Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been publicly accused of many of the Seven Deadly Sins, but until last night Lust never figured among them. That’s when Sarah Thompson, publisher of Women’s Post and former mayoral candidate in the 2010 election, took to social media to accuse Ford of unwelcome come-ons and then sexually assaulting her at a public event. In a Facebook post, Thomson intimated Ford grabbed her behind while a photo was being taken, one that shows her smiling broadly and the mayor looking totally out of it. (Making the media rounds today here, here, and here, Thomson was more explicit, saying the mayor “grabbed my ass.”) In a statement, Ford blasted the allegations as “completely false.” He called Thomson a liar who put a damper on International Women’s Day: “What is more surprising is that a woman who has aspired to be a civic leader would cry wolf on a day where we should be celebrating women across the globe.”
Now we’re mired in the he said-she dynamic said that often underlines accusations of sexual assault, a fluid term under the Criminal Code that includes everything from unwanted touching to rape. The sort of “touchy-feely” assault Thomson accused Ford of is a fact of life for many women (and men), so routine it’s brushed off, not regarded as the criminal offence it is. (Tellingly, by noon, the controversy was jokingly dismissed as “Assgrabgate.”) Thomson says she has no plans to press charges; she just wants an apology from Ford and to “move on.” She believes using the kangaroo court of social media to air her allegations is adequate remedy: ”If I sweep under the carpet, I’m not doing what I should as a woman leader in Toronto,” she said.
Thomson’s utterances over the day revealed the spectrum of contradictory attitudes about sexual assault. On one hand, she seems sympathetic to Ford, noting he already “had enough lawsuits” (maybe she was worried hers would get lost in the pile). She explained she also didn’t want to lay charges because, as the chair of the Transit Alliance, she has “to work with him” (her venting on Facebook and today’s media whirlwind might also put a crimp in that). She acknowledged the behaviour was out of character, noting Ford was always “a professional” and “very courteous.” She even attempted to diagnose the problem, suggesting “he may have substance abuse issues,” a comment she rescinded. Her first instinct was to counter his alleged assault with one of her own, she wrote on Facebook: “I wanted to punch him in the face.” She even downplayed the import of the grab: “I know I shouldn’t be pissed but after spending 10 months on the campaign trail together you expect a little bit of respect at the very least for my husband.”
But if Thomson’s allegation is true, she should be “pissed”–for herself and the community. Sexual assault is serious. Accusing someone of sexual assault is serious. It’s also a continuum, a point made clear during the global “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” backlash against sexual assault seen on International Women’s Day. Today we paid homage to Jyoti Sigghn Pandey, the woman whose brutal rape and murder in India exposed systemic acceptance of heinous attacks on women. On CBC’s The Current this week, journalist Sally Armstrong, who covered female subjugation the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa long before it was on mainstream media radar, discussed the rise-up movements women are staging in Afghanistan and Egypt, drawing attention to sexual assault in the streets. And we also saw media coverage of Ellie Cosgrove, a British woman who staged a protest in the London Underground to draw attention to the creep who ejaculated on her leg when she was riding the subway.
Comparatively, laying charges against someone groping a female behind may seem inconsequential, making a mountain out of a molehill and a waste of dwindling public resources. But that’s the wrong way of looking at it, says Toronto criminal lawyer Susan Chapman. Sexual assault is not a private matter, she says: “It’s a crime against the community. It’s demeaning to a woman, undermining her autonomy and the respect she should be held in. We don’t pay enough attention to that. Women don’t need to put up with that crap in 2013.” Changes were made to the criminal code in 1993, Chapman points out, to take out the notion that “penetration” is the only way to interfere with someone’s sexual integrity.
Chapman would like to see Thomson take her complaint to police. “This is not some crazy on the subway who grabbed your ass,” she says of the allegation. But laying charges can be a no-win for women, she admits: “They get a rough ride. If you lay charges, you’re a bitch and you have to do testify at trial and you get ripped apart. Or you go light on the guy and give him a warning and then people say you should commit to it.” But charges don’t have to be laid for police to investigate, Chapman says. Whether police should proceed to criminal charges is another matter: “They have to take into serious account the view of the plaintiff. She does pay an awful price to go through the process. But that’s not a reason not to investigate.” The fact a crime is common is a reason for the police to prosecute, Chapman says, as seen with crackdowns on impaired driving or cabbie robberies.
Thomson wants to believe “publicly talking about it will change the way people behave.” Chapman thinks that’s optimistic, and the partisan mob mobilizing seen today suggests she’s right: ”To do it on social media diminishes the significance,” she says. ”It’s going to get people talking. But is it going to persuade them of the impropriety of the conduct? Not necessarily.”