celebrity, status and consent. Complexity and toxicity.

What struck me as I followed (in a desultory and not overly committed way), the recent Canadian trial where a well-known celebrity was accused by women with whom he had had brief relationships, of brutal violent behaviour, was that almost every woman certainly for my generation, recognized this pattern.

If it did not happen to us personally, we have all known female friends who have, in confidence and clearly with a deep sense of shame (shame, incredibly, for themselves), who experienced something similar. Being invited out by a man to whom she was attracted, and the date going badly wrong.

This is not about ‘men’ and ‘male entitlement’ really. Quite honestly, most guys are fundamentally decent, and they treat women perfectly fine.  But in cases such as this one, the man behaved in a way that by anybody’s set of standards is absolutely brutish.

Imagine being asked out by somebody, going out on a date, getting romantic and then just at the most intimate moment the man pulls back and punches you in the head.

I actually really cannot imagine this, yet I actually have heard stories similar to this from people I know and trust. Sudden inexplicable violence accompanied, bizarrely, by endearments alternating with threats. A strange, toxic combination. How is anybody supposed to know how to deal with that? It is confusing, and distressing. Especially when the perpetrator acts as though it is perfectly normal. The women who confided similar stories to me were full of self-doubt. ‘Were they imagining it? Did they somehow caused this behaviour? Is it really that bad? Maybe that was just an aberration because actually in all well other respects he’s a really nice guy.’

When I heard stories like that from friends, the only advice I could really gave was to not see the guy again; in most cases they followed that advice and it was all forgotten; quite often the information about the guy’s behaviour was secretly shared among women and we just hoped that the guy would somehow stop doing it, or  – or what?

This case is complicated by the involvement of a high status individual, in this case a celebrity. The attraction of high status and celebrity cannot be discounted. We are exhorted on a constant basis to admire celebrities, to look up to them and to find them  much more desirable (including sexually desirable) than ‘civilians’.

I have to be really clear about this because it’s really important. We cannot discount the importance of status in this and similar cases. By the way I’m not conflating status with celebrity. Celebrities have fame, but not necessarily status, and this is particularly true of females. Status is something that society very infrequently gives to women. The celebrity in this case had high status, the imprimatur of the national broadcasting agency (which as we’ve seen in the UK, gives quite a lot of impunity).

The status thing also goes a long long way to explain why the women did have contact with the perp after the events. Disbelief is one factor (“did it really happen?”). Another is, “did I provoke him in some way?” Still another, most common,  is “I must have given him the impression I was up for  it – even if I wasn’t, so it’s my fault.” All of this underpinned by the culturally-reinforced belief that “he’s a celebrity/high status individual, higher status than me , stronger than me so he is by definition in the right.”

Status or celebrity also seems like a kind of insurance policy: a person wouldn’t really behave extremely badly because they’re so famous and everybody would know. Surely by now we know that’s really not true at all. Even after this trial, and thinking back on similar trials, there are still plenty of people out there who are willing to support and stand by a high status perpetrator. I’m thinking of Mike Tyson, William Burroughs, Bertrand Cantat and others, all fully rehabilitated, their victims forgotten. *

Unfortunately the law is a blunt instrument and is really incapable of dealing adequately with complicated situations such as this one. I suppose probably the outcome we have is the only one that could’ve been expected under the circumstances. Although not criminally convicted, the celebrity in this instance has been exposed as a deeply brutish individual who can no longer be considered fit as a public persona. Who wants to hear his voice on radio or see his face on the television screens ever again? Who would consent to being interviewed by him? Not an awful lot of people I imagine.

I really hope that the case makes everybody think.

Women, we really need to examine much more deeply the way in which we are attracted to high status individuals. This is something deeply embedded in the female psyche, and I’ve seen it and even experienced it myself (luckily at a remove). I’m thinking of women having crushes on their professors, bosses and so on.   This makes us extremely vulnerable. We have to start fundamentally accepting that we have to judge and value people purely as individuals and leave their status out of it completely.I’m not going to pretend that this would be easy. We exist in quite a toxic climate of traditional attitudes towards status and its connection with patriarchy, and a wholesale mass worship of celebrity. But then we don’t have to behave like sheep. We can think for ourselves.

Most importantly, we also collectively need to think about how abuse and assault and sexual assault is addressed broadly within society. What is consent? How do we measure it? What is consent IN sex, not just consent TO sex? When is sexual violence okay? In this case there does not seem to have been clear indicators that violence in sex was to be on offer. Does that then mean that, by consenting to sex, the women were consenting to violence in the bedroom? At this point we probably need to have some guidance from the BDSM community.

Unfortunately sex education never includes a discussion of the specificities that might come up in sexual activity. Just yesterday I read about an evangelical preacher who took it upon himself to spank the (female of course) members of his congregation as part of their religious practice. Although I laughed like a drain at the story, seeing it as evidence of religious hypocrisy, when I thought back on it, I thought it really disturbing. Did they freely consent to this, or were they brainwashed by a high status  person (in their community)  to accept it?

Nobody, not a male or female, gets properly educated in sex education about anything other than penetrative sex, avoiding sexual diseases and pregnancy. We don’t know how to talk about it, we don’t know how to explore it in a safe way, we don’t know how to refuse and reject it firmly (and with the backing of the law). Frankly, if somebody punches me in the face they’ve assaulted me. The fact that they did it while we were about to have sex doesn’t actually negate the fact of the assault. Yet apparently maybe it does. If the perpetrator says that I consented.

It’s interesting because the idea of consent in assaults outside of the bedroom doesn’t ever really come up. In these  I can’t remember ever hearing in any other context that  “it was OK because the victim was fine with being punched in the face.”** I suppose one of the problems is that the cases weren’t ‘sexual’ assault in the usual sense, they were regular old assault that took place during consensual sex and which the perpetrator justified as being part of  the sex.

Which makes those who are championing the accused need to take stock. How about if your sister, daughter or friend came to you and said “I was making out with this guy and he suddenly just hauled back and punched me in the face” – how would you feel? What would you say – “Oh that’s OK; it’s OK to be punched in the face if you agree to make out with the guy, because that’s just “rough sex” and any guy is entitled to expect that.” No you wouldn’t. You’d be appalled.
So, food for thought. I do think that it’s great that these things are starting to come out to the open and giving us a way to getting to talk about them. I do think  the recent exposure of celebrities at the BBC has been good. I think that the exposure of this celebrity at the CBC is good. There’s no point  wasting our energy on slagging the judge or talking about whether or not the victim’s testimony was credible. I’ve heard too many similar stories. It is credible – totally credible, sadly familiar and deeply depressing – but it doesn’t really fit with the narrow requirements of a legal case. So let’s move on from that and move forward and think about what really matters here – the impunity given to high status person and the lack of clarity about ‘consent’ – and maybe try to do something about it


  • Notice how, despite being convicted,  they are more attractive than Jimmy Saville or Rolf Harris? Maybe because they abused adult ‘consenting’ women?

    I’m also thinking about the much-feted national-treasure rock star who sexually used my 13 year old friend; the predatory guys in bands or band management; the charismatic professor. NOT ONE OF WHOM HAS EVEN BEEN CRITICISED, NEVER MIND PROSECUTED. And they will never be. Because their behaviour was fully approved by everyone by the sanctity of  status. They just did what society  told them they were entitled to.

** people sometimes refuse to press charges, but there is no discourse of  “permissible assault” – outside of ritualised sport of course!