin and try to trace them, but a map without a point of reference doesn’t lead you anywhere.
Two weeks from today, I’m going on a trip to visit our mutual friends, and she and I will be in the same city for the first time since 2008. If those friends try to get one of us to meet up with the other, we will each carefully avoid agreeing. The bruises healed a long time ago, but the body shies away.