Editor’s Note (Nov. 26): Today, Jian Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and a further count of “overcome resistance – choking.” This is the result of a police investigation involving three women who filed complaints. (Nine women have made abuse allegations against Ghomeshi to the media). In this article — which originally ran online Oct. 31 and will be in the January issue of Chatelaine — writer Rachel Giese examines how abused women are finding their voice online and refusing to stay silent.
In late October, a series of disturbing sexual assault allegations were levelled against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. These accounts unspooled not, as they once might have, in portioned-out instalments in the daily papers and the nightly news. Nor was the arc of the discussion determined by an editorial board or an executive producer. Instead, the story has been built collectively, barn-raising style, out of its raw materials by thousands of friends and followers online, most strangers to one another. First someone contributed a news report, then someone else organized tweets on Storify, then another shared a Facebook post, and on it went, link by link. In comment feeds, facts of the case were scrutinized: Who knew what and when did they know it? Over the course of an afternoon — an hour, even — opinions were swayed and theories debated, then discarded.
Full disclosure: For a millisecond, I had a slight edge on the news. I was a freelance contributor to Ghomeshi’s show, Q, and was informed that he was taking a personal leave shortly before the CBC announced it publicly on October 24, 2014. Since then, though, I have learned details alongside everyone else. And like everyone else, I logged on to Facebook 48 hours after the CBC’s announcement to read Ghomeshi’s long, rambling account of “my story. The truth . . .”
That’s when it erupted. As the mainstream media scrambled to keep ahead of the flow of information, people began speculating on social media about long-standing rumours of Ghomeshi’s inappropriate and violent behaviour, wondering why it hadn’t come to light earlier. One of them was Trailer Park Boys actress Lucy DeCoutere, who, three days later, became the first woman to put her name to allegations of abuse. (DeCoutere and two other women have taken their allegations to the police, who are investigating.)
Instinctively, people turned to memes to offer support and solidarity, the digital equivalent to showing up at someone’s front door with a casserole and chicken soup: #IBelieveThem and #IBelieveYou began trending. The Toronto Star story naming DeCoutere went live on its website at 9:35 p.m. on October 29; by 10 o’clock, #IBelieveLucy had more than 2,000 mentions and over 2.5 million potential impressions.
In the past few months, there has been a deluge of hashtags rallying against gender-based violence, like #YesAll Women (launched after a killing spree in California by a 22-year-old man connected to the men’s-rights movement), #WhyIStayed (a response to domestic violence) and #CarryThatWeight (in solidarity with a Columbia University student lugging a mattress around to protest the continued presence of her alleged rapist on campus). Here in Canada, the movement to seek justice for indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered has spawned several threads, like #MMIW and #ItEndsHere. And a day after the Toronto Star’s DeCoutere story broke, Antonia Zerbisias, a writer for the paper, initiated #BeenRapedNeverReported, helping to answer the question of why women don’t report assaults.
These campaigns are a natural extension of the boisterous feminist culture that has asserted itself online. According to feminist organizer and advocate Steph Guthrie, who founded Women in Toronto Politics, “We’re increasingly seeing the conversations happening on social media trickle up to traditional media and traditional political movements.”
On blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, women weigh in on rape culture and reproductive rights, expose street harassers and online trolls, crowdfund female-driven indie movies and dissect the sex-positive imagery of Nicki Minaj’s latest video. In the pre-internet days, conversations about sexual assault were shadowed by shame and self-loathing, or started from revelations shared long after the fact. Now, in this limitless, chatty, online consciousness-raising session, women who have been abused, violated or silenced have the tools to name their experience. In a medium with no regard for the distance between the powerful and the powerless, attackers can be called out, confronted or shut down. Discussions unfold in real time, with support networks materializing instantly and exponentially: This happened to me. Me too. Me too. Me too. Me too. Me too.
The furor surrounding the Ghomeshi allegations is just the most recent grassroots social media campaign waged by women in Canada to go viral. In the early fall, selfies began to appear on Twitter and Instagram featuring pictures of young First Nations, Metis and Inuit women, photographed on urban streets and rural reserves, in their bedrooms, in malls, in cafés, school hallways, offices and on Parliament Hill. Their faces serious and their eyes fierce, they hold up signs bearing the phrase #AmINext.
