Why the cyber-bullying bill is a lie

I’ve been slacking off on the blog this year, gang. Ever since December of last year, I’ve been meaning to blog my thoughts about Bill C-13, which the Canadian government has dubbed the “Cyber-bullying Bill”.

Chances are if you follow this blog, you know that I care a lot about the issue of revenge porn (i.e. sharing intimate images of somebody without their consent). Late last year, after an opposition MP introduced a private members bill to prohibit revenge porn, our Conservative government introduced their own. It is very likely this legislation will pass.

Since I’ve been arguing for a year that we need criminal legislation to address this issue, you’d think I would be happy about this development. I am not. Find out why by watching this episode of CANADALAND with Jesse Brown, in which I lay out the issues with the so-called “Cyber-bullying Bill,” Bill C-13. SPOILER ALERT: they should really be calling it the Surveillance Bill.

Is this justice for Rehtaeh?

Last week we saw major developments in Canada’s ongoing response to the death of Halifax teenager Rehtaeh Parsons: two men were charged with making and/or distributing child pornography (of Rehtaeh), and a new piece of civil legislation was introduced to address “cyber-bullying”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about either one of these developments.

Firstly, I despise the term “cyber-bullying” and would like to kill it with fire. It is so conceptually broad as to be meaningless, it infantilizes behaviour that adults are just as prone to as kids are, and it depoliticizes social aggressions that are often quite political indeed (think sexist harassment like slut-shaming, harassment of gay or gender non-conforming people, or harassment of low-income kids for things like wearing hand-me-downs). I agree with Jesse Brown, who would “rather have laws against specific crimes, rather than against vast swaths of vaguely defined human behaviour”.

Secondly, I have a very basic problem with civil legislation as a response to revenge porn or online harassment: it costs money to sue someone. Sure, you might find a lawyer who’ll take your case pro-bono, but the likelihood of incurring high costs means that only those who can afford justice really have access to it. Our criminal justice system is already deplorably selective about who can access justice (see, for example, the astronomical overrepresentation of indigenous and Black people in Canadian prisons), but at least if you’ve been the victim of a crime, you don’t pay money for your legal representation. This is one reason why I’m a bigger fan of a potential Criminal Code amendment (proposed by Dartmouth NDP Member of Parliament Robert Chisholm) than I am of dealing with the problem in civil court.

This proposed legislation would make it a crime to share intimate images without the subject’s consent. The legislation needs some work (in my humble, non-legal-expert opinion), as it currently places the burden of proof on the accused. If the accused cannot furnish evidence that they obtained consent from the subject, their intent is automatically deemed malicious and guilt is assumed. In past posts I have argued for just this kind of legislation, and there is a certain beauty to its open-and-shut-ness, in that it would circumvent all of the gendered character judgments and “he said, she said” (emphasis on the “he said”) that influence court decisions about sexually-charged crimes. But at the end of the day, I can’t advocate for legislation that merely circumvents the biases and bigotry of our criminal justice system (you know, the same ones that pervade our broader culture) at the expense of the rights of the accused. We need to tackle those biases themselves, not find ways to sidestep them.

This brings me to my ambivalence about the arrests. While Rehtaeh was still alive, she and her family sought justice by attempting to press charges against Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists for sexual assault and child pornography. The RCMP’s re-opened investigation did not result in sexual assault charges. They did, however, charge the alleged rapists with making and distributing sexually explicit images of Rehtaeh during the incident. The RCMP’s decision to press charges on one crime and not the other suggests that they felt the evidence was too murky to conclude that Rehtaeh did not consent. Meanwhile, Rehtaeh was allegedly vomiting out a window while one of her attackers raped her, and our current laws indicate that a person cannot legally provide consent while extremely intoxicated.

That is rage-inducing, but it is also indicative of the culture in which our criminal justice system is embedded and serves to uphold. We have national columnists (to whom I refuse to link) slut-shaming her in death, if that’s any indication of how our culture tends to understand consent when a survivor was intoxicated at the time of the attack. Why would our justice system be any different, even if our laws explicitly spell things out differently (*sob*)?

So I can, quite frankly, understand why the Parsons family wanted to use any tool available to them in our broken system to try and find their own version of justice – including charging the attackers with child pornography, despite the fact that her non-consent (not her nudity or sexuality writ large) was the crux of the violation. That said, I think it sets a precedent that may create problems down the road. For example, imagine a minor’s consensual sexting is discovered by a horrified parent, who sees child pornography charges as a way to punish the kids involved and clamp down on youth sexuality in general. Also, what if Rehtaeh had been 18? Capturing and distributing that photo would have been just as morally abhorrent, just as damaging. This is why I think the legislation proposed by Robert Chisholm fills a necessary gap.

Realtalk though: this legislation wouldn’t be necessary if our culture learned to understand sexually-charged violations in a more equitable and just way. If law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges didn’t build their careers in a culture steeped in sexism, they might quite easily interpret revenge porn as a form of criminal harassment (a law already on the books in Canada). As we saw recently in the case of an appropriately-named former MP’s assistant, Cody Boast, some law enforcement officers and judges already do draw those conclusions. But too many people inside and outside our criminal justice system are quick to blame the subjects of the images for consenting to their capture in the first place. It is this underlying mentality that needs to change. Otherwise we’ll just have another new selectively enforced law on the books.

That’s why I’m glad to see that, despite its shortcomings, the civil legislation in Nova Scotia also includes interventions at the level of the public education system. While those have their own problems (Jesse Brown has some great analysis therein), I appreciate the marriage of legal and educational interventions. To introduce the former without the latter would be putting the cart before the horse. What our education systems really need, though, isn’t a “Cyber SCAN investigation unit” – it’s frank discussion about consent, respect and privacy in sex and relationships (online and offline), and how societal systems of power impact these dynamics on an individual level.

