Twenty-five years ago, I was a graduate student attending a conference, where a reputable senior scholar showed an emphatic interest in some questions I asked from the audience. Following his talk, he sought me out. The next day, he approached me again, this time insisting we meet for coffee. I knew that professors rarely showed such unrelenting interest in students and their ideas. Finding his behaviour rather odd and being more interested in spending a sunny afternoon outside, I refused his invitation. Only decades later did I understand how vulnerable I might have been, when stories surfaced about his serial sexual pursuit of young women.
Decades before my conference encounter, Bonnie Robichaud went to her first day as a cleaner at CFB North Bay, in Ontario. As she explains in It Should Be Easy to Fix, she was a young immigrant and the married mother of five; full-time employment, with steady hours and good pay, was a relief after years of precarious, part-time jobs. Initially, she writes, “things were rolling along fairly nicely.” Then, in an unhappy portent of things to come, she had to learn to avoid a foreman who “was inclined to pinch the women’s bums.” Still, she was generally able to get on with her work.
Things changed when Robichaud earned a promotion. Many of the men she now supervised resented her, and they sabotaged her in petty ways — like slowing down repairs on her vacuum cleaner. She sought support from her manager, a senior officer: “The major listened to me, didn’t offer any solutions, and took no action.” This was to be characteristic of her employer’s attitude when she began experiencing daily sexual harassment from her own supervisor, Dennis Brennan.
Brennan started with relentless “sex talk,” which escalated to demands for sexual favours in an atmosphere of anger and intimidation. Robichaud was acutely aware that her job was on the line, and she does not spare the details in recounting that period. Once she met Brennan in a parking lot outside his apartment, which she acknowledges was a spectacularly ill-judged attempt to end the harassment. “His response was to take his penis out and ask me to give him a blowjob,” she writes. The effects on her life —“crying a lot at home, yelling at the kids, going to bed late and sleeping poorly, having nightmares about work”— are devastating to read about, as are her thoughts of suicide. “There had been times when I considered jumping off a cliff,” she admits. “But I wasn’t going to do that. I said to myself that nobody but nobody was going to cheat me out of seeing my children grow up.”
Looking back, Robichaud is frustrated that she had no vocabulary to describe what she was experiencing — and that she felt the situation was somehow her own fault. “People talk about an imbalance of power. But what does that mean?” she asks. “What does it feel like to have your boss — who has the say over whether or not you have a job — weekly, daily, hourly, even calling you at home, harassing and demanding attention from you. What does it feel like to live in this bubble, where no one else apparently sees what is happening to you, and you are too afraid to tell anyone, and all along you imagine that you can take care of it.”
Robichaud describes this time in her life as “a nightmare” on multiple occasions. “I didn’t want his attention and I couldn’t get away from it,” she writes. And though her tormentor was inescapable, Robichaud was determined to keep the only secure position she had ever known. “Why should I quit?” she reasoned. “If anything, Brennan should go if he couldn’t keep his hands and his penis to himself.” She made a series of informal complaints and then formal grievances, hoping to end the harassment. Unbelievably, the grievances had to be approved by Brennan himself. He simply laughed as he signed the papers.
Brennan had little reason to worry; the Department of Defence dismissed the accusations. But Robichaud, determined to be heard, submitted a formal complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which referred it to a tribunal. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘tribunal’ meant and had to look it up in the dictionary,” she recalls. “I just knew this would give me an opportunity to have the truth told to a third party.” (Her sexual harassment complaint was the first ever referred for inquiry by the commission.) No longer complacent, Brennan threatened her at work and then served her with a lawsuit (later dismissed) for slander.
Two years later, Robichaud’s day in court arrived — the first of many to come. “Each time I testified, going over the events, I relived them,” she writes of the difficult and draining experience. “Each time, I was again humiliated, belittled, and embarrassed. By the end of my testimony, I was exhausted.” The presiding lawyer at the commission concluded that Robichaud was truthful but found no evidence of sexual harassment, explaining that the repeated encounters, including masturbation and fellatio, required her “voluntary participation.” Brennan’s behaviour, he surmised, “was not unwelcome.”
Robichaud appealed, and a groundbreaking decision was made on February 21, 1983. Brennan was found guilty of sexual harassment, and, critically, their employer was deemed liable for failing to prevent it. By Monday, Robichaud was back cleaning the gym floor, but her ordeal was far from over. The Department of Defence now appealed, while Brennan remained her foreman. “I was in rough shape,” she explains. Once again, she considered suicide, but she was determined to prove she had done nothing wrong.
Robichaud contacted the media about her cause, and on March 11, 1984, she was featured on CTV’s current affairs program W5. Women from across the country began wearing yellow roses to show their solidarity. The Public Service Alliance of Canada also stepped in and retroactively paid her legal fees, with the promise of future financial support: “It was no longer only about me, my rights, and my dignity, which were still important to me. My case was now also about stopping sexual harassment at the workplace.” Robichaud also found strength elsewhere: from her supportive husband, for example, and from a new novel by Margaret Atwood. “Women in that book did not have a choice,” she writes of The Handmaid’s Tale, “but I did.”
