Lucy DeCoutere will probably always be haunted by what she did after her alleged sexual assault.
In , the Canadian actor and was on a first date in Toronto with Jian Ghomeshi, who would later become the country’s most beloved radio host. They had been flirting over email for a month, and DeCoutere flew in from Halifax for the weekend. Though their dinner conversation was a little awkward – he frequently referenced his own rising fame – she found him charming enough that she decided to spend the night with him.
As she told the court last week during Ghomeshi’s trial, for which he faces and one count of overcoming resistance by choking, he started to kiss her and with “no buildup”, pushed her aggressively against a wall. Then he grabbed her by the throat and choked her hard enough that she couldn’t breathe. He slapped her twice, paused to look at her, and slapped her again.
Confused about how to act, DeCoutere stayed for another hour while Ghomeshi played his guitar and a record. Her actions in the days and weeks that followed became even more contradictory, given his alleged behavior.
She sent him an email early the next morning : “You kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to fuck your brains out. Tonight.” An odd reaction from someone who would later testify she did not consent to his violent behavior.
After the alleged assault, DeCoutere spent the rest of the weekend with Ghomeshi, having brunch, going to a BBQ and taking a photo of themselves cuddling in the park. When she returned home to Halifax she sent him flowers with a “Thanks for hanging out.”
DeCoutere also mailed him a letter less than a week later in cursive writing with: “I love your hands, Lucy.” The same hands he had allegedly used to choke her.
Since then, at least a dozen women Ghomeshi of sexual violence.
The way victims behave after a sexual assault is grossly misunderstood by the public and the legal system. Throughout Ghomeshi’s trial, which ended 11 February and will be ruled on in March, his defence lawyer Marie Henein focused on the contradictory actions of the three complainants, two of whose names are protected under a publication ban.
If he violently pulled witness No 1’s hair and punched her three times, why did she later send him a photo of herself in a red string bikini? If he really squeezed witness No 3 by the neck and smothered her mouth while they were kissing, why did she agree to another date in which she gave him a hand job? Why would DeCoutere send sexually forward emails to the man who abused her?
None of them had initially offered this information to police or the prosecutor, a fact Henein claimed further undermined their credibility. Yet while the women’s actions seem counterintuitive – why run towards a fist? – every lawyer or counsellor who has worked with survivors will tell you they’re extremely common behaviors.
Despite the mainstream perception that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers in dark alleys, in of cases, women know their attackers. Criminal lawyer Susan Chapman says it’s normal for her clients to let their rapists drive them home after an assault or take them out on more dates. “That’s what the real world looks like,” she says. “It’s not this imaginary green-saliva-drooling perpetrator scenario that you have in the back of your mind.”
When you have feelings for someone who then becomes sexually aggressive or abusive, the aftermath can be extremely hard to process.
It can be even harder when an assailant is popular. Ghomeshi was a beloved, successful and charming staple of Canada’s culture scene. He was liberal and touted feminist politics on-air. wanted his attention, and he was shameless about using his celebrity to get dates. If he picked you, you felt special. So if he hit you, it would have come as a huge surprise.
“He didn’t have this presentation of ongoing aggression and hostility,” says Lori Haskell, a clinical psychologist who focuses on violence against women. “He seemed so charming and affectionate, so how do you fit that [demeanor] in with ‘he suddenly punched me’? There’s real cognitive dissonance.”
“He’s very charming, you know, and you second-guess yourself,” . “You think, oh well, he’s calling, he wants to go out to dinner, he’s being really nice and saying all these great things. Maybe I misread it.”
To cope, many survivors focus on their perpetrator’s loving side and shut out the abuse. Most of who alleged they were raped and drugged by Jeffrey Marsalis, known as the “Match.com” rapist, (he was on two counts of sexual assault).
One woman, whose case was prosecuted, told in 2008 that Marsalis greeted her with “good morning” and a kiss after having anally raped her the night before. She agreed to another date.
Another woman, who Marsalis allegedly raped over the course of a weekend, a new pair of sheets after she woke up to find his bed soaked in her period blood. The Jekyll and Hyde-like switch between violence and tenderness can drive victims back to their abusers.
The desire to focus on an attacker’s positive qualities becomes even more acute in long-term relationships that involve financial or emotional dependence. Haskell describes how these survivors disassociate entirely from the traumatic experience and “go into automatic pilot”. One client who was strangled and choked by her partner made his favorite breakfast the next morning. She only remembered the abuse later, after looking in the mirror.
Obviously Ghomeshi was not married to any of these women, but the same psychological reaction could apply: if survivors ignore the trauma, they don’t have to become victims. In fact, many reach out to their attacker again specifically to try to regain power in the relationship.
Witness No 1 told the court she sent Ghomeshi a photo of herself in a bikini as “bait”; she hoped he would respond so she could understand why he punched her. DeCoutere wanted to see him again so that she’d have “control over things”. “Lucy’s comment ‘you kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to fuck yours brains out’ is almost a way of saying ‘I’m not going to be a victim and disempowered,’” says Haskell. “It felt like a way of trying to have some mastery.”
But while victims crave more control, women are socialized not to be angry with or confront men.
“Women are taught to clean up messes,” says Farrah Khan, who runs a sexual violence education and support program at a Canadian university. “We’re taught to mend, fix and befriend our abusers.”
DeCoutere talks about being a “people pleaser” who was uncomfortable with “negative feelings” she had towards Ghomeshi. When asked by Henein why she saw Ghomeshi after the alleged abuse, witness No 3 replied she is “notoriously” giving “second chances, and third and fourth”.
Often that instinct to appease others results in self-blame and self-hate. Did I deserve the abuse? Did I lead him on? Am I overreacting? “It takes women a long time to get to anger,” says Jennifer Long, who trains prosecutors how to better handle sex assault cases. “Anger is a self-protective emotion that tells us we’re being violated. If that’s disconnected, you don’t feel the need to be outraged.”
In her closing arguments, Henein zeroed in on the fact the witnesses had withheld their ongoing contact with Ghomeshi from police and the Crown. But that behavior is also not surprising.
“Most women do not disclose information that they can’t make sense of,” says Haskell. “They instead tend to deny and minimize it to themselves.” She says many are so focused on the traumatic event itself that “what they did afterwards doesn’t have any relevance in their view”.
The way victims actually behave in the real world is often too unsettling for the public and our legal system to acknowledge. It makes the world feel like a safer place to believe most rapists are strangers and that “real” victims are the ones who resist their attackers and immediately call the cops.
But the reality is that most victims are more like DeCoutere: their first instinct is often to write a love letter instead of file a police report.