It was June, 2003. Lori Douglas was a family lawyer in private practice at a boutique law firm in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where her husband, Jack King, also worked. She was taking a rare break for a hair appointment — it’s a stray detail from the day that’s etched itself in her memory — and when King asked her to cancel it and to meet him for lunch she refused. But then he said, “I’m begging you,” and she relented, worried that something was wrong with him, that he might be seriously ill. Instead, once they sat down, he made a stunning confession. He had sent several sexually explicit photos of her to a client of his named Alexander Chapman, suggesting he join Douglas for a tryst.
Douglas was devastated. She had agreed to pose for King with the understanding that the pictures were confidential, something for her and King alone. She’d never imagined he would show them to anyone, let alone use them without her knowledge or consent to seduce someone else. Then it got worse. King told her that Chapman was threatening to make the images public. Word of the pictures had also gotten out to Winnipeg’s small legal community and some of Douglas’s colleagues were aware of King’s overtures to Chapman. Douglas broke down and left the restaurant in tears. Over the next couple days, she’d learn the rest of the story. In addition to sending the pictures to Chapman, King had posted them on a porn website.
King, who died in 2014, would later reveal he was struggling with depression and would describe what he did to Douglas as “bizarre, ridiculous, stupid, self-indulgent and grotesque… my judgment in this regard had left me.” Full of remorse, King promised Douglas he could take care of it. He paid Chapman $25,000 in exchange for the return of the photos and his silence. King had the website remove the pictures, he destroyed the originals, and even demolished the computer he used to upload them. The couple assumed that the images were gone for good.
If this sounds naïve, and Douglas knows it might, recall that it was 2003. MySpace had just been founded, Facebook would launch a year later, the iPhone wouldn’t be introduced for another four years. For the average non-techie at the time, it would have been entirely possible to believe that the pictures had been erased forever. And so, Douglas forgave King, with whom she had a young son. She pursued her ambition of becoming a family court judge, was appointed to the bench in 2005 and was eventually promoted to associate chief justice.
Often in a divorce or a child custody case, I’d have the woman turn to me and say, “Judge, could you do something for me? Could you please ask him to return the pictures to me?”
But in July 2010, Chapman resurfaced. Breaking his confidentiality agreement with King, he filed complaints of sexual harassment against Douglas and King. (Chapman, who is black, also said he was harassed because of his race: King, who was white, had directed him to a porn website devoted to interracial sex.) Chapman also sent the photos of Douglas to journalists, as well as to at least 20 members of the legal community, and the images once again appeared online.
The subsequent inquiry by a Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) committee devolved into a witch hunt. The case centered largely on whether Douglas was fit to sit on the bench and whether she should have disclosed what occurred in her application to become a judge. Her reputation was savaged, with little concern paid to her privacy or her innocence. A dean at a Canadian law school told the media, “If pictures of you naked end up on an internet site, it’s quite difficult to say you have the credibility to be a judge.” In the National Post, conservative columnist Barbara Kay wrote, “I think a woman who wants to be photographed in transgressive sexual mode is giving tacit permission for her transgressions to be shared with others. In old-fashioned parlance, [she is] guilty as sin.” The CJC committee’s proceedings, which were characterized as “unwieldy” and “torturous” by one journalist who covered them, fed the public perception that Douglas was to blame for everything that had transpired. It was a classic case of victim blaming: having her images made public was seen as a fitting consequence for her having had a sex life in the first place.
After four years without a conclusion, Douglas agreed to retire from the bench in order for the proceedings to end. A deeply private person, she had not spoken to the press at all until January this year, when she gave an interview to Canadian Lawyer magazine. She agreed to talk to me for Real Life because she wanted to add her voice to those of other women who had been sexually harassed and humiliated online. She told me that she didn’t want what happened to her to simply disappear. We exchanged several emails and spoke twice by phone, before having a formal interview. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I want to start with your career as a lawyer and later a judge. What was it that appealed to you about the law?
