Daphne Bramham: A year into #MeToo, it’s time to dismantle the barriers to reporting sexual assault
#MeToo raised awareness of the problems now is the time to stop sexual violence and dismantle the barriers to women reporting the crime.
The past year has been dominated by women standing up to sexual predators and outing them in social media with #MeToo #IBelieveHer and #TimesUp.
The outpouring of outrage and the sheer volume of the complaints reflect the tragic reality that while our society may have good laws, they’re easy to ignore because sexual assault is a criminal offence rarely reported or prosecuted.
Reporting of sexual assault did increase last year in Canada. Still, it remains the most under-reported crime in the country.
The best available data is from 2014 when only five per cent of sexual assaults were reported to police, compared to 38 per cent of physical assaults. And of the reported assaults, only 11 per cent led in convictions.
Why women don’t report is complicated, as indicated by West Coast LEAF’s recent report, We Are Here: Women’s Experiences of the Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault.
The most troubling finding is that women don’t believe the risks of reporting are worth it. The low rate of successful conviction aside, reporting can put women at risk of retaliation by the perpetrator.
If the perpetrator is a spouse or live-in boyfriend, reporting opens a woman to the prospect of homelessness.
But there are also deeply entrenched myths that have been accepted as facts in some recent court cases. These notions include that sexually active women are more likely to say yes and more likely to lie on the stand; that women who don’t fight back ‘wanted it;’ and, that women who drink or take drugs have implicitly given partial consent to sexual activity.
Victim blaming is so deeply ingrained that an Ipsos/Global poll done in 2015 found that 29 per cent of survivors didn’t report because they blamed themselves for the assault.
What’s perhaps the most stunning statistic from the 30 interviews done for the LEAF report is that 71 per cent of the women said they believe sexual assault is a minor crime and is not worth reporting.
Two-thirds believe the assault was a private matter better dealt within informally; 39 per cent believed the offender didn’t mean to hurt them; 30 per cent didn’t want to get the offender in trouble; and, another 30 per cent didn’t want others to know about what happened.
Despite all those #IBelieveHer tweets, there’s a culturally entrenched skepticism not present with most other crimes, even though false allegations of sexual assault fall in the two to 10 per cent range, is similar to the rates for all other offences.
It’s not just police and judges who don’t believe victims, often friends and family don’t either.
One women interviewed for the LEAF report said friends defended the perpetrator. “They told me like no, that doesn’t sound like something he would do and they … came up with excuses and with reasons for what had happened.”
Another said friends were incredulous when she disclosed the assault to them and countered with what she called “a laundry list of all of his redeeming qualities.”
The report’s conclusion is that dismantling the barriers to reporting sexual assault starts with education at all levels from schoolchildren to professionals in the criminal justice system.
But it also recommends improvements to victims’ supports and services the possibility that restorative justice may provide a better alternative to some than the court process.
A lot seems to have happened in the past year since the #MeToo movement took off following accusations made by Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Lena Dunham, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie — the first of dozens of actresses — against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
More than 250 powerful men from celebrities to politicians have been called out for varying degrees of sexual abuse and harassment and not just in North America. Most have lost their jobs, have been shunned by their former colleagues and friends and have become punch lines of jokes.
Yet, even Weinstein has yet to go to trial. On Nov. 5, his lawyers filed a motion to have the sexual assault case against him dismissed, claiming that his indictment was “irreparably tainted by police misconduct” and other problems with the investigation.
So, how much has #MeToo really accomplished? Very little if the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh following the gruelling testimony of Christine Blasey Ford about an assault she alleged happened 36 years earlier is any guide.
Even had her credibility been impeached (which it wasn’t), his enraged response ought to have at least raised doubts about whether he has the proper temperament to serve on the highest court. But nothing dissuaded the all-male Republican members of the Senate committee from supporting him any more than Anita Hill’s testimony kept Clarence Hill from becoming a member of the top court in 1991.
That said, it is fair to acknowledge false accusations. While no more prevalent than for any other crimes, the charged nature of offence may inflict more damage.
That damage is compounded when employers fail to respond appropriately or mishandle investigations into those claims.
In all of this, Canadian author Steven Galloway’s case may serve as a cautionary tale.
Unproven allegations resulted in Galloway’s overly swift suspension as head of the University of British Columbia’s creative writing department in 2015. Less than a year later, he was fired even though a retired B.C. Supreme Court justice determined that the only substantiated allegation was a consensual affair with Cara Cole, a former professor who was one of Galloway’s graduate students.
UBC justified it by alleging “a record of misconduct that resulted in an irreparable breach of the trust placed in faculty members.” But because UBC never released the report, misinformation has festered and spread.
As the #MeToo gained momentum, Galloway’s accusers, their friends and supporters persisted in repeating the unsubstantiated claims up until as recently as September.
Last month, Galloway filed a defamation suit claiming “express malice,” “reckless willingness to publish accusations without knowledge of their truth or falsehood” and “attitudes of spite.”
Yet even if the court agrees that the defamatory postings must removed from the internet and grants a permanent injunction against the 21 named defendants as well as four unnamed others — Jane Doe, John Does, Jane Roe and Jill Roe — Galloway’s reputation may never recover.
We need to do better for everyone. We need better education so that everyone at least understands what comprises sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual abuse.
We need to blow up the myths both because they are barriers to reporting and to justice.
We need rules, regulations and ways of handling victim complaints that respect the dignity of the accusers.
The #MeToo movement has highlighted the need for change because until we do, there is no equality.