Last week Sarah Thomson took to social media to recount her version of the events of Thursday March 7 when she attended the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee Action Party event. Early Friday morning she posted to Facebook that Mayor Rob Ford grabbed her ass and made suggestive comments to the effect that he wished she had been in Florida with him as they could have had fun since his wife wasn’t there. She has characterized the incident as assault. Rob Ford has denied the allegations and said during his radio show on the weekend that he’s always believed that she is “not playing with a full deck”.
Both sides have made a variety of public accusations and statements since and in reviewing how this story is unfolding online we can take from it reminders of some timeless lessons about sexual assault.
Sexual Assault is not just about rape
In a comment on her Facebook post Ms. Thomson herself questions whether ass grabbing constitutes sexual assault. Yes it does. Not to mention the fact that it was supplemented by suggestive comments about having fun in his wife’s absence. That’s unwelcome sexual comments and unwelcome non-consensual sexual touching. That’s assault.
Alcohol doesn’t cause or justify sexual assault
Many people have been coming forward speaking to how much either of them had to drink that night. Suggestions of intoxication go both ways. It’s been noted that the event involved an open bar and eyewitnesses (including city counselors) have come forward to say that they saw Ms. Thomson drinking scotch. On her part she has said that Ford seemed drunk and “out of it” and openly questioned whether he was using cocaine.
Who was intoxicated on what is irrelevant. Coke doesn’t sexually assault women and whiskey doesn’t justify assaulting them or cause women to lie about it.
The “crazy woman” response is not ok
In his first public comment about Ms. Thomson’s experience of assault Rob Ford dismissed her by saying that in his opinion he’s always said, “I don’t know if she’s playing with a full deck”. Insulting the person calling you out for assault does not get you off the hook. It’s disrespectful, it’s ableist, it's discriminatory and not a defense to your action.
The criminal justice system may not be the best remedy
In fact, in our experience it usually isn’t. Many people have questioned Ms. Thomson’s use of social media to speak out about her experience. Some have challenged her by arguing that if she was really telling the truth she should report it to the police, or that laying criminal charges is the best way to resolve this.
As feminists working in the anti- Violence Against Women movement have known for years, calling the police is often not a woman’s best option for seeking justice or for recovering from her assault. In fact, the criminal justice system often re-victimizes victims of sexual assault. Once involved in the criminal justice system, victims have no agency over the process and their voices are often not heard. Ms. Thomson taking to social media is a good reminder that women can seek resolution in the way that best suits them and that we don’t have to rely on police or the criminal justice system.
Friends and colleagues are assaulters
Rob Ford and Sarah Thomson were not strangers. As she mentioned, they spent a time on the campaign trail together in 2010 and on the night in question she had approached him to say hello. Ms. Thomson has said recently that up until this point she has always found Rob Ford to be respectful and professional. She also posted a photo of her and Rob Ford taken that night (she’s smiling and he has his eyes closed). Some haters have pointed out that she was looking pretty friendly and like she was having a good time.
Contrary to inaccurate stereotypes, sexual assault is not usually violence perpetrated by scary strangers. Statistically, aggressors most commonly are our family members, dates, partners, lovers, friends, employers, colleagues or acquaintances. And if she was smiling in the photo it doesn’t change the fact that she was not happy about the unwelcome non-consensual sexual touching that followed.
Misogyny is alive and well
It really only takes a quick glance at the comment section of any story to be reminded of this. It is disgusting to see how strangers viscerally attack Ms. Thomson in reaction to her speaking out about her sexual assault. From accusing her of lying, to calling her ass “too scrawny to be grabbed”, to threatening violence, to implying that she was asking for it.
This is not to mention the Mayor of Toronto’s own public record on women which is recounted in detail and in chronological order here at the end of this Grid piece.
Although we can’t predict how this story will continue to play out publicly and how and if Ms. Thomson can achieve some sort of satisfying closure we can definitely take these lessons as reminders of what we already know to be true: sexual assault takes many forms and remains a prevalent form of violence against women as does our society’s response to victims who chose to speak out against it.