When Robichaud first reported Brennan’s behaviour to her employer, she was told that she “was the only one who had ever complained.” She responded, “Good, then it should be easy to fix.” But it was not until July 29, 1987, more than ten years after she started in North Bay, that the Supreme Court of Canada finally ruled in her favour. Unanimously, the court found the Department of Defence, as Robichaud puts it, “vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of an employee, known or otherwise.” That same day, she held a press conference. “I felt ten feet tall!” she writes, recalling her euphoria. “I was so excited by the decision I wanted every student from grade 8 and up to receive a copy of it. I wanted everyone to know that times were changing.”
Three and a half decades after Robichaud’s victory at the Supreme Court, the times continue to change. For the sociologists Stacey Hannem and Christopher J. Schneider, what’s particularly interesting is “sexual misconduct,” an elastic concept that has become increasingly prominent in the traditional media since 2015. The term describes a range of socially disapproved conduct — from legally defined sexual violence to the “bad date,” as well as consensual encounters that are nonetheless forbidden by workplace rules.
With Defining Sexual Misconduct: Power, Media, and #MeToo, which considers dozens of cases featuring politicians and celebrities, Hannem and Schneider point to thorny questions about gendered power, the media, and consent. Among their concerns are the ways that extra-legal accusations continue to stigmatize those who speak out, while legal systems too often fail to deliver justice to victims. For example, they consider what happened when, in 2014, numerous women accused the CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi of unwanted violence during sexual encounters. Before the end of the year, Ghomeshi was fired; several women went on to press legal charges. (More recently, in Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, the film director Sarah Polley described a non-consensual violent sexual encounter with him, when he was twenty-eight and she was sixteen.)
As Hannem and Schneider recount, the high-profile defence lawyer Marie Henein dissected every difference between the stories the women had told the media and what they later said in court. Some had written friendly emails to her client after the alleged assaults, she pointed out. Wasn’t such behaviour inconsistent with their claims of sexual trauma? In 2016, Ghomeshi was legally exonerated on all but one charge, which was dropped following a peace bond, but “the verdict in the court of public opinion indeed proved stronger than any actual legal verdict.”
A social pariah since the accusations surfaced, Ghomeshi has not rejoined any mainstream broadcasting company (though he does host a podcast, Roqe, about the Iranian diaspora). And though it seems unlikely he’ll return to public life anytime soon, Hannem and Schneider’s analysis suggests that a full and sincere apology could help in the absence of restorative justice, which can work toward social repair in ways that an antagonistic legal system cannot.
The attention paid to the Ghomeshi case in this study reflects a broader focus on powerful and famous men, especially those who have been accused by well-known women. Often, these men become the narrative focus and supplant the women’s voices in what the communications scholar George Gerbner described as “symbolic annihilation.” Nonetheless, such cases merit analysis because they are consequential for women in politics, media, and entertainment, as well as for the broader public, as they help us understand what is acceptable and unacceptable. They also matter because only a small subset of those affected by sexual violence and other unwanted behaviours are ever heard.
Perhaps inevitably, Hannem and Schneider take up the #MeToo movement, which took off on social media around 2017. “Legitimate criticisms have been levied against #MeToo,” they write, “for its lack of inclusion of other voices, like those of heterosexual men and marginalized communities, including queer folks and racialized people.” Perhaps ironically, as even they acknowledge, these voices are largely absent from their account.
I began with a story about an encounter with a professor, who later proved to be a serial sexual harasser of students. This story is so common that Hannem and Schneider can share a near-identical experience. Hannem, who now teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University, was a “young and unknown PhD candidate” when “a well-known and respected academic” expressed interest in her work at a conference. Initially flattered, she felt increasingly uncomfortable given his insistent physical proximity. Seeing the interaction across the room, one of her committee members intervened. “Keep your distance, if you can,” she was warned.
Like Hannem, I could and did keep my distance. As the daughter of a professor, I was unimpressed by the social status of a notable academic. My doctoral program was fully funded, and I did not need a scholarly patron who might provide me with a paying teaching or research assistantship. I also had a life outside of academia as a marathoner; going for an afternoon run was much more appealing than meeting an older professor who was acting weirdly. My career and self-respect did not depend on his approbation, and in those material and inner resources lay my power to refuse.
While Robichaud had certain resources of her own — as a white married woman, as a mother — she had plenty of disadvantages. She needed the job, for one thing. And without legal precedent holding employers accountable for sexual harassment, she did not have the law on her side. She had to fight her own union local’s reluctance to defend her. She weathered accusations that she must have enjoyed the attention.
Today, sexual violence is widely condemned, but many other encounters, as Hannem and Schneider observe, are more ambiguous. Mores are contested and shifting. Race, Indigeneity, and class operate in devastatingly unequal ways in courtrooms and in the media, both for the accused and for those who accuse. These dynamics merit much more attention. Until each of us can refuse unwanted advances and all of us can be heard, the type of heroic and imperfect efforts described in these two books will continue to be necessary.