Sarah Thomson vs. Rob Ford: The court of public opinion is often unfair

Emma Teitel on being groped — and taking revenge

Sarah vs Ford

David Cooper/Toronto Star

On the eve of International Women’s Day last week, Sarah Thomson, the publisher of Women’s Post magazine, attended a party for the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, where she was allegedly groped and propositioned by an “arrogant” and “outrageous” Rob Ford. The Toronto mayor grabbed her buttocks, Thomson claims, and expressed regret that she didn’t join him in Florida the week before, when his “wife wasn’t there.” She went even further—suggesting on morning radio that Ford might have been high on cocaine at the party because he was “talking fast.” Thomson went public with her claims via Facebook the morning after the alleged groping, and has since been deemed a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Not only because there are problems with her story (two other municipal councillors claim to have heard her telling a friend about a plan to entrap the mayor) but, considerably more disturbing, because people just don’t like her. She’s obnoxious, she has unconvincing political slogans, she’s too skinny: these are just a few of the completely unrelated Sarah Thomson criticisms circulating the Internet at the moment. Tarek Fatah, the writer and activist, criticized the Toronto publisher for being rich (he assumed, incorrectly, on Twitter, that she is “from the richest family in Canada,” those other Thomsons). Others have attacked her for her employment of the word “ass” in describing the incident (as in, “the mayor grabbed my ass”) and even for speaking publicly about the incident in the first place.

In other words, being modest—and not rich—would seem to be the preferred prerequisites for someone who is groped. Oh, how far we’ve come. But it doesn’t stop at modesty. Once you’ve been groped, there are, apparently, exactly two things you can do about it. Here’s Christie Blatchford, spelling out those two things, in the National Post: “If Ms. Thomson believed she was sexually assaulted, she should have complained to a traditional body with the expertise to conduct a proper investigation, like the police. 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?”

Press charges or keep quiet. Surely there is a happy medium in such a situation.

My ass, for example, has been grabbed more times than I can count, mostly in clubs and bars, and I haven’t once pressed charges. For me—and I suspect Thomson feels the same way—public groping is a momentarily perverse invasion of privacy, not an act of sexual violence. (It’s also incredibly hard to prove.) It makes me mad, not necessarily sad. But quiet? Never. In fact, on the particular ass-grabbing occasions I can recall, I sought out my girlfriends and we tried as best we could to publicly shame the guy responsible. We even had a technique at nightclubs—where dancing has devolved into arrhythmic mounting—of banding together and collectively remounting the guy who had groped us. It was the biblical solution to public groping: an ass for an ass.

Women have many choices in exacting revenge in the event of a public groping. They can be as immodest as they like—and yes, Tarek Fatah: as perversely rich, too.

And the notion that all sexual assault claims made by women who don’t go to the police are automatically false or at the very least suspicious is outrageous. According to a survey last year, 83 per cent of women who are sexually assaulted choose not to report it to the police because, ironically, they are convinced their attackers will never be brought to justice.

Still, as much as it pains me to say, some critics are right about one thing: Sarah Thomson may have made the wrong choice. Not about speaking out, but about with whom she is currently speaking. She didn’t go to the police with her accusation, perhaps because of the reasons outlined above. And she didn’t go to Rob Ford, to confront him directly. Instead, she came to us, the media. (And we aren’t, traditionally, known for our fair-minded and reasonable judgment.)

She chose to air her grievances not in a court of law but solely in the court of public opinion, where she is subject to the same scrutiny as her alleged abuser. She chose to deal with the incursion privately but in the most public setting, thereby forfeiting the protections of both realms. She chose the shaming route. She took the route of the 22-year-old at a nightclub, which, while it works in that realm, doesn’t work as well for the publisher of a magazine and a former contender for mayor.

I tend to believe she’s telling the truth, but because of her potentially libellous finger-pointing, refusal to consult police and utter lack of proof, the truth is something we may never discover. In a court of law, we might. In a court of law, Rob Ford would be innocent until proven guilty. But in the court of public opinion, Sarah Thomson is, unfortunately, guilty until proven innocent.

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