Kathryn-Baker Reed says rape crisis centres like SAVIS of Halton are always busy. “Unfortunately, we’re in extremely high demand, and that’s true across the province of Ontario,” she says.
Baker-Reed, the executive director for SAVIS has been with centre for two years, but has been working in social justice, anti-violence, and sexual assault domain for 20 years. The work still isn’t done.
“Once you’re in, you never really can leave.”
The numbers speak a thousand words
Because the most recent government data dedicated solely to violence against women is from 1993, the prevalence of sexual assault is hard to pin down. Some information can be gleaned from the census the Canadian government conducts every five years, but the extent of the problem is uncertain. An estimated 10 per cent of all sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, according to Stats Canada.
Stats can lack context. If the numbers of assaults decrease, it may not necessarily mean the problem is improving. It might mean people are too afraid to come forward. “Silence does not equal safety,” says Baker-Reed.
A few non-profit groups, such as the Canadian Women’s Foundation conduct studies that help fill in the information void. In 2013, the foundation found that 67 per cent of Canadians knew a woman who had experienced sexual assault.
The word “rape” was eliminated from the criminal code in 1983, and was replaced by the umbrella term of “sexual assault.” There are three levels of charges with varying severity.
Canadian colleges and universities made headlines in the past two years for campus assault after several incidents at York University and Ryerson University as well as the pro-rape chants at St. Mary’s University during frosh week. More recently, the University of Ottawa’s men’s hockey team was suspended after allegations of a sexual assault surfaced.
“I remember when I was in university, [there were] young women leaving because they’d been assaulted and they couldn’t get through school anymore. But they didn’t tell anyone. They told their friends, but they didn’t tell anyone else,” says Baker-Reed.
“It will impact peoples’ ability to eat, their ability to hold down jobs, and that’s just trauma [generally.] Whether it’s sexual or any other kind. These are normal reactions to trauma.”
This issue can be complex because violence affects people who face other social oppression differently. The trans community, people of colour, and people with disabilities can have intersecting issues that contribute to violence. Disabled women, due to reliance on a caregiver, can experience financial abuse. Aboriginal women can be at risk for sexual exploitation and trafficking and are almost three times more likely to be victimized than white women, according to Stats Canada. The trans community is at risk of harassment, discrimination, and physical violence due to widespread transphobia.
“The groups who are experiencing it in higher numbers are definitely those who are racialized and marginalized in different ways,” says Leigh Naturkach, manager of violence prevention for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “It happens to any age group, any ethnicity, any colour but it’s also comes back to how some groups are more susceptible as well.”
Sheridan College hosted a meeting last month with law enforcement and community members to address concerns in light of a string of assaults that occurred near campus since February of last year. Halton Police said they believed the attacks were connected and advised students to avoid using their phones while walking or walking with earbuds in. Students are often given a list of precautions to take to ensure their safety: Walk with purpose, travel in pairs and be aware of your surroundings. Sound familiar? You’ve probably seen these tips used by law enforcement, or distributed in email chain letters in the early 2000s when you still had a Hotmail account.
In high-risk communities, self-defence classes can be encouraged, and from time to time new products will hit the market with the intent to protect buyers from assault. Last year the controversial commercials for a company debuting its “anti-rape” jogging shorts sparked heated debate on social media.
Self-defence courses can be beneficial for people, as long as the emphasis is on empowerment, says Andrea Gunraj, communications specialist for Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC.)
“We think that some women’s self-defence courses can really be empowering. But they’ve gotta come from the perspective of not putting the responsibility on the person who’s victimized,” she says.
Although there’s no harm in people doing what’s required to feel safer, the onus should be on the perpetrators, says Baker-Reed.
“This isn’t about always having to walk with a buddy at night, or walk with your keys between your fingers,” she says.
“We need to look at how our society creates this, where people think this might be something that they’d like to engage in, which is to attack people. To attack women.”
