Last year, the IFLS revived a feminist book club tradition at Osgoode. The group will continue this year, and we would like to invite those interested in taking part for the year to join. All are welcome, regardless of whether your research interests align with the IFLS. We try to meet about once a month to discuss a book, graphic novel, poetry anthology or some other form of the written word, from a feminist perspective. There are usually treats! If you’re interested or have any questions, please send an email to Dana at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to seeing faces old and new as the school year starts up again.
Talk by Alexa DeGagne, 2015-16 Visiting Scholar in Sexuality Studies
On Thursday, Jian Ghomeshi was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. For many, the verdict came as no surprise.
You can read the full decision here.
Unfortunately, the message does not always get across. For those not already well-versed in the multiple barriers faced by complainants in sexual assault trials, feminists who decry the intense scrutiny of complainant behaviour, brutalizing tactics of defence lawyers, and rape myths that continue to pervade decisions like this one just under the surface, are easily dismissed as raging social media mobsters for whom “Ghomeshi is damned well guilty, and this reasonable doubt stuff is just slippery legalese.”
The line between standing up for survivors and reversing the presumption of innocence can seem perilously thin. We should be wary of the temptation to gloss over the question of evidence too easily, or take a judge’s words out of context, even in the heat of justified anger. The verdict in this particular case was not wrong; to convict on the evidence as it stood probably would have been.
But in the words of Amanda Dale: “The institutional shadow cast by the false stereotypes about claimants is in no way equivalent in influence to the raw call to believe sexual assault survivors coming from outside the courtroom.”
That the evidence didn’t stand up in court does not mean that the many brave women who came forward were collectively lying about their experiences of violence with Ghomeshi. Justice Horkins himself recognized in his decision (problematic as it was, more on that below), that a finding of not guilty does not mean that the events described did not happen – a reality all too common in cases of sexual assault. Here lies the problem. Here is the good reason we have to be angry: the total disconnect between the law and women’s actual lives.
I attended the final day of the Ghomeshi trial as well as another sexual assault trial taking place around the same time at Old City Hall. Around that time, I had two particularly heated exchanges with defence lawyers, one right inside the overflow courtroom where we heard the closing submissions in the Ghomeshi trial. For those lawyers, and others quoted in the media, this case is about credibility and the presumption of innocence, full stop.
I get that. But what about the reality of sexual violence in thousands of women’s lives? What about the vast majority of cases that never make it to court because women don’t feel they have the financial, emotional, social or legal resources to come forward? What about the financial, emotional and social consequences for those who do go stick it out through a trial in which every detail of their personal lives is publicly scrutinized, only for a judge to find that their stories don’t measure up?
When I raised these issues with the lawyers I spoke to, they basically just shrugged.
While the verdict may have been right, as Professor Brenda Cossman and many others have pointed out, Justice Horkins’ reasons perpetuate skeptical and distrusting attitudes towards sexual assault complainants, giving them yet one more reason not to bother coming forward in the first place.
On the one hand, this judge, like the other I observed in Mandy Gray’s sexual assault trial, clearly recognized that sexual stereotyping could get them into trouble. They would need to look no further than the fate of Judge Camp following his rape-myth riddled 2014 decision in R v Wagar.
I suppose that is something. The problem is that the analysis stops there. As Professor Julie MacFarlane notes, once lip service is paid to the hard-learned dangers of rape myths, the myths keep right on doing their work under a thinly veiled cover.
If Justice Horkins claims that “[c]ourts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants”, then why does he repeatedly rebuke the complainants for not recognizing the relevance of this conduct? And why is he so confident in concluding that the complainants’ behaviour is “odd” and “out of harmony” with the alleged assault.
If it is “entirely natural” for survivors to become involved in advocacy work, then why does he feel comfortable speculating that such work might give a witness the motive to lie.
Perhaps most troubling of all is the condescending suggestion, after meticulously listing all of the shortcomings of the complainants’ testimony, that being a witness in a criminal trial is “really quite simple: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Unfortunately, for many women who experience sexual violence, the truth isn’t actually that simple.