I really just fell into law school, because I didn’t know what else to do. But then I discovered that I loved the practice of law. Family law is often described as being about the “pots and pans,” but I never perceived it that way. I saw the work as having major significance in the lives of all people. And when I applied to be a judge I thought it would be the pinnacle of the career I already created.
What happened when Alexander Chapman came forward with his complaint?
Jack and I thought it had been resolved in 2003 and we thought we could move on. [Chapman] had been paid and Jack got the photos back and he also had written confirmation from the website that the pictures had been removed. I’ve actually never seen the images and I don’t ever want to see them. My name had never been attached to them and Jack assured me that no one would know.
But years after Chapman signed the agreement with Jack, he sued the Winnipeg police force [for malicious prosecution, in a case unrelated to King and Douglas]. He appeared at a pre-trial conference, where there was an attempt to settle the case instead of going to court. He didn’t like the terms of the settlement, and had heard that I was a colleague of the judge assigned to his case. So he decided to go after Jack and me in retaliation.
Jack King always maintained that his wife knew nothing about the images being posted online or about his overtures to Chapman, and there was no evidence that Douglas had ever approached Chapman. Yet despite Douglas’s innocence, the CJC seized upon the point that she had not disclosed the situation between King and Chapman on her judicial application form.
It should be noted that Douglas first applied to be a judge in 2003. At that time, the Chief Justice of the Manitoba Court of the Queen’s Bench was made aware that sexual photos of Douglas had been put online and he initially objected to her candidacy because of this. The chair of the Judicial Appointment Committee was then informed of the incident in 2004, when Douglas’s application to be a judge was once again under consideration. Ultimately, the full committee was consulted and not one member said that the situation should prevent Douglas from becoming a judge.
When you applied to be a judge, after what happened in 2003, did you believe that you had you done anything that was illegal or contravened a professional code of ethics?
There’s no code that says you can’t have sex with your husband. There isn’t a code telling you what kind of sex is okay to have. There isn’t a code saying you can’t take pictures of yourself having sex. Unless you’re doing something illegal, your sex life is private. I didn’t consent to having those pictures posted online, but even if I had agreed, it’s not illegal to do that either.
On the application form, there are a few questions near the end that ask you things like whether you’ve ever been convicted of a crime, or whether you owe income tax. There’s also a question — I’m not quoting it exactly — that asks if there’s anything you wish to disclose that would affect your ability to be a judge, or that would affect the judiciary as a whole. I ticked the box for “no” because I hadn’t done anything wrong. None of this was my doing. And yet that was the sticking point for the CJC.
Given the vagueness of the question, it suggests that it’s up to the discretion and judgment of the applicant to determine what they feel is relevant. As you point out, you didn’t do anything other than have a sex life. Why should you have to disclose that?
Right. The question is then, what should you have to disclose? What if you’d been raped? Would you have to disclose that? What if you’d been beaten by your husband? What if your sibling or father had done something illegal once? Why should you be accountable for those things?
I was panicking about the pictures being made public and my peers looking at them. Eventually I had to accept reality: I, the person, was of no concern whatsoever
In a written statement to the CJC, Douglas said, “Right thinking people do not conclude that a woman who has been victimized by her husband is to blame for her husband’s conduct and, accordingly, lacks integrity and is not suitable to sit as a judge. If a judge can be disqualified through the malicious actions of a disgruntled litigant or the disreputable conduct of a spouse, when the judge is innocent of any wrongdoing, there is a serious threat to judicial independence.”
Douglas’s lawyers sought an order to have the images inadmissible at her CJC committee of inquiry. However, the committee decided to admit them and view them without Douglas’s consent and despite the fact that admitting them caused her considerable psychological distress. The committee said that the “specific content” of the photos had a “relevant bearing” on whether Douglas was capable to work as a judge.
Was anyone ever able to make to a convincing case that the images had anything to do with your professional life, or with the credibility of the court?
