What Sarah Thomson (And Rob Ford) Remind Us About Sexual Assault

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.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    Some days I wish professional politicians had a body like the law society to discipline them…


  2. As nobody else on this board seems prepared to take Ms.Galldin & Ms. Robertson to task for one aspect of their article, I’m going to wade where I’d prefer not to.

    Given that there’s still a presumption of innocence – especially for someone who hasn’t been charged with any crime by any authority – we should ask ourselves:

    1. Why the authors did not write “if Ms. Thomson or Mr. Ford can achieve some sort of satisfying closure ….” After all, Ms. Thomson has accused Mr. Ford of sexual assault. Unless she is prepared to admit she made it up the story, or was somehow mistaken – I am not suggesting anything about what did or did not happen – how will she achieve “satisfactory closure” without Mr. Ford conceding some version of Ms. Thomson’s story? If Ms. Thomson’s allegations are not true, how does Mr. Ford “achieve satisfactory closure”?

    2. Why the authors, who are lawyers, and at least because of this are supposed to know better, tried the “he’s a bad person, therefore … ” shtick? What other relevant purpose could there be in writing: “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” other than to imply that this history supports Ms. Thomson’s allegations? I see none.

    As to Mr. Ford, regardless of one’s opinion of the man, not only is he entitled to the presumption of innocence but he IS innocent until proven guilty. There are many places where that fact will be forgotten. This board should not be one of those places, especially in a piece by members of Slaw who are practicing lawyers.

    David Cheifetz

  3. great article, thanks for writing it

  4. Thank you for writing this article – I am learning so much about sexual assault and the sense of male entitlement that perpetuates it. I only hope that going public through social media and the backlash that I received has not scared victims of sexual assault into silence.
    Again thank you so very much for your words.
    Sarah Thomson

  5. Hello there……

    Please forgive my forthcoming use of mild profanity……..hopefully it will not trigger one of two events……A) The deletion of my comment and B) A visit from the Toronto Police Service for “thought crimes”……

    Ahhhhh yes, the politics of southern Ontario are the politics of the thin-skinned, quivering, overly litigious and uber-politically correct who, having the Canadian Human Rights Commission on speed-dial, find offence and some sort of brain-searing “ism” in everything from breakfast cereal to long-distance calling plans.

    Sometimes persons and their windmills can best be described as the work of a malodorous, circular muscle, located in the southern hemisphere of the human body, responsible for controlling waste disposal.

    And sometimes, as we have so oft witnessed in Ontario, an asshole is just that……an asshole.

    Back in the day, a woman would have simply spun around and slapped Rob Ford in face, if he had pinched a bum, but in this case, I seriously doubt he did.

    Imagine that, a cad and a boor, slapped in the face on the national stage…..a fitting punishment and one that would have garnered more negative press than the alternative long-winded whimpering and whining we have been subjected to.

    In the alternative, speaking of all things “ass”, there are many in the public eye who have stated that ass-gate is simply a thinly veiled attempt to gain exposure after taking an ass-whipping in the run for the mayoralty of Toronto…….

    Now, taking all of this in stride, as a result of my advancing years, my rapidly receding hairline and rapidly expanding waistline, my posterior has developed a complex, feeling somewhat unloved and unwanted…….I would be more than willing to present it at any time, any where, for the pinching, slapping, probing and general molestation at the hands of any reasonably attractive woman……..

    Any takers….????

    Regards, Don Laird
    Edson, Alberta, Canada

  6. David Collier-Brown

    Having lived through Mel, and hit a new low with Rob, I suspect the qualifications for Mayor may now includes assholery.

    Alas, one doesn’t expect that in a civilized city, and so until you get your bum pinched, you’re not prepared for a reasonable response. Something like beating up the , or perhaps filming him in the act.

    Hmmn… perhaps Google Glasses and living in a panopticon aren’t as bad as I’d initially thought… I wonder if I can start a business creating Google Pants?


  7. m. diane kindree

    Can social media “justice”, in this case of alleged sex assualt, be the means by which established injustices (“she said, he said”) are sanctioned in the future?

    I agree that drinking is not to blame but excess, in some individuals, can fuel innate aggressive and violent behavior. Did Ms. Thomson report the incident to the organizers/security staff of the event?

    I think Lewis Carroll, in this passage from “Through the (Legal) Looking-Glass,” has summed up my problem with the practice of “social media justice.”

    “There’s the King’s Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.”
    “Suppose he never commits the crime?” said Alice.
    “That would be all the better, wouldn’t it?”

    I came to the conclusion many years ago, that the social media whirlwind may merely be exchanging one abuse for another while never resolving the problem of why we can’t treat each other with more respect, dignity and empathy.