Chances are a woman in Canada will be sexually assaulted while you’re reading this and never tell police.
Decades after the Criminal Code was changed to better protect rape survivors and punish their assailants, fewer than one in five victims of sexual assault say they reported their violation to authorities.
An Ipsos poll for Global News found that while 30 per cent of those surveyed said they’d experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes, fewer than one in five (about 18 per cent) of those had told police.
Some felt young and powerless, or ashamed, or they blamed themselves or just wanted to move on. Many felt reporting would do little good.
And in that last respect the evidence bears them out, at least when it comes to conviction.
Twenty-three per cent of sexual assault charges in 2011-12 adult criminal court resulted in a guilty verdict,according to Statistics Canada.
And that’s only the cases that go to trial. Many, many more never make it that far.
Women reported being victims of 472,000 sexual assaults in 2009,according to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey; men, 204,000. Yet police-reported crime statistics for that yearshow barely 21,000 incidents of sexual assault, and 7,951 persons charged.
And the women most vulnerable to sexual exploitation — those with mental illness; anyone new to Canada or the English language who may not know know her rights or her way around; First Nations and Inuit women; women who are poor or prostitutes — are also those least likely to get justice through the legal system.
Diana Jesson was a teenager sleeping over at a friend’s house the first time she was sexually assaulted. Her young age is not uncommon: 62 per cent of the women surveyed were under 18 for at least one of the sexual assaults they experienced.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she told Global News in an interview years later. She approached a family member she trusted.
“I told her what had happened. I said, ‘I need to go to police, this was wrong.’ She discouraged me. And it was brushed under the carpet. And I carried that for years.”
Jesson credits that initial fear, confusion and self-blame as a “precipice” for future abusive relationships. Fifteen years later, the violation no one else took seriously still stings.
“I was hurt. I was angry. I was distraught.”
But Jesson was the exception: She finally went to police. Finally, someone believed her. Charges were laid.
“It is vindication when the person is held accountable for what they’ve done.”
Graphic by Leo Kavanagh
The barriers begin as soon as a sexual assault survivor considers calling 911, saysBeth Lyons, associate director of YWCA Moncton.
People from communities that have fraught relationships with police — whether trans, black, aboriginal, poor, of uncertain immigrant status or engaged in sex work — are reluctant to approach an authority they mistrust to report this most personal of crimes. New immigrants and people with limited English-language skills also face added challenges.
(It doesn’t help, she noted, that three Toronto police officers were charged last week with the gang sexual assault of one of their fellow officers while off-duty)
“There’s also the more societal, cultural part of it,” she added.
“If you’re identifying publicly as a sexual violence survivor you’re going to be dealing with folks suggesting that you lied. That you consented and then the next morning you changed your mind.
“A lot of it comes in the form of, ‘Well no woman asks for it, but…What was she doing? What was she wearing? Why was she behaving like that? What did she expect?’ It’s the ongoing shaming. And dealing with that while you’re dealing with the trauma of sexual assault can just be overwhelming.”
Assuming survivors do approach police, those interviews can be harrowing in and of themselves, said Mary Lou Fassel, legal director at Toronto’s Barbra Shlifer Commemorative Clinic. Police often ask a woman about her psychiatric, legal, behavioural history. “They really should not be asking women those questions,” Fassel said. But not all women know they don’t have to answer them. “And, in most cases, she should say ‘No.’”
When sexual assault allegations against CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi first surfaced and police called on women to come forawrd, Fassel said, “we had more calls from [women] who were so upset at these comments, saying, ‘We went to police. They were not helpful at all. Police made me feel like I was not credible.’”
READ MORE: How likely is Jian Ghomeshi to be convicted?
But Waterloo Regional Police Staff. Sgt. Kenneth Jesson said police have gotten “a lot better” in dealing with victims of sexual assault.
“They can forward to law enforcement and [feel] that we will listen to them, and all the reports are taken seriously,” he said. “We have to ask them some hard questions, obviously. If they’ve been traumatized over an incident … we have to get those specific details, which is pretty traumatizing for people.
“Not every system is perfect. … They know what happened to them and that’s why, as investigators, we just want the truth.”
