Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/3/2016 (2041 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The verdict is back in Canada's most watched sexual-assault trial. Jian Ghomeshi, the disgraced radio host, was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. Three women came forward to tell their stories and testify against him.
The trial was a media circus. News networks from around the world gathered in Toronto to cover the story in salacious detail. The testimony, the lawyer's strategies and the mood in the courtroom were all rehashed and analyzed over and over again. The verdict faced the same scrutiny today.
No one will be satisfied with the outcome of this trial. Marches and rallies are planned in support of sexual-violence survivors immediately after the verdict is delivered. There is some speculation whether or not the accused can resume his career with this verdict. This will not be the end of this story.
Watching and reading the coverage during the trial made me angry and left me with big questions. Why didn't the police and the Crown do a better job preparing for the trial? Why didn't the Crown call an expert witness to explain there is no standard response during or after a sexual assault? Did the defence lawyer cross the line when questioning the witnesses? Was someone supporting the witnesses before, during and after the trial? The frustration felt by every victim and victim's advocate was exacerbated by this trial.
Sexual-assault trials happen in courtrooms across our country every day. A 2012 study revealed there are about 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada every year. Of these, only 15,000 will be reported, just 2,800 will be prosecuted and only 1,400 will result in a conviction.
Read that again. For every 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada, there will be 1,400 convictions.
Those numbers are as problematic as they are horrific. Sexual assaults are exceptionally underreported crimes. But why?
I spoke with sexual-assault survivors and the picture became clearer. These survivors had vastly different experiences, but they shared a common response to their circumstances. They didn't want to go to the police and they didn't want to talk to anyone about the assault. Their reasons were the same. They thought no one would believe them; they were embarrassed and ashamed; and they were scared people would treat them differently once they found out what happened.
We have turned victim-blaming and shaming into an art form. One of our psychologists at the YWCA has a theory that people find it easier to blame the victim rather than come to terms with the fact evil truly exists in our world. If we accept the presence of evil, then we have to accept that it could happen to us and that is an intolerable notion. In a way, blaming the victim might even give us the illusion of control. We convince ourselves that if we just don't do what she did, it won't happen to us.
We pay an incredibly high price for blaming the victim. Those who have been assaulted live in shame, guilt and fear, and the perpetrators face few or no consequences for their actions. It's a perverse cycle.
After questioning, challenging and listening to these people, here are some of my thoughts. Essentially, I learned that, while it's not perfect, by and large the legal system is mindful and sensitive to the unique circumstances of sexual-assault cases. That's not to say everyone in the system is perfect. No humans are. There are times when the guilty go free and the innocent are punished. But in my conversations with these experts, I heard the anguish each of them feels when the system fails. I am grateful for the candour and thoughtfulness each of these individuals brought to our conversations. However, these calls left me disappointed — and still angry.
I felt compelled to try to make sense of this madness and to offer changes that would improve this picture. We all own a piece of this, so it makes sense to me that we all have to change a part of our behaviour. So I offer some not-so-simple solutions to a very complex issue.
To the legal community: I ask you to work with survivors to create a structure where those people wanting and ready to report sexual violence are treated with the utmost sensitivity.
To the media: I ask you to report sexual-assault cases with an eye for educating as you report. The reason I was able to get answers to the questions I had about the legal side of the trial is because I have privilege. The YWCA is known for its advocacy, so when I picked up the phone, legal experts were kind enough to speak with me. Don't underestimate the desire of consumers of news to understand complex issues.
To each and every one of us: I ask that we demand more from our justice system and that we don't balk when it comes to paying the cost of improving services. Laying more assault charges means more strain on an already strained system, but the social and health-care costs of doing nothing are substantial — we just don't see them.
I ask that we support media that goes beyond the sensational. Let them know when they have done their job well.
And finally I ask that we actively support victims of sexual violence. Listen to their stories and never, ever forget that sexual assault has never been, and will never be, the fault of the person who was violated.
After Thursday, this particular case will fade from the headlines (though it will be a temporary reprieve, as the accused is due back in court in June to face another sexual-assault charge). The real test for all of us will be whether we learned and changed our behaviour in a way that helps all those survivors who weren't front-page stories.
Jackie Foord is the chief executive officer of the Edmonton YWCA.