I was represented by three spectacular women lawyers and they wrote boxes and boxes worth of fantastic arguments. Every single one said the same thing: This was not her doing, and this has nothing to do with her ability to sit on the bench. We never denied that the photos existed, but our argument was: (a) I didn’t consent to have the photos made public and (b) they weren’t relevant to the inquiry. Nobody listened.
As a family lawyer and judge, you would have seen cases in which a woman’s sex life would be used against her in a custody or divorce proceeding, or where a woman was a victim of revenge porn by an angry ex. Was there anything that prepared you for what happened to you?
I was totally alone. There was no precedent. This was new territory for the law. But often in a case conference, which is a meeting before you go to court, in a divorce or a child custody case, I’d have the woman turn to me and say, “Judge, could you do something for me? Could you please ask him to return the pictures to me?” That was common. There was a fear that the ex would use sexually explicit pictures of them at some point down the road to humiliate or punish the woman for the break-up by putting the pictures online, or showing them in court.
Is that what you felt the members of CJC wanted to do to you when they asked to look at your pictures? They wanted to humiliate and punish you?
At the beginning, no. I didn’t believe that people I knew — and I knew those people, I’d had dinner with those people, sat in meetings with them — I didn’t want to believe at all that they would be faulty in their judgment. So it was another form of betrayal. I believed that reason, that rational thought, that the law would prevail and protect me. I remember that at the beginning of the inquiry, I was really upset and panicking about the pictures being made public and my peers looking at them. A very kind male colleague said to me, he said, “Lori, don’t worry. No gentleman would ever look them.” And I remember that I took such comfort in that. Clearly we were both misguided. Eventually I had to accept reality, which was that I, the person, was of no concern whatsoever. I was expendable to protect the view of what the judiciary should be. I was judged by a white male-dominated group of people who had a very particular take on how women should behave and what women should be about.
During the course of our correspondence, Douglas mentioned the 2014 phone hack of dozens of female celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Gabrielle Union, whose private photos were later released on 4chan. The hack marked a turning point in public discussions about consent and the distribution of intimate images. Several of the women who were targeted characterized it as a sexual assault rather than a theft, and the perpetrator as sex offender rather than a hacker.
This is also how Douglas frames her experience with the CJC, as a sexual assault. She sent me a Canadian legal decision from January, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, in which a man was ordered by the court to pay his ex-girlfriend more than $140,000 in damages after posting an explicit video of her online without her consent. In his precedent-setting decision, the judge ruled that posting an image online without permission (even if the original image was taken with consent) can be considered a form of sexual assault.
I was thinking about Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, two Canadian teenage girls who committed suicide after sexual images of them went viral — in Parsons’ case it was images of her sexual assault. In both cases, it was the public exposure and public humiliation that seemed to be particularly devastating for them, that the images were inescapable, that they were forced to relive the trauma every time someone looked at their pictures. It seems like it was similar for you — that what made this so painful was the permanence of images and the reality that you had no control over who saw them. You’ve said that having the images of you made public felt like you were being raped. Can you talk about that?
I want to be clear about my use of the word “rape,” which I use because that is what it really felt like to me. But I don’t want to belittle, or take anything away from any woman who has been actually raped.
That said, the worst aspect of — well, let’s call my experience a kind of assault — was when I realized I was going to be exposed and shamed over and over and over again. It wasn’t going to be a one-time thing. Something like 20 people saw copies of those pictures [aside from those who saw them online]. It felt to me like the way sexual assault is used as a weapon of war, like I was waiting for the next invading army to march through my village and do it to me all over again while they forced my friends and family to watch.
I thought that Jennifer Lawrence expressed it completely correctly, when she said that every person who looked at her hacked photos without her consent was perpetuating a sexual offense. That’s what it felt like to me. Anyone who looked at my photos without my consent, that felt like a sexual assault.
