April 11, 2017
Recent events have focused the attention of many Canadians on sexual violence and how survivors of sexual violence are treated in the justice system. A review of how sexual assault cases are handled must go beyond determining what cases were labelled “unfounded” (baseless) and under what circumstances. We need to examine how sexual assault of adults is treated from the time of reporting all the way through to sentencing and learn what can be done better.
Much discrimination and pain results from widespread belief in rape myths. There are many examples of harmful myths: that women often lie about sexual assault out of spite or revenge or to get attention; that only young or “sexy” women are sexually assaulted; that women are most likely to be assaulted at night, in dark places, and by strangers; that men don’t get sexually assaulted. These myths are false, but, what’s more, they are barriers to justice for survivors of sexual violence.
What are some practical things we can do to battle these myths and improve sexual assault response?
Police officers of all genders and all backgrounds need to be well trained to respond to sexual violence. From the first contact between a victim and a first responder, the victim needs to feel believed and the next steps need to be trauma-informed. A trauma-informed response in the justice system means that all persons who work with victims or survivors understand the science of how violence, abuse, and trauma affect the brain and behaviour. As trauma expert Dr. Lori Haskell explains, the effects of trauma on the brain “interfere with the way… victims seek safety, process information, and remember details.”
Victims who go to hospital for treatment need to have access to nurses, nurse practitioners, or doctors who are trained in sexual assault response, such as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners. Timely and respectful service by well-trained healthcare workers could go a long way to improving outcomes for victims.
There is clearly a need for better training for all people working in the justice system, including for judges. This should include education on the evidence that refutes rape myths, as well as the science on how survivors process assault and how trauma affects memory. Recently, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould praised a project in the U.S. that invites external advocates to help with reviews of sexual assault cases. There are also precedents in many U.S. courts for including expert witness testimony in sexual assault cases.
In the courts and among the general public, there is a clear need for better definition and better understanding of what constitutes sexual consent. This education needs to begin with children and youth, so they learn about healthy relationships and respecting themselves and others.
As members of the public, we can counter rape myths when we hear them repeated. We can stand up against the stigma sexual violence survivors face and stand up against victim-blaming. We can practice consent in our own relationships and model healthy relationships for children and youth.
Most of all, we can believe survivors when they tell us they have been harmed. We can listen without judgment. We can say that what happened to them was not okay. We can tell them that the violence is not their fault. We can help connect people with services and supports if they want them. We can advocate for more resources and supports for front-line services for sexual assault response, through sexual assault nurse examiners, Victim Services, and the Rape and Sexual Assault Centre.
We can all play a role in helping survivors of sexual violence achieve justice.
Mari Basiletti is the Chairperson and Jane Ledwell is the Executive Director of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women.