Things women musicians say to me

A few weeks ago I asked women musicians on Twitter and Facebook for all the silly things folks have said to them, and/or any silly things they’ve observed folks saying to women musicians. It sparked a lot of maddening responses, which I rounded up in a blog post that got cross-posted at HuffPo entitled “Infuriating Things People Say to Women Musicians”.

Initially, they asked if I’d like to re-title my post “Infuriating Things Men Say to Women Musicians”, assuming most of the quotes came from men. But I know all too well (and too personally) how easy it is to internalize misogyny as a woman-identified person growing up in The Patriarchy. Well, now I know, but for a long time I didn’t. It was during that time that I would say things like “I don’t ‘get’ girls, I just get along better with guys”. Sometimes internalized misogyny works like that – turning you against other women. Other times, it turns you against yourself. So I knew it was highly likely that at least a handful of the silly things said to women musicians were uttered by other women.

Today, I met a warm and funny woman who had read the piece. She plays a few different instruments and writes about music, but hadn’t worked on a musical project in a long time. She partially blamed this on a self-defeating, all-or-nothing “if you can’t play like Zeppelin, what’s the fucking point” attitude. As you might imagine, this made jamming with others extremely intimidating for her, and discouraged her from improvising for fear of screwing up. Guys sometimes have these thoughts and insecurities too, for sure, but as you can see from my post, many women musicians face a kind of wall of dismissal and condescension from all corners of their industry.

When she read my piece and saw how many other women were being dismissed and condescended to, she realized that maybe this had something to do with the feelings that had prevented her from diving into a jam. At the same time, she remembered a story her female friend had shared awhile back about putting up posters seeking new bandmates, and getting a bunch of calls from clueless and/or intrusive dudes looking for dates. At the time, she had laughed off her friend’s frustration in a “what a problem: too many dates, not enough time” kind of way. Reading my laundry list of similar micro-aggressions shifted this old anecdote into a new light for her. Commiserating about it with her friend, the two of them felt emboldened and kindled a new musical project together. This story thrilled me to the core.

It was interesting that she used Zeppelin as her example of a sound to aspire to, because one of the comments on my HuffPo piece reads as follows:

This might've made me shed a tear or two.This guy’s remorse for dismissing Nancy and Ann’s own soul-shattering music in favour of covers (though Heart’s Zeppelin covers do rule), and his retrospective appreciation of their own unique sound, really touched me. I couldn’t resist recounting the comment to the awesome woman I met today. She, like me, was visibly moved by it. Before our goodbye high-five, I told her “Girl, you can play like Zeppelin, or you can play like you”.

Things people say to women musicians

My band, Patti Cake, is making a zine for our show this Thursday at the Silver Dollar in Toronto. Since our lead singer Kritty Uranowski is a counsellor at Girls Rock Camp and I am mostly always thinking about feminism (ALL THE DAMNED TIME), I decided to submit a collection of crowdsourced “things people say to women musicians” for the zine. I tweeted this:

Here’s a sampling of the responses I got. Note the frequency with which the word “girls/girl” appears. Also, music store employees? DO BETTER.

“Girls can’t play bass because they’re not technical.”

“You girls must be singers.” – music store employee to women customers looking at mixers

“Do your parents know you’re out with old guys?”

“Let me explain to you how soundchecks work.” – sound tech, who went on to patronizingly explain Soundchecks 101 to a musician with years of experience

“WOW, a girl drummer!”

“So you’re a solo acoustic act, right?”

“Are you the singer?” “No.” “…Are you the keyboard player?” “No.”

“Girl bassists are hot.”

“……..” – the sound of a woman musician being ignored a million times by music store employees

“They make you carry that?!?!” – onlooker to woman musician lugging gear

“You know about amps?! Whoa, you just blew my mind. I love a chick that knows about gear.”

“Oh, you’re IN the band!”

“There’s a girl’s voice on this recording but no girl in the band.” – reviewer about a band in which there is, in fact, a “girl”

“I almost had a show for you with [female artist], but decided against a woman opening.” – booker

“I bet you’re buying the blue tambourine because blue is your favourite colour.” – music store employee

“This headshot won’t work for your poster… You need a body shot!” – agent

“It’s pretty hard to know what this stuff does unless you really study it.” – male music store employee to a trained audio engineer who is also a woman

“I didn’t know girls liked Iron Maiden.”

“Oh, so you’re in the jazz program. Singer, right?”

“You were actually good; I was surprised!”

“You play this?!” – male music repair shop employee re: a woman musician’s guitar

“You must’ve dated at least half your band.”

“We always thought you were waiting for your boyfriend.” – male music store employee when a woman musician asked why she never got any service from them

“Ha! Like YOU could ever sing Zeppelin.”

“Want a Betty Boop strap to go with that new guitar?”

“I didn’t know girls played saxophone.”

“There are no female music producers because women can’t understand the technicalities involved.” “[Names a female music producer]” “She must have had a guy helping her out.”

“I can no longer book you because you want to tour with your baby.”

“Girls don’t play jazz.” – man, to a woman who auditioned and beat a tonne of guys for a spot in the ensemble

“Just shut up, smile and sing, honey.”

“You should specialize. People don’t like girls who do too much.” – man, to a woman who sings and plays a variety of instruments

“I hope you girls know what you’re doing with those covers, the bass parts are hard! I know because I have the tabs book.”

“Are you shopping for your boyfriend?” – male music store employee

If you groaned at least once while reading these, please consider making a donation or spreading the word about Girls Rock Camp or the Resampled music production workshops for women and trans folks (there’s one at the Tranzac this Sunday).