It isn’t harmless to look at something you don’t have consent to look at
This is a new way of thinking about sexual assault, as something that can happen with an image, not just to an actual physical body. We’re increasingly expressing our identity in the digital world, carrying on relationships online, having sex online, and so on. So it follows that rape and sexual assault can happen online as well. Several jurisdictions have created legislation to deal with revenge porn, Canada passed a cyber-bullying law in 2015 making it illegal to distribute intimate images of a person without their consent, and Twitter and Reddit have also banned the posting of sexually explicit material without the subject’s consent. And just as I was writing this piece, Playboy model Dani Mathers took a picture of a naked woman at her gym without the woman’s consent and posted it on Snapchat with a cruel comment about the woman’s body. After the post went viral, L.A. Fitness banned her from its gyms and reported her to the police — her actions were illegal under California law.
What do you make of how the law is dealing with these sorts of things?
We’re beginning to create laws to address things like online harassment or revenge porn or cyber-bullying, but I’m not sure how effective they can be to stop it from happening. I think public awareness and changing public attitudes is critical. It isn’t harmless to look at something you don’t have consent to look at. If you don’t have permission, don’t look.
The CJC process dragged on over four years. Jack King pled to three counts of professional misconduct in 2011 before a Manitoba Law Society disciplinary panel and was ordered to pay $14,000 in costs, but retained his license to practice law. In 2014, he died of cancer. Soon after, Douglas, exhausted by her legal battle and the loss of her husband, quit her job in order for the inquiry to end. She currently works part-time as a family lawyer and occasionally teaches and lectures.
You forgave your husband and stayed with him until the end. Can you tell me how and why you forgave him?
This is important to me, and I’m never asked about it and I think I was pilloried by some people because I didn’t leave him. There’s no question that I was seriously angry with him. Oh my god, I was so mad that he betrayed me in such a horrendous way. But I forgave Jack in 2003, that’s the key time. He did nothing else after that that required forgiveness. And here’s one reason I could forgive him: I loved him very much and he was very remorseful. Our little boy was four-and-a-half years old in 2003. I wasn’t about to punish my child by leaving his father. Jack also had a daughter and son from a previous marriage and I didn’t want to cause a rift there.
The other reason I forgave him is that I needed to do so for me, so that I wouldn’t poison myself with hate and anger.
Hearing you say that, I’m struck by your generosity and compassion. I also do wonder if you needed to forgive your husband to separate what he did from what you went through at the CJC.
In those last two or three years, during the CJC inquiry, I did yell at Jack because I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I do remember saying to him at one point, though, “I’m sorry for yelling at you because nothing you did is anywhere as horrible as what they’ve done to me.” He looked at me and said, “Thank you for telling me that.” And it was a fairly profound moment between us. I think he felt horrible and for everything that happened to me, it was worse for him in a way because he did the deed. I don’t think he ever got past it. And I think that didn’t help with his cancer. The guilt added to his pain and stress.
How did you survive?
I suffered terrible panic attacks and I lost close to 20 pounds. I couldn’t eat or sleep. It was debilitating and punishing. I could get up in the morning and get my son’s lunch and homework packed and send him off to school. And then I’d get back into bed and sleep as long as I could. I had so many good friends who called and spoke to me. And if I could speak to one of them and get past noon or 1 p.m., I could function. That’s how I survived. If it hadn’t been for those friends and for the reality of my little boy, I never would have made it. I would have been another suicide statistic. I don’t want other women to go through what happened to me.
I’m angry, very angry still, about what happened to me. My wonderful career and life were thrown away — and I didn’t do anything wrong. With the new legislation, if this had happened now, people could have gone to jail for what they did to me [by transmitting her photos without her consent]. But I also have a realistic approach to it now. And at some point, I found a poem by Carl Sandberg and I keep it with me. It begins, “If I should pass the tomb of Jonah, I would stop there and sit for awhile; Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark, and came out alive after all.” I guess in truth, that’s how I approach the world now.