Just weeks earlier, on August 17, 2014, the remains of Tina Fontaine had been pulled from the murky water near the Alexander Docks on the Red River in Winnipeg. The 15-year-old from Sagkeeng First Nation was in the care of a Winnipeg Child and Family Services agency and had been reported missing more than a week before her body was found.
For months before then, the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women had been discussed in the mainstream news and especially on social media. It was one factor driving the grassroots Idle No More Native-rights movement in the fall of 2012, and it surfaced again in February 2014 after the murder of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuit student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Those detecting a pattern were given proof in May, when the RCMP released statistics revealing that 1,181 indigenous women had disappeared or been killed since 1980 — indicating that the threat to them was four times greater than that faced by non-Aboriginal women.
After Tina Fontaine’s body was discovered, outrage rose once more. A friend revealed that in the days before her death, Fontaine had contact with a variety of authorities who did little, it seems, to help her. Pressed to speak on the deaths of Aboriginal women like Fontaine, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon;” instead, we should see it as a series of individual crimes.
That motivated Holly Jarrett, a cousin of Loretta Saunders, to launch #AmINext. She hoped the hashtag would put a human face on the grim statistics and help the push for a federal inquiry. When skeptics wondered if the campaign would eventually fizzle out, like the #BringBackOurGirls effort that arose after more than 200 Nigerian schoolchildren were kidnapped by Boko Haram, Jarrett told the press, “If people understand all of these issues and we start talking about them, I really think the general Canadian public is not going to let these issues go.” Maybe the prime minister wasn’t interested in hearing about “sociology,” but that didn’t mean young women had to shut up about it.
The reaction was fast and far-reaching. Women across the country shared pictures of themselves flashing the hashtag, hundreds of images that became both a powerful rebuke to the invisibility of indigenous women and a challenge to the political and media gatekeepers: Why had these young women been virtually absent from the mainstream discussion and decision making about their lives and safety?
Like the rest of their large, vocal and thoroughly wired generation, the #AmINext campaigners are tweeting back to power. For Aboriginal women, social media has become a tool in a broader quest for self-determination and self-expression. Kirsten Lindquist, a Metis graduate student at the University of Victoria, conducted a research project on the use of social media by indigenous intellectuals. Lindquist had been struck by the absence of Aboriginal women in official records and histories: “Our voices have not been archived.” Online, though, there was a lively, wide-ranging community of academics, artists and activists debating ideas, sharing personal experiences and posting photos, illustrations, journal entries and poems. “Social media is facilitating the recording of our perspectives on what it means to be a self-identified indigenous woman at this particular moment.”
Lindquist is involved with Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a Canada-U.S. education and advocacy group that has been active online for over a decade, using memes like #ResistanceIsSexy and #IndigenousFeministSelfie. ErinMarie Konsmo, the group’s media arts justice and projects coordinator, says social media enables young people to create alternative representations to harmful stereotypes, like the sexy Pocahontas or the at-risk victim. That’s why Konsmo believes it’s important for indigenous young women who participate online to offer stories of resurgence. “We need to hear the messages that say, ‘I’m at the front lines of my community. I’m reclaiming my language and culture. I’m living and I’m thriving.’ ”
When the Toronto Star’s Heather Mallick wrote a column in September lamenting Canada’s lack of “prominent young feminists” — where was our Roxanne Gay, our Lena Dunham, our Emma Watson, she wondered — I had two thoughts: the first, “Uh-oh,” and the second, “Heather Mallick must not be on Twitter.” So I wasn’t surprised when she later reported that plenty of young feminists had responded critically to her column. Noting that “hard-left feminists went on Twitter attack,” Mallick concluded there were no prominent feminist leaders in Canada because “extremists, right or left, helped drive them away.”
If you wanted the perfect, in-a-nutshell example of the current culture and generation gap, this social media tussle was it. Mallick views feminism as a movement with a small set of agreed-upon priorities represented by a handful of high-profile agreed-upon leaders, which is pretty much the opposite of how feminism has been taken up in the digital era.
