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Photos from The Ghomeshi Effect's Facebook page.

The Ghomeshi Effect: Conversations about sexual violence take centre stage

By Maria-Helena Pacelli on January 17, 2017

Content warning: sexual violence, criminal justice system, Jian Ghomeshi trial

As a survivor, when I started hearing the news break about Jian Ghomeshi and sexual assault allegations I became distressed. The news was soon permeating my social media, and conversations seemed to become polarized: survivors speaking out and apologists chiming in to save their beloved radio hero. I had to unfriend some people from my Facebook because their comments were too triggering and problematic and they resisted every effort to be educated on the deeply damaging effects of sexual assault, gendered violence and the patriarchal system that is complicit in protecting perpetrators.

As a feminist artist interested in these issues, when I saw Jessica Ruano’s first posts about The Ghomeshi Effect I felt relieved: I wasn’t the only one thinking about this and trying to make something of it. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but I knew someone was listening.

I didn’t fully realize what the piece was about until I attended a rehearsal last week. I know Jessica Ruano personally, so I had arranged to attend and see what the work was about before writing about it. It was important to me that people know about this production, because following the posts about it online in the aftermath of Ghomeshi’s outrageous acquittal outrageous acquittal was a small space of solace from the overwhelming misogyny that seemed omnipresent amidst conversations about sexual assault, convictions, punitive justice, healing, and Jian Ghomeshi himself. But The Ghomeshi Effect has very little to do with him aside from borrowing the phrased coined by journalists in the media storm following the trial..

The Ghomeshi Effect is a “verbatim dance-theatre production” that explores conversations on sexual assault. The piece is a complex work that uncovers conversations that are often excluded from the public arena and shows how diverse the plurality of voices and intersecting concerns are that intertwine with each individual story of abuse, assault or violence.

As an artist, I related so much to Ruano’s words that theatre is ‘just how I communicate’. Herself a theatre-based artist looking to make sense of all the conversations about sexual violence that she was being bombarded with at that time, her approach was to interview survivors, perpetrators, probation officers and community members mostly based out of Ottawa and curate content from these interviews as a series of staged conversations, reflections or monologues that share some of the depths that have been hushed until the Ghomeshi trial broke some of the taboo and stereotypes around sexual violence.

While recognizing her perspective is not complete, Ruano’s work does so much with survivors in mind. All interviews are confidential and anonymous and the work done by cast and crew was taken on with respect for each story, and each other. Every performance is book-ended with dialogue and talk-back to frame the piece, with support workers are present on site wearing name tags.

There is a broader movement building component to this as well. Jessica is planning to continue these discussions by visiting high schools with a variation of the production. “That’s where change happens” she says. This work takes place in a broader context where lawyers are arguing for a trauma-informed approach to working with survivors within the legal system, a context where sexual assault support centres advocate letting the survivor decide whether pursuing criminal charges is in their best interest, as so few of them lead to convictions and drag survivor through a re-victimizing and stigmatizing process in which they are questioned, disbelieved and themselves put on trial.  Within this context, The Ghomeshi Effect is a space to land and have stories about sexual violence be told, reflected, believed an understood, existing in their own right without cross-examination.

This production is a vital step for a community dealing with the aftermath of a high profile, triggering and enraging sexual assault trial that displayed so clearly how the justice system fails survivors, how communities protect perpetrators. Conversations about sexual violence are often so nuanced and complex that they cannot be flattened into ‘victim’ vs. ‘criminal’ dichotomies that ultimately allow sexual violence to continue and blame women for ‘not leaving’ instead of holding abusers accountable. In a society where rape culture is dominant and survivors are cross-examined until proven credible, these conversations are a matter of survival.

The Ghomeshi Effect will run from January 19th to 28th at the Gladstone and at the Shenkman Arts Centre on February 2nd.

For those affected by sexual violence, please know that the following resources are available:

  • Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre (ORCC) Phone:  613-562-2333 Office Telephone Line: 613-562-2334
  • The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa Phone:  613-725-2160  
  • Ottawa Coalition To End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW) OCTEVAW is a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to ending violence against women and, through leadership, education, advocacy and political action, to promoting a coordinated response to women and their children who have experienced abuse. Phone: 613-237-1000
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