When fame and kink don't equal privacy

It is truly amazing what can happen in the space of one week. Jian Ghomeshi has gone from beloved radio host to an accused sadist in effective self-imposed exile in Los Angeles. A media firestorm that started out with Ghomeshi’s pre-emptive Facebook post outlining his habitual sexcapades, has blown up with a barrage of women coming out alleging that his actions were anything but “consensual” on their part.

Normally, I tend to avoid scandalous stories because they are largely driven by speculation and hearsay. Facts are harder to decipher and tend to get swept up in the sensationalism people seem to clamour for.

But this case is different. I’m struck by it for a few different reasons that I’ll outline here.

The power of social media

The irony certainly hasn’t been lost on me that this whole thing really spiraled after Ghomeshi’s post on Facebook. An outpouring of support and sympathy initially flooded the comments section below his tell-all 1,586-word essay. In just a few days, those comments were overtaken by others painting him as a villain, triggering a debate over whether his revelations constituted abuse or not.

It was a Toronto Star article that took it up a notch by asserting there was not just one “jilted ex-girlfriend”, as Ghomeshi put it, but rather four women who were interviewed by the Star, claiming they were victims of his excesses. Three days later, that number doubled to eight, with yet another story providing sordid details about what he had done. The common theme was that they were choked, slapped or punched without warning — without any consent or question on whether they were into it.

Twitter went ablaze with links to new story developments. He had reportedly fled to LA. His PR firm was working hard to diffuse the crisis. His musical protégé defended him in the strongest terms. With his name trending for days, the situation had opened up a door to allow women who had experienced similar treatment to come forward and, in 140 characters or less, share what they had gone through. The #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag was a harrowing array of terrible experiences that highlighted the confusion, self-loathing and struggle they had been contending with in carrying that burden on their shoulders.

They were touching to read, short and succinct as each of them were. And yet, within this courageous outpouring of grief and soul-searching was an equal measure of support — including from men. The fact that this has become a discussion transcending genders, cultures and borders is perhaps a display of the good that social media can do.

What struck me was that there was a Twitter account @bigearsteddy that basically called him out for physical abuse as far back as April. The account has been dormant ever since, and as I write this, I’m not sure the person behind it has truly been identified, since the name “Sidnie Georgina” appears to be a pseudonym. That Twitter handle helped break the scandal open even further because of the irrefutable fact that Ghomeshi actually owns a stuffed bear he calls “Big Ears Teddy”. The very existence of that bear was confirmed not just by two of his accusers, but also by Ghomeshi himself, who has publicly claimed in the past that the bear helps with his anxiety disorder.

Fame = scrutiny and a short leash

I’ve never met Ghomeshi, and didn’t listen to Q, his radio program. I would catch it here and there when it was televised on CBC on weekends, but would only really pay attention if the guest had something interesting to talk about. I never really got the impression that he was an egomaniac or portrayed any notable arrogance on the air, but then again, it appears that he was at his most serene when Q was live. Without knowing all the facts involved in this case, I will reserve judgment on what Ghomeshi may or may not be guilty of, but what I will say is that fame comes part and parcel with a microscope.

It seems Ghomeshi either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to accept that. He’s not an A-list celebrity that can’t go to a public bathroom, mind you, but he’s still a recognizable face in these parts, and when you are that guy, and you engage in activities that some would find “unpalatable”, you run the risk of being exposed. There is no question in my mind that had he had what would be considered a “normal” sex life, there would probably be no scandal here because he likely wouldn’t have written anything on Facebook trying to explain his taste for BDSM.

Ghomeshi asserted that what he did in his private life was no one’s business. I couldn’t agree more. As someone who absolutely despises celebrity worship and gossip culture, I could care less what a famous person or public figure does in their private time. Of course, if they commit a crime, then that’s a different story.

What baffles me is that his exclaimed innocence is predicated on what he considers to be “adventurous forms of sex” that were always “mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners”. This scandal actually has little to do with sex. It’s not what people are outraged over, it’s the perception and first-hand accounts of pain and abuse that the women in question claim was anything but consensual.

This made me think: could it be that he perceived consent in some way? That by maybe bringing it up in conversation and coming clean about his peculiar tastes, he thought the women were on board simply because they listened and didn’t turn away? It may be some time before we know what his motivations were to act as he allegedly did, though I can’t help but try to discern how a man who seems smart enough to recognize what true consent is could be facing such outrageous charges.

The sad reality for him, no matter how this turns out, is that fame tends to make you guilty until proven innocent. Some have argued that these women (or at least some of them) were motivated by greed, ambition and star-gazing, but that’s hard to prove. One thing is for sure — his career, at least in Canada, is dead in the water. If he makes out of this whole debacle without ending up in a cell, he might have a second chance in the U.S. or overseas. After all, if famed sports announcer Marv Albert could resume calling NBA games after pleading guilty in 1997 to assault and battery (with plenty of kinky sex to go with it), then anything’s possible for a lesser-known man like Ghomeshi.

The court of public opinion is brutally swift

No court of law has convicted Ghomeshi of anything, but at this point, he’s already guilty in the eyes of many in the court of public opinion. That might not seem fair on the face of it, but it’s inevitably what happens when multiple voices come forward alleging the same thing about the same person. I had just become a teenager when Michael Jackson was dogged by accusations of child abuse in 1993-94, a stigma that he never really escaped, partly due to his eccentricities around children and the sensationalism surrounding the case. His introverted lifestyle at his Neverland ranch only fed the frenzy further.

Personally, I’ve never really believed Jackson had ever molested kids. Based on the facts that have been released from the beginning, the evidence is conflicting hearsay that actually makes the accusers look like nothing more than extortionists. It was the fact that he was willing to settle the first case with the Chandler family out of court that condemned Jackson in the eyes of many. Read up on the Chandlers and what they’ve been up to since, and you can’t help but feel Jackson got railroaded.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure how a case like Ghomeshi’s can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt without a confession from him, but in the eyes of the public right now, his guilt is all but assured. Much of the media coverage has focused on the victims and their stories, with some also delving into character analysis to try and understand how such an apparently affable man could behave so egregiously.

I find that the public tends to gloss over the details and fixates instead on the summary. I’m curious to know if the woman who first accused Ghomeshi actually intended to refute her allegations, as he claimed she wanted to in his post. I also wonder about the emails his lawyer claims discredit the women who first accused him (not sure if that would include the later ones who came forward). I’m also interested to learn what kind of consent was given by women to sanction his behaviour, as he pointed out in his statement. The CBC’s handling of all this also warrants asking some questions.

One of those reportedly abused by Ghomeshi wrote an emotional firsthand account of her encounter with him, including why she never reported it to police. Some have questioned why these women didn’t file charges to begin with, but as has been seen in other sex scandals, it takes one victim to come forward publicly before the other dominoes start falling. Since his statement on Facebook, Ghomeshi has sued CBC for $55 million and kept a low-profile, saying nothing more than that he intends to “meet these allegations directly”. Toronto police have also launched an investigation, as has the CBC.

If there’s ever an example of a man’s life turning upside down in short order, this is it. In the eyes of the public at large, Ghomeshi has gone from a respected radio host asking pointed interview questions to a pariah who will be brought in for questioning sometime soon.