The troubling thing about this case is not the presumption of innocence absent a high standard of proof. It is the failure to see anything beyond it.
Just when you thought the IFLS Book Club picks couldn’t get any more awesome, for our final gathering of the semester we will be reading Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown. The book’s website describes it as “an anthology of visionary science fiction and speculative fiction written by organizers and activists.” Pretty excited about this.
Here’s a description from the website:
Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction. Organizers and activists struggle tirelessly to create and envision another world, or many other worlds, just as science fiction does… so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than through writing original science fiction stories? Co-editors adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha offer us Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, as a way to uncover the truths buried in the fantastical – and to inject a healthy dose of the fantastical into our search for truth.
The anthology consists of radical science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy/horror/magical realism short stories written by activist-writers who are actively involved in building movements for social change. They use their experience doing community work as the muse for their fiction. The collection will also include essays about the radical potential of science fiction by people like award-winning science fiction writer Tananarive Due and award-winning journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Octavia’s Brood (to be released summer 2014) is the first book to explore deeply the connections between radical science fiction, what we call “visionary fiction,” and movements for social change through the vehicle of short stories. We believe that radical science fiction is actually better termed visionary fiction because it pulls from real life experience, inequalities and movement building to create innovative ways of understanding the world around us, paint visions of new worlds that could be, and teach us new ways of interacting with one another. Visionary fiction engages our imaginations and hearts, and guides our hands as organizers.
Many radical minds believe this field was evolved by late science fiction writer Octavia Butler, for whom this collection is named. Butler explored the intersections of identity and imagination – exploring the gray areas of race, class, gender, sexuality, militarism, inequality, oppression, resistance and most importantly, hope.
The book club will be meeting on March 30 at Osgoode. If you’d like to join, please email me at email@example.com for details. Space is limited, but we will accommodate as many people as we can. Please also feel free to email to share your thoughts about the book!
Feminist Experiences of Law
Provocations III: IILAH
27-28 October 2016
Room 920, Level 9, Melbourne Law School
Experience is central to feminist thinking and praxis. Understood as the personal, as the subjective, as political formation, as method, or as a contested concept in philosophy, history, sociology, literary and cultural theory, experience had long shaped debates and struggles about what it means to think and act as a feminist.
The work that experience does, and has done, in how feminists understand, contest and live with law has official and unofficial histories, and distinct and diverse forms of contemporary argument. This conference seeks to draw together a broad community of scholars and activists to consider, and reconsider, feminist experiences of law. We invite papers from a range of disciplinary, practice and experiential perspectives – reform and socio-legal projects, legal and feminist theories, legal histories and life writing, institutional and doctrinal analysis. We are interested in new ideas, new scholarship, new experiences, and encourage papers that deploy a range of styles and genres.
Following the successful ‘Post feminism/ post critique’? workshop convened at ANU in 2015, the Feminist Experiences of Law workshop will adopt a similar collaborative and egalitarian format. There will be opportunity for 18 participants to present papers; but we encourage others to attend to broaden the conversation. The workshop will however be capped at 40 participants, to enable opportunities for close engagement. There is no registration cost.
Call For Papers
If you would like to give a paper at the Workshop, we invite you to submit a 300 word abstract that addresses the broad themes of the workshop by 30 May 2016 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Successful participants will be notified by 30 June 2016. Paper presenters will be expected to read and engage closely with the other papers in their session in the lead up to the workshop. Details of the form of this engagement will be circulated closer to the workshop date. We welcome abstracts from Early Career Researchers and Doctoral Candidates. Please note we have some capacity to provide travel bursaries for up to 5 PhD candidates and early career researchers, if selected to give papers. Please indicate in your abstract if you would like further information about this.
If you would like to participate in the workshop although not give a paper, please register by email to email@example.com by 30 May 2015. We would encourage all participants to be available for the two days of the workshop, and be prepared to engage in conversation. Successful participants will be notified by 30 June 2016.