Things were supposed to get better: Canada and sexual violence against women

The street artists El Zeft and Mira Shihadeh created a mural about the rampant sexual assault in Egypt called Circle of Hell

The only consent to sexual intercourse a man required from a woman before 1983 was their marriage certificate. In that year, the Criminal Code of Canada was overhauled. The definition of consent was expanded and updated. Charges of rape and attempted rape were replaced with a three-tiered classification system for sexual assault. Canada, so the story goes, had finally gotten serious about confronting and clamping down on sexual violence against women. Things were supposed to get better.

But by 1985, one study found that every 17 minutes a woman was forced to have sexual intercourse without consent. By 1991, another found 83% of women with disabilities would be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. By 1993, two out of every three women in Canada had experienced sexual assault. According to the domestic violence and gun laws, by 1999, one in three women who had experienced sexual violence had been assaulted by a friend or casual acquaintance; one in four by a family member. By 2010, each day more than 3,300 women and nearly 3000 children were fleeing to emergency shelters to escape domestic violence; another 200 women turned away each night.

This is what better looks like?

Sexual violence is an especially vile form of abuse. And last week many Canadians were shocked someone they’d allowed into their homes and cars, through the intimacy of radio, had allegedly perpetrated such vile abuse against a growing list of women, anonymous and identified. These Canadians also learned, perhaps for the first time, the overwhelming majority of vicitms of sexual violence don’t report it to authorities.

Why bother? Consider how Jian Ghomeshi dismissed the woman (now women) who came forward with claims against him: she was nothing more than “a jilted ex-lover.” Consider the people who came to Ghomeshi’s defence, in droves. Consider the people who agreed, instictively that, “yes, it must’ve been a jilted ex-lover with an axe to grind.”

Right, because women frequently falsely level charges of sexual assault against former partners. Wrong. Such false accusations are a myth, and reveal an appaling lack of knowledge about victims of sexual assault and empathy for those who have been victims of sexual assault.

Sadly, however, such myths persist, contributing to a culture of shame and of silence surrounding sexual assault.

What also seems to persist is a lack of faith in our justice system by the victims of sexual violence. Many fear they won’t be be believed, the crimes committed against them taken seriously, the perpetrators brought to justice.

Look around. Who can blame them? While rates of violent crime have decreased in recent years, there is no evidence of a decline in the severity of the violence involved in sexual assaults. Despite this, police rarely charge offenders with anything more than Level-1 offences—the least serious of the three sexual assault classifications. Moreover, of the approximately 10% of sexual assaults reported to police, only a fraction result in criminal convictions, with jail sentences lasting an average of only two years. What is there in that to give victims faith?

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It isn’t just the police who have work to do, either. The courts offer little hope for victims, as well. As recently as 2011 a Thompson, Manitoba man was handed a conditional sentence for a sexual assault he committed in 2006—despite the Crown’s recommendation of at least three years in prison—because the judge presiding over the case had noted the victim had been wearing a tube top and make-up and that “sex was in the air” the night of the assault. Indeed, the judge dismissed the offender as merely a “clumsy Don Juan.”

Is it any wonder the silence and the shame persists?

Since his termination from the CBC and the slew of allegations that have come pouring forth since then, Canadians can’t seem to stop talking about Jian Ghomeshi. To say there’s a silver lining in it all is a bit of a stretch. Still, it would seem the attention his case has received and the outpouring of rage from Canadians coast to coast over his alleged actions may have given his victims the courage to come forward, prompting an official police investigation. Is it too much to hope those victims who were abused by someone without fame and celebrity might also see in this reason for hope and the chance to have their justice, too?

More importantly, why has it taken a sordid case involving a national celebrity to get Canadians talking about sexual violence? After all, the numbers don’t lie: sexual violence is occurring at an alarming rate, in every corner of this country. If they haven’t been assaulted themselves, almost every woman in Canada knows someone who has been.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. Enough is enough.