Content warning: The story contains a video clip that shows kiss that appears to be initiated without consent.
A broadcasted “spontaneous” kiss between strangers in Toronto’s popular Trinity Bellwoods Park is causing online furor over what is and isn’t assault.
CTV News aired a segment on Thursday about social distancing that took an unexpected turn during an interview with park visitor Gillian McKeown.
McKeown was interrupted while sharing her views about face mask usage with reporter Sean Leathong when she was approached by Jack Ring, a man she said she doesn’t know and had briefly chatted with moments before the segment started.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Ring says to the camera, before kissing McKeown, who appears not to have been expecting the interaction.
While he kisses her, cheers and laughter can be heard offscreen.
“Are you all right?” Leathong asks McKeown afterwards, who’s smiling.
“Yeah, he’s so hot,” she says, laughing.
From there, the segment fixates on the safety of kissing strangers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leathong asks Ring for comment on whether he’s worried about COVID-19 transmission between himself and McKeown, to which the kiss initiator shoots down.
“I think the kiss was worth it,” Ring said.
UPDATE: The two people featured in the video told the Toronto Sun that they don’t see the incident as sexual assault.
Clip causes backlash over non-consensual behaviour
A clip of the kiss was shared by Leathong in a now deleted tweet and quickly gained condemning replies, with many calling out Ring’s actions as assault and criticizing the media outlet for framing the moment as a light-hearted “spontaneous kiss.”
A cheeky skit starring local performers Gwynne Philips and Edward Pond presented an alternate ending to the media interview, where the man’s actions are met with a baseball bat.
The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre released a guide for reporters who see sexual assault happen while on the job, in response to the clip.
“The safety of victims and survivors should always come first,” they wrote on Facebook. “No one should have to process a sexual assault on camera, isolated, in shock, and in front of a large audience.
Others pointed out that the kiss also shows risky behaviour as COVID-19 can spread from mouth-to-mouth contact.
Based on Twitter replies, Ring seemed unrepentant. He tweeted a recording of the clip from what appears to be an Instagram message, with the caption “I’m going to make a great dad for that little ferret,” in reference to McKeown’s dog.
In response to the online comments, CTV News issued an apology Friday.
“It was wrong to air this video. The video demonstrated non-consensual behaviour and downplayed the fact that what occurred was simply unacceptable and offensive,” newscaster Nathan Downer said. “It does not meet CTV’s usual standards and we apologize.”
Dandelion Initiative, a Toronto non-profit organization that advocates for sexual violence survivors, was pleased with the CTV apology. They had sent the media outlet an earlier email calling them to do so, as well as requesting that they air domestic abuse helplines in order to raise awareness and enforce a copyright takedown of a clip posted by popular social media account 6ixBuzzNews.
Founder Viktoria Belle states there’s no denying the action depicted is assault. Belle points out that Ring endangers others if he makes it a habit to kiss strangers.
“What if he kisses someone and they’re immunocompromised? They’ll die,” Belle told HuffPost Canada.
It’s unknown if the kiss was staged. Whatever the case, Belle believes the kiss in the context of the news segment promotes rape culture during a pandemic, which has seen a tragic spike of domestic abuse: at least nine women have been murdered since the health crisis began, the Globe and Mail reports.
McKeown’s seemingly positive reaction afterwards also depicts a symptom of rape culture, according to Belle, who notes that brushing assault off is a coping mechanism for many women and other survivors: of the four trauma responses, “fawning” is a common one.
“In that moment you have no choice. Your reaction can be to freeze, run away, punch him in the face, or pretend that it’s normal. Like every woman has done since the beginning of time,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that she wanted it, it means that she’s reacting to a very real threat.”
Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566.
If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence or domestic abuse, the Assaulted Women’s Helpline can be reached at 1-866-863-0511. The Dandelion Initiative features several resources that specialize in supporting various identities on their website.
Updated on May 25 to include the skit from Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll.
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