Sarah Thomson. The latest in a long line of women, from before Anita Hill on, to fall victim to the reality that many men (and sadly women) will take the word of a rich or powerful male, or excuse their behaviour, over the completely plausible claims of a woman. Even when, as in this case, the man in question has a long history of having a problem with the truth.
To those who have somehow missed the latest scandal to hit Toronto’s Ford administration, Thomson is a former mayoral candidate who ran against Toronto’s present mayor Rob Ford in 2010, and who says that Ford groped her and made inappropriate comments to her at a social function a week ago.
Her account has been disputed, of course, by the mayor, as well as by his staff (a hardly disinterested group) and others, including a Richmond Hill City Councillor who has himself been accused of inappropriate conduct.
Much ink has been wasted on entirely unproven whisper campaigns about Thomson, when we know the actual, public record truth about Rob Ford and his past conduct.
Ford is a rich man, raised with a silver spoon firmly in mouth, who has somehow managed to get out of drunk driving and drug possession charges in Florida that would have landed most in that state in jail, who has a proven track record of behaving inappropriately when drunk, who has had his wife call the police on him on multiple occasions, including one time where he was actually charged with spousal abuse, who broke the rules when it came to campaign finances and got off only due to the cowardice of a municipal committee, (to name just a few of many incidents), and whose entitled arrogance is not only predictable… it is justified by the fact that he is never held to account for the actions that would end the carriers of so many others.
Yet we are supposed to doubt Thomson’s account?
Beyond the self-evident idiocy and misogyny of this, and beyond the totally reactionary nature of disputing a woman’s claims of sexual assault or misconduct based on her “character” or her supposed “mental instability,” a week later what has happened to Sarah Thomson is a case study in the nature of today’s online and media misogyny.
It is as if the last 40-plus years of feminist struggle and education around issues of sexual assault simply never happened.
This is not a question of Ford’s guilt or innocence in a legal sense, which would be for the courts to decide if Ms. Thomson were to lay charges. It is the fact that so many are so outright dismissive of, indeed hostile to her claims, finding the very idea that a powerful man could do such a thing so brazenly and publicly must either automatically be a lie or that what he did was really no big deal. The fact that so many would act as if rape culture didn’t exist. The fact that so many feel it is acceptable to attack a woman who says she was victimized either because they like Ford, dislike her, or both. And that they would use all the historic methods of attacking a woman’s claims as if we have learned nothing as a society about just how, sadly, rather ordinary and commonplace such incidents of groping and sexual assault actually are (A very good overview of the legal issues around this, and, among other things, why going to the media instead of the police may have been a sensible choice, can be found at Slaw, an online legal magazine).
Take the completely irrelevant claims that Thomson is “not playing with a full deck” put out to discredit her by Ford, and parroted all over the place by his supporters and others. This is not only unsubstantiated, but even if it were true that Sarah Thomson had mental health issues, this has no bearing, at all, on the legitimacy of her claims. This tactic of claiming that a woman who suffers from mental health issues is disqualified from being taken seriously when she makes accusations of sexual assault is an old and particularly vile one. One would have hoped that it had been relegated to a previous era unenlightened as to the realities of sexual assault, but apparently this is not the case.
Much of the print media has joined in the action, casting doubt on Thomson’s claims in columns and opinion pieces in ways they never would were it to involve someone other than the far right’s Teflon mayor. Examples range from a totally disingenuous column in the Toronto Sun by Jerry Agar stating that Thomson’s story “lacks consistency” (and, among other things, citing the online news poll of a right-wing talk radio station as “evidence” that Torontonians agree with him!) to the appalling column by Christie Blatchford that starts with a heart-warming anecdote about how proud her dad was when a famous hockey player grabbed her knee under the table at a dinner event when she was a young woman and ends by telling Thomson that if she was unwilling to go to the police and if “she believed the mayor had just been a boor, she should have kept her mouth shut; wherever did the notion of discretion among ostensibly capable adults go?”.
How very original of Ms. Blatchford, telling a woman who says she has been groped or assaulted by a powerful man to shut up and show some discretion.
Much worse are the deeply disturbing and profoundly misogynist comments that can be found all over the Internet from her Facebook wall to almost any article on the subject you will find online. They are indicative of a new climate of hate towards women and a newly emboldened sense among many men (and some women) that they can publicly say whatever they want and not have to fear being held to account for it, no matter how disgusting.
From the commenter who said ” Maybe you’d be better accommodated in jamaica (sic). cheap pot and genuine ass-grabbers.”, to the one who opined “You Kevin are a complete fucking idiot. Typical liberal. Stating she is a role model when she is nothing more than a lying, deceitful whore,” to “There was a lot nicer looking women at that party, so WHY would he grab your wrinkly old ass? And get rid of the dreads.”, to much, much worse. And these were taken from her Facebook page alone!
This is by no means, as we all know, happening to Thomson only. Disgraceful misogyny is normal online and is regularly directed at women; whether public figures or otherwise. One aspect of this is what is known as the “manosphere,” the online web of misogynist hate sites where the type of rape culture denial and language we are talking about is commonplace. The Southern Poverty Law Center drew attention to this in the spring of last year.
More insidious and pervasive is the daily misogyny one runs into on mainstream websites in the comment sections. With the advent of the Internet most North Americans now constantly and repeatedly encounter such explicitly misogynist language anytime they look at online discussions or forums that have anything at all to do with specific women or women’s issues, never mind discussions of female movie stars, sports figures, singers, etc. This no doubt helps to fuel the politics of backlash as this relentless online misogyny makes every sexist pig aware that they are not alone.
Constant exposure to it also leads many men to feel that it is acceptable to talk this way in public, and it is impossible not to think that it is having an impact on the way young men, raised on the Internet, see and talk about women.
Rebecca Meredith, asking rhetorically after being subjected to misogynist heckling at a university debate, writes:
Worse still, outside the world of debating there are those who think nothing of posting on the internet terrifying and often violent threats towards women they have never met, and happily discuss on forums how they will ‘bag the next honey’ on a Saturday night by plying her with alcohol.
How on earth did this happen? And why? Years ago such behaviour was regarded as not merely ungentlemanly but a symbol of the yob. How has it now become acceptable among some well-educated young men?
What has heralded this tide of fury and disregard for women? After all, these men must have mothers, sisters or girlfriends.
Yet they seem to find the topics of rape and abuse hilarious, or worse, typical ‘water-cooler conversation’.
One of the many millions of girls and women publicly abused and denigrated by the rise of this newest, latest, internet driven culture of misogyny.
When women come forward, as Sarah Thomson did, to face a barrage of hatred, not only do they not deserve to have their characters, mental health and motives insulted and dragged through the mud, they also deserve our support.