The slate of feminist concerns is infinite and ever-changing, and the conversation is broad, diverse and, yes, often combative. A younger generation hasn’t driven leaders away as much as decided they’re no longer necessary, not when the preferred forum for debate and organizing is participatory. In sharp contrast to old media and old institutions, social media skews young, female and racially diverse — that is, the very people who rarely get crowned as experts, or offered a chance to write an op-ed, or given a spot on a TV panel. (A recent study in the U.S. reported that white men account for more than 60 percent of guests on political talk shows.)
African-American author and scholar Joan Morgan noted in a 2014 Ebony magazine article that the internet was crucial to the revitalization of black feminism among young people. Social media, she said, “allows women to get access to women [such as] bell hooks and even me, without a classroom. It enables feminism to meet them where they are and where they live, which is actually where I think they should be getting it.”
Still, for all its power to empower, the anything-goes nature of internet feminism can frustrate those used to a stricter model of organizing. And it has its pitfalls: Trolls are emboldened by the internet’s anonymity to threaten people whose views they don’t like. In October, after a video that shows a woman being catcalled as she walks the streets of New York City went viral, the comments thread filled with rape threats. Even among allies, conflict can turn toxic fast, or else the hive mind takes over, relentlessly affirming the opinions of the like-minded. “Social media is an incredible megaphone,” Lindquist says. “The trouble is that it’s a megaphone for everything. So you have to be strategic in how you use it.”
Last July, a small but rowdy group of protesters shimmied its way from Toronto’s city hall up University Avenue to the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park. The participants in the city’s fourth Slutwalk dressed in feather boas, lacy bras and Converse sneakers; they waved signs emblazoned with slogans like “My clothes are not my consent” and chanted, “Yes means f–k me; no means f–k you!” The annual march — which advocates for a grab bag of issues related to women’s sexual safety and liberation — was launched in 2011, after a police officer giving a talk on safety at Toronto’s York University warned women to avoid “dressing like sluts.”
There are echoes of the Slutwalk in the art piece devised by Columbia University’s Emma Sulkowicz, who will carry around a 50-pound dorm mattress until the man she accused of rape is punished. Protests like these might seem over the top; the name Slutwalk, for instance, makes some squeamish. But provocation is the point. These actions were meant to go viral — and they have. On October 30, students at more than 130 campuses from Los Angeles to Budapest signed up on Facebook to attend Carry That Weight protests. The Slutwalk movement has spawned offshoots in more than 200 communities around the world.
What better way, after all, to call attention to the sheer absurdity of your situation. A cop suggests women are attacked because they’re sluts? Then let’s have a parade of sluts. A student is left bearing the pain of her sexual assault while her rapist walks free? Then she’ll show you exactly what that burden feels like.
This share-bait savvy marks a significant shift in attitude in how women talk about sexual violence and harassment. When it first emerged in the spring, the #YesAllWomen thread generated over a million tweets in a matter of days because it let women know, in a powerful and succinct way, that they weren’t crazy. They hadn’t imagined the “Hey baby!” calls on their walk to work and the attempted gropes on the subway. Not only that, they weren’t alone.
By September, when the video of NFL player Ray Rice beating his then fiancée Janay Palmer was released, the feministsphere was primed. After two male hosts on the Fox TV network criticized Palmer and the singer Rihanna for sending “a terrible message” by staying with abusive men, thousands of women responded on social media. They shared their tales of being in a violent relationship with the hashtag #WhyIStayed. For many, it was the first time they’d spoken about the experience. And as more women added their voices, the conversation evolved into a new question: What could help women escape their abusers? So #WhyIStayed gave way to #Why ILeft, designed to subvert the victim label.
These threads and memes have helped push issues into the general consciousness. Hashtags beget newspaper articles and radio interviews. An observation on Facebook amplified with enough likes and links might become a central talking point in an election debate. A tweet can spark a revolution.
Social media is a leveller: It collapses the distance between people, even for someone like Jian Ghomeshi, a man with money, celebrity, powerful friends and a platform. For years, he was the one to control the story, and women around him felt forced into silence and shame. But the outpouring of support — the likes, the hashtags, the private missives
of solidarity posted on a vast public forum — showed all of us that it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. And it all started because one woman, then four, then eight, then nine were brave enough to say, This happened to me.