For the first couple of days after Jian Ghomeshi’s story became public, I was divided by disgust for his alleged abuse and distaste for the public shaming. However, I soon became less neutral. What changed my mind was partly the number of women telling their stories – too many, I suspected, for a conspiracy based on imaginary events. But what really convinced me was the news that women around Ghomeshi had been warning each other about him for years. In my experience, those kinds of whispers have always been true.
An individual woman making such claims is one thing. Some feminists maintain that those making such claims never lie, but that position is over-compensation for the many years in which victims were never believed. A woman who has worked in battered women’s shelters tells me what common sense would suggest – that is, that women can and do lie about such matters when the stakes are large, especially in separation or custody battles. Granted, only a minority lie, but enough do that you cannot automatically accept that anyone is truthful — a state of affairs that is unfortunate for the true victims.
However, when numerous women are saying the same thing, and exchanging information for the purposes of self-defense, you can be confident that they are telling the truth. Over the years, I have heard just enough to know that, when women talk about men, they don’t just discuss looks, the way that men tend to do when discussing women. They discuss behavior too, which makes perfect sense, considering that men generally weigh and out-mass them, and are more comfortable with violence.
They may rarely file formal complaints against the men they are discussing, but so far as I can figure, making other women aware of the possibilities is simply part of being a woman in our culture. It’s the equivalent of looking in the backseat when you get into a car at night, or carrying your keys between your fingers for self-protection – the kind of automatic behavior that most women are familiar with, and only some men are even aware of. The very fact that it is so routine makes what they say credible.
I first came to this position when I was in high school. Among my fellow athletes was a young man who was always quick with the sexual innuendo. He had a habit, too, of grabbing for girl’s crotches and breasts – or whatever body part was closest – and stopping just short of actual contact. Even in the confusion of puberty, I thought him crass, and tended to avoid him, although that was hard to do, since we were often on the same sports teams.
Then, one night, I was walking home from the ice rink with two young women from my class. I interrupted their discussion of this young men, and was allowed to hear the rest of it. With growing incredulity, I learned that they agreed that they did not want to be alone with him, that in private, he went beyond his public feints, often squeezing painfully. They said, too, that according to those who had gone out with him, that he took their break-ups ungracefully, making obscene phone calls and sending them parcels of excrement.
I was surprised that even he would act that way; I wanted to believe that he would only push the boundaries and not cross them. Yet, at the same time, I had no doubt about the essential honesty of the women with whom I was walking. I started watching him more closely, and, when I heard him boasting about things he had done, I was left in no doubt that he was doing exactly what my informants claimed, and sometimes worse
A year or so later, I heard similar stories about an athletic coach from girls on the track and field team. A couple of decades later, I heard the female staff of a company warning each other against being alone in an elevator or closed room with one of the company’s major clients. Just as with my fellow student, in my naivety I had trouble believing such behavior was possible in either case, but, in both cases, I eventually saw enough to know that the warnings that women were exchanging were grounded in fact. If anything, the warnings were understatements.
Many times since then, I have wished that I could have done something about the situations I observed. But I didn’t fully realize that the things I learned about were criminal, which left me uncertain about who I might tell. I doubted that the high school would fire the coach, or that the company’s CEO would support the female employees over a client, and, quite possibly, I was rationalizing.
Still, thanks to these circumstances, when I heard how women were talking about Ghomeshi, I had no trouble believing them. As I write, he has yet to be charged or convicted, and perhaps he never will be for lack of evidence. But, like I said, in my experience, women don’t lie when they warn each other about abusive men.