After that, she says, a Crown prosecutor may decide there isn’t enough likelihood of conviction to pursue the charge.
And it’s a challenging charge to prosecute.
“In other kinds of crimes there’s more forensic evidence, there’s so much more corroborating evidence than there is in the privacy, the secrecy that surrounds sexual assault,” Fassel said.
“Clients call us in distress saying they just talked to the crown attorney and the case is going to be dropped and the only thing they’ve been told is prosecution is not feasible. So she’s left wondering.”
And if a case does go to trial, it can mean a sexual assault survivor spends years reliving the event. And despite a rape shield law designed to prevent this, she’ll likely find her past, her behaviour and her credibility dredged up during cross-examination as a defence lawyer seeks to cast her credibility in question.
“Why were you at that bar at 2 in the morning? Why did you drink five cocktails? Why were you walking where you were walking? Isn’t it true you’ve fantasized about an office romance with this man for years?”
READ MORE: How do you determine consent?
Sometimes even a conviction is not enough: Alberta’s court of appeal overturned a sexual assault conviction because it determined, in a split decision, the judge interfered with the defendant’s case by stopping the defence lawyer from questioning the alleged victim about her drug use and allegations she had flirted earlier with the defendant.
But despite all this, Fassel argues there’s a significant societal benefit to publicly prosecuting sexual assaults.
“There’s great societal value in the reporting of sexual offences and in the prosecution of sexual offences as a means to deter it …
“When you combine our desire to increasingly report sexual offences and to bring it above board, to bring it above the underground so the community can see … to have a better understanding of who the victims and the perpetrators are.”
Others who work with sexual assault survivors argue there are ways to bring the discussion of sexual assault into the mainstream, to reduce the shame and stigma around admitting you’ve been raped, without going to the police.
What often complicates things, says Lyons with Moncton’s YWCA, is that at times women need to report a sexual assault in order to access certain counselling services. Even so, “I would never strongly coach someone to do one thing over the other,” she said.
Each survivor’s needs are different when it comes to healing from a sexual assault, says Farrah Khan, a counsellor with the Shlifer clinic.
“I don’t want to put that onus on survivors” to tell police, she said.
Equally important, Khan said, is fostering communities of survivors, in person and online, so they feel less alone; it includes reducing the societal shame and stigma around people who come forward — to say,
“I believe you. You have a right to be safe. I’m so glad you told me. What do you need? How can I help? It’s not your fault.”
That last point Khan finds herself repeating over and over with women coming forward for the first time. “We are taught over and over again that somehow we bring this on ourselves.”
She also argues deterrence has to start on a much more basic level than prosecution. Education helps, she says, as do conversations about consent.
“It’s an epidemic. And we have to treat it as such.”
One young woman was 24 and working at her dream job in the Toronto area when a co-worker drugged and raped her in her own apartment. She was one of five per cent of the women surveyed who said their assailant was a colleague.
After two weeks in a traumatized daze — not sleeping, not eating; longing “to curl up in a ball and die — she went to police.
Her first interview with a trio of officers went well, she said: “They were like, we’re going to get this guy.”
But then two successive detectives assigned to her case seemed bent on dissuading her from pursuing charges.
“This is really tough,” she recalls one of them saying.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this? Are you sure you want to put this guy on a list with Paul Bernardo?”
“I said, ‘Yes, of course. He raped me. He roofied me. He’s a danger to society.’”
The young woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy, found a second detective equally alienating. Convincing the detective to accept her evidence was “like pulling teeth,” she said. “It was like trying to force someone to fight this fight for me.”
The woman moved back to New Brunswick to live with her family but travelled back to Ontario to follow up on the case.
“There was no charge laid. There was nothing.”
They asked the detective why.
“She said I had to take ownership of the fact that I’d been drinking with these guys.”
And that was the end of it. Only it wasn’t: The young woman is now at law school in New Brunswick. She plans to dedicate her life to fighting sexual assault even as she continues to wrestle with her own trauma.
“I can’t believe that that’s what happens. That it happens all the time and that’s the norm.”
With a files from Jennifer Tryon and Arturo Chang