Breaking the silence on sexual violence


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My colleague Melissa Martin recently wrote a poignant column about the cost for women of speaking up -- and the greater cost of staying silent.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2014 (3118 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

My colleague Melissa Martin recently wrote a poignant column about the cost for women of speaking up — and the greater cost of staying silent.

Writing about women and gender isn’t an easy thing. It’s difficult, emotionally exhausting work, and it requires a very thick skin.

What happens to women who speak up? Earlier this year, feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University after an anonymous threat of a “Montreal Massacre-style attack” if she spoke. In 2013, American feminist writer Lindy West was met with vicious personal attacks after having the audacity to suggest that comedy isn’t a safe space for women. (I’m sure I don’t need to point out the irony there.) Those are just two examples in a long, long list.

The blowblack that meets women is often ugly, violent and, it seems, accepted as inevitable. As my colleague wrote, “Are we OK with the fact that in order to even raise a critique of culture in any public way, women must be willing to endure the risk of prolonged abuse? That we must accept that we run the risk of being told how people would like to see us murdered, tortured and sexually shamed?”

I write about women and gender regularly — every second week for the Free Press, sometimes more, and once a week on my blog. I’ve accepted those risks. And so far, I’ve been lucky. I’ve not been on the receiving end of death threats or threats of sexual violence. I’ve not been driven from my home. The worst things I’ve been called are “man-hating feminist” and a zealot — the latter for daring to suggest that we believe women who allege abuse — but then, those are comments I can see. I don’t know what Free Press moderators shield me from. But I do know that it’s matter of time before my inbox and mentions on Twitter are filled with personal attacks.

I mean, I’m asking for it, right?

I’ve received emails from readers thanking me for the work I do. Many of them call it brave. I don’t feel brave. Often my stomach feels like it’s going to drop through the floor. I’m forever bracing for the backlash.

And so, it’s with great reverence that I read the tweets that continue to flood in at #BeenRapedNeverReported. Created by former Toronto Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias and Montreal Gazette justice reporter Sue Montgomery two weeks ago in the wake of the allegations against disgraced CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, the hashtag aims to break the silence surrounding sexual violence by creating a safe public space in which survivors can tell their stories — many of them for the first time.

Make no mistake: in a culture in which women are not believed and are often forced to accept the blame for acts of violence perpetrated against them, telling their truth is an act of bravery.

Like many of the women who went to the Toronto Star with allegations against Ghomeshi and chose to remain anonymous, many of the people tweeting at the hashtag never went to the police (or anyone else, for that matter) — a point that many seemed to find baffling. But the reasons for not reporting are myriad. The fear of not being believed is a big one. Shame is another. Going to the authorities is very often a long, frustrating, humiliating and re-victimizing process that can yield very little in the way of justice; for every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada, there are three convictions. And when it comes to reporting sexual assault, women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. As the Globe & Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti wrote, “All around the world, women are blamed for the violence committed against them. We can’t blame them for their silence as well.”

That silence is being broken, bit by bit, tweet by tweet. #BeenRapedNeverReported has become a global movement. The tweets are chilling. “Because he was my fiancé and I thought it was my fault.” “My own mom blamed me.” “Lost my group of friends because he bragged about it.” Marlo Boux, a Winnipeg yoga teacher and health coach, also shared her story at the hashtag (she is no longer granting media interviews). She told CBC that the hashtag gave her courage to open up about an experience she’d never talked about.

More women are coming forward about their own experiences. On Monday, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps disclosed in an op-ed that she was sexually assaulted by another member of provincial parliament when she was 28. She was also raped by someone she knew and was informed by police that a conviction would be “impossible.”

A conversation about sexual assault is happening in this country, but now it’s up to us to keep it going, not let it drop as soon as this particular news cycle ends. I’m cautiously optimistic that we can change the discourse surrounding sexual violence, but I’m not naØve. We have a long, long way to go. A hashtag is a start, but it’s not a magic wand. Violence against women is still a big problem in this country — and in this city, where just the other day, another teenage girl, Rinelle Harper, was thrown in the river and left to die. She survived, but she could have just as easily met the same fate as Tina Fontaine. Another stolen girl.

Today, I use this space to raise my voice in solidarity with survivors. To those tweeting at #BeenRapedNeverReported, you are brave and I believe you. To the nine women and one man who have come forward with allegations of abuse by Ghomeshi — including Trailer Park Boys actress Lucy DeCoutere and author/lawyer Reva Seth — you are brave and I believe you. To Rinelle Harper, you are brave and I believe you.

And to those who choose to remain silent about what you’ve endured, you are brave and I believe you. I hope that one day you will feel safe and supported. I understand why you don’t.

Jen Zoratti is a Free Press columnist who writes about women and popular culture. She is the founder of SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS another feminist response to popular culture and where this column was originally published.

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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