Ignore the BDSM Stuff — Jian Ghomeshi Is Just Another Powerful Man Accused of Abuse

Jian Ghomeshi, the radio host and former rock star whose firing this weekend is causing a stir across media both old and new, is kind of a big deal in Canada. Q, his arts show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is equivalent, if not more popular, than the biggest NPR shows, a popular stopover for public figures on both sides of the border.

That’s why his firing, followed by an explosive Toronto Star article bringing forward stories from three women who allege harassment and abusive behavior, has made such an impression in the media. It’s quite messy. In fact, the newspaper had held the story for months because the allegations therein were unproven, but Ghomeshi’s actions prompted publication when he released a long, much-shared Facebook explanation about the firing, in which he declared that the accusations had consisted of mutually agreed-upon BDSM activities, and vowed a lawsuit against the CBC to the tune of $50 million.

On social media, Ghomeshi — who has retained a major PR firm — essentially claims persecution for private predilections. But the upshot is this: Canadian media politics and BDSM aside, what we’re witnessing follows the same pattern as many, many other stories of powerful people alleged to have engaged in abusive behavior. This includes elements like similar stories from multiple women, frightened accusers afraid to speak up due to backlash from fans, a crisis management team for the accused, and so forth.

Clearly, what’s going to get the most play is the detail that the accused is a self-described practitioner of non-vanilla sex (in his Facebook post, Ghomeshi even jokes about Fifty Shades of Grey).

Yet his claims that his behavior simply fell under this category, “safe words” and all, is is many ways a distraction from what reads like an implausible defense: He’s framing himself as the victim of a vengeful ex and a group of her friends who all got together and decided it would be a good idea to ruin his life and risk their own names being dragged through the mud at no personal gain. A major online backlash already happened when a woman who merely detailed a bad date with someone who fit Ghomeshi’s description suffered months of harassment online.

Futhermore, the allegations picked up by the Star describe nothing that resembles consensual kink, from E.L. James’ pen or anywhere else. Three women came forward anonymously to the Star, claiming unasked-for violent behavior by Ghomeshi on dates where he warned about being a bit aggressive but ended up really hurting them. One said “he suddenly struck her hard with his open hand, then continued to hit her and choked her.” A second accusation was nearly identical, and neither reported use of safe words or delineated boundaries. Meanwhile, a third sounded more like textbook office sexual harassment: “She alleges he approached her from behind and cupped her rear end in the Q studio, and that he quietly told her at a story meeting that he wanted to ‘hate f—; her,” The Star’s Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown report. “As the woman recalls, the producer asked her ‘what she could do to make this a less toxic workplace’ for herself.’” (Cue extremely exasperated feminist sigh.)

Consensual BDSM covers a wide range of behaviors, some of which may seem violent to outsiders. Yet there are entire communities and sets of rules based on making it comfortable, upfront, and safe for participants. As feminist BDSM writer Clarisse Thorn once wrote:

My experience of BDSM relationships is that it’s best for there to be both communication ahead of time — and lots of discussion and processing afterwards. Both partners get to set “hard limits”: things they absolutely don’t want to do. If one partner has concerns, those concerns get airtime.

Based on the allegations in the Star, this type of discussion about limits never took place between Ghomeshi and his accusers.

As sex columnist Dan Savage said on Twitter last night, people who practice alternative sexualities do face misunderstanding and marginalization. At the same time, BDSM should in no way be a screen for actual abuse.

The Star article quotes one accuser as saying that Ghomeshi crossed major boundaries with her. He warned her he was “aggressive.” “I thought this meant he would want to pull my hair and have rough sex. He reassured me that I wouldn’t be forced,” she said. “(Later) he attacked me. Choked me. Hit me like I didn’t know men hit women. I submitted.”

Of course, if we put the BDSM frame aside and treat this situation as though it’s any powerful man being accused of rape, the media narrative would still be terrible. We’d get the same victim-blaming and logic-warping we are already seeing.

We certainly have no idea what happened in any of these cases. But we do have an understanding of the clockwork-like patterns of rape culture. If, while roaming the Internet this week, you encounter the idea that both a broadcaster fired its major star for consensual private behavior and three separate women colluded on accusations is a more likely pair of scenarios than the explanation that an extremely powerful man might have a tendency to hit women, it’s certainly worth interrogating the rational basis for that belief.