Sexual assault is a terrible thing that can tear apart lives, families and even whole communities. I don’t think I know a single person who would disagree with that statement (out loud). However, if you have been following any sort of discourse around the treatment of sexual assault victims, it should be obvious that we as a society don’t always treat them very well. We disbelieve them, ostracize them, ridicule them, shame them and blame them. Growing up as a young girl I was constantly warned about the dangers of men and encouraged not to trust men I didn’t know. As a grown adult woman, I am still advised not to walk home after dark; that I should be careful living in the neighborhood I do and might consider moving; that I should look into self-defence classes; that I need to be careful of what I wear.
A lot has been written about rape culture and how it is continually perpetuated by small acts of microaggression such as catcalling, and larger acts like body/clothing policing and slut shaming. This piece is not about microaggressions. This is about several recent failures of the Canadian judicial systems to protect sexual assault victims and reinforce the status quo of rape culture in Canada.
Of course, I am talking about the highly publicized Jian Ghomeshi case, the Rehtaeh Parsons case, and the case R v FY, 2013 ABQB 694 which is under a publication ban preventing any identifying information from being published.
For those unfamiliar, Jian Ghomeshi was a CBC host and recognized Canadian media personality who was accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct (specifically choking). Multiple women came forward, some withholding their identities from the public, including an actress who had also worked with the CBC. Today, he was acquitted of all charges.
Rehtaeh Parsons was a teenager in Nova Scotia who went to a house party, became intoxicated and was sexually assaulted by several of her school mates. She took her own life a few months later. The RCMP did not lay charges, claiming that there was not enough evidence to do so, despite a photograph. The boy who took the photo pled guilty to distribution of child pornography and the boy shown penetrating her in the photo was sentenced to 12 months’ probation after a trial.
R v FY is an Alberta case in which a woman known as EP was alleged to have been assaulted by FY, who was found not guilty. Both lived at a First Nation (remember how good we are at justice for aboriginal women in Canada?). The judge decided that teh sex between them had been consensual since EP could not remember taking off her clothes (because she was asleep), she invited on onlooker to have “a chance” immediately afterwards, and she had further interactions with FY (Recall that they lived on the same First Nations. They also had familial ties to each other.). An excellent assessment of this case can be found on ABlawg.ca.
The reasons the judge acquitted Jian Ghomeshi today included the further interaction of the accuser and accused, and the accusers’ sexual histories. The same justifications were used against Rehtaeh Parsons and EP. The idea that all assault survivors should actively isolate themselves away from their attackers, when to do so might cause professional or social harm to the victim, is a particularly insidious form of victim blaming. Use of their sexual history is institutionalized slut-shaming. These things are fully unacceptable.
These are the reasons that so many assaults go unreported. We are afraid of not being believed. We are led to believe that what has happened is shameful. If we drink or do drugs, it is implied (when not said outright) that it is our own actions that brought it on us. We are told it is our fault.
All things that I believed as a result of my own assault at fifteen: I was “a tease” because of the flirtatious shirt I was wearing. It was my fault because I got high with a man I had only met a few times before. It was my fault because I didn’t watch him pour the drink he offered me. Like Rethaeh, charges were never laid in my case. Like the women who came forward about Ghomeshi (and Cosby), quite some time had passed before I told someone who then reported it to the police.
Consent is not simply the absence of “no”. Enthusiastic consent ought to be the standard encouraged by the justice system, judges, lawyers, and law enforcement included. Canadian courts must stop perpetuating rape culture from an institutionalized standpoint. Judges must stop setting ridiculous standards for defining non-consensual sex. Ridiculous standards that actually contravene the definitions of consent in section 273.1 and 273.2 of the Criminal Code of Canada. The burden of ensuring consent should not fall on the very people whose consent is compromised and need the protection of the law. The failure of the justice system and society to protect victims of sexual assault makes it implicitly responsibility for the suicides, mental health issues, and continued victimization of our vulnerable.