Shannon Giannitsopoulou, a co-founder of the grassroots project, Femifesto, agrees:
“The onus should be, or the message should be, ‘don’t rape.’ ”
In colleges, universities, workplaces, and institutions, there are ways to help increase safety. Funding is available from Status of Women Canada for safety audits, and York University and U of T’s Mississauga campus have had these inspections done. METRAC conducts safety audits, among other services. Through surveys, community-based research, interviews, and focus groups, METRAC evaluates what can be improved. Sometimes it’s as simple as lighting and signs, and sometimes it has to do with policy.
“A lot of the times, the policies and practices to deal with things like sexual harassment or assault are not there,” says Gunraj, “If they are there, they’re not up to date or they’re not as full and responsive as they need to be.”
Sometimes audit recommendations have to do with adding a sexual assault centre and many times it simply means focusing on the student orientation process including sexual assault prevention, how to improve safety and how to reduce the bystander effect. Afterward, METRAC will deliver a report with recommendations and suggestions on how to implement them. In the case of York, METRAC worked with a committee that included professors, students, student unions, and administration. Lately the catalyst to bring METRAC into campuses has been student unions or student groups, either because assaults have happened previously, or as a proactive measure.
Sasha Elford of Femifesto thinks post-secondary institutions could promote consent through policy and training. “Frosh week, for example would be a really great time to address issues around consent. And not just in a negative way, but in a way that positively talks about consent and engages young people to understand what that really looks like.”
Some student groups have responded to campus assault with pro-consent initiatives. Students Nova Scotia, an alliance of post-secondary student unions launched a campaign last month to promote consent through education.
Education is playing a big role in prevention, tackling the problem before it begins. Five graduates of Western University managed to get a gender studies curriculum in the works for Ontario through their Miss G Project.
In a similar vein, SAVIS of Halton received $50,000 from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The grant will go toward an online curriculum on healthy relationships, healthy sexuality and consent for all the Grade 9 students in the Halton District School Board. The Be the Change Program, as it’s known, will be launched in select schools this fall and fully rolled out in 2015.
The blame game
Victim-blaming, or survivor-blaming is the idea that the victim was in some way responsible for being assaulted because of what they wore, choosing to drink alcohol, or walking at night. Margaret Wente, a columnist for The Globe and Mail opened a column about campus assault with, “here’s some common-sense advice for young women who want to avoid the perils of ‘rape culture’ on campus and in high schools.
Don’t get drunk.”
During a meeting to address campus assault at York University in 2011, Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer said, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this, however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” His comments were the catalyst of several rallies and protests.
“When [survivors] hear messages like that from law enforcement who is receiving those reports, [survivors] already feel like they’re working against them,” says Naturkach, A study released last year by the foundation found that 19 per cent of Canadians believed that women encourage or provoke sexual assault when they’re drunk. Some respondents with that view were young, with 23 per cent between the ages of 18-34.
“The whole foundation was completely blown away that in 2013, at the time, that that’s the prevailing attitude,” says Naturkach. “It’s a culture that we’ve all inherited, that we need to change.”
Victim-blaming can also run rampant online. Cyber bullying was prevalent in the Amanda Todd case, where the teenager was extorted for nude photographs and later taunted for it by peers, leading to her suicide in October 2012. Much of the media coverage focused on the online aspects of the case, with less attention on the gender-based harassment.
“Cyber bullying is kind of a misnamed situation because it really obscures the fact that it’s young women who are experiencing assault and then experiencing blaming after the fact through things like social media,” says Gunraj.
Other terms are often used that downplay violent situations. For example, in reporting on the pro-rape chants at two Canadians universities, CTV, The National Post, CBC, and The Globe and Mail among others opted to use the term “non-consensual sex chants.”
Despite everything, public opinion seems to be shifting, albeit slowly.
“I do think that the last 20 to 30 years of education is creating change, it’s just at a really slow pace, and while experiencing quite a bit of backlash,” says Baker-Reed “We’re slowly trying to create change. I think anyone working in this field has a lot of hope. And that’s part of what keeps us going.”