Don't Call the Conversation About Sexual Assault Pointless

Online, over the phone and around dinner tables, Canadians are turning the problem of sexual assault around like a Rubik's Cube in an effort to make sense of why 90 per cent of all sex assaults go unreported. Why only one in four of the cases that make it to court result in convictions. Since the Jian Ghomeshi allegations broke, the discussion has widened in scope after two Liberal MPs were recently suspended for alleged "personal misconduct" and former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps revealed she had been raped and sexually assaulted as a young woman. Yet some insist all the talk is futile.

Instead, many are hungry for only concrete solutions. Many say that instead of words, we need legal reforms that would encourage women to come forward. Maybe some cases should be moved from criminal to civil courts so the standard for proof is lower and victims have better representation. Maybe the defence should not be allowed to destroy a complainant's reputation. Maybe our cops need better training. But procedural tweaks will not be effective unless those within the legal system adjust their dangerous attitudes about victims.

Conversation is one of the best ways to change minds. When the number of Ghomeshi accusers jumped from three to nine, two of them named, we started to have a real discussion about victim-blaming and male privilege in this country. Women are explaining why they don't report sex assault to the police. The hashtag #beenrapedneverreported has shown how perpetrators range from strangers at a bar to boyfriends and fathers. Men are questioning misogynist behaviour in themselves and their friends. We are taking apart the deeply entrenched beliefs that cause so many of us to side with powerful males over anonymous women.

Criminal lawyer Sue Chapman told me the system wouldn't need reform at all if more authority figures changed their attitudes towards victims. "We all evaluate complainants based on...a false model," she says. "(We look for) the woman who didn't drink too much or wear a cute outfit. The woman who wasn't flirting, or didn't continue to date the guy a few times to see if he'd change his mind and treat her with respect."

Within the legal system, it's arguably most important that police change their perception of victims. According to Lee Lakeman, who has worked as an advocate in field of violence against women for over 40 years, most sexual assault complaints are "lost at the level of the first officer" and never make it to court. "If most police officers are men ... who walk into a situation of an alleged crime with the prevailing attitude that women will lie and misuse law they not going to do a good investigation." And she says too many do. You need only remember the incident in 2011 in which a Toronto police officer offered the following safety gem to Osgoode students: "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not be victimized."

If we focus on legal reforms before reversing a culture of victim blaming, systemic changes will always just be manipulated by individuals who believe these women are lying. In 1983, Canada made sweeping changes to its sex assault laws. For the first time, a husband could be charged with raping his wife (yes, the courts had previously deemed that impossible.) But Chapman says the reforms didn't succeed in making the legal system more progressive: "Does that mean with a stroke of the pen you don't get a lesser (sentence) for raping your wife or that you're not far less likely to be convicted of it not at all?" she says. "Those attitudes and approaches continue to haunt us despite law reform."

We need to change attitudes before we change laws. We need to keep talking, and better yet, get mad. That anger is working in India. Last December the protests that erupted after a woman was gang raped and murdered on a New Dehli bus have encouraged many more victims to report their cases. Anger worked after the Montreal Massacre, when rallies in every major Canadian city got action in Parliament such as "The War on Women" report and the appointment of the first female Minister of Justice, Kim Campbell.

Right now, women control the dialogue around sexual assault. Let's use that power, not give it to the courts. After all, according to Lakeman, "it's the raising bloody hell that makes the biggest difference."


*This piece originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen