The world is watching former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s sex assault trial, and the cross-examination of women who say he assaulted them, play out in real time. (Ghomeshi has denied all the charges against him.)
Global News took this opportunity to talk to women who’ve experienced sexual assault and struggled with whether to report it and how to pursue justice in the court system.
READ MORE: Readers’ stories on sexual assault
For a sexual assault survivor, Jennifer O’Neill is lucky and she knows it.
Lucky that, in the car of a man she didn’t know, being driven she didn’t know where, brain made fuzzy by substances she still can’t identify, she somehow had the presence of mind to respond to a friend’s frantic text with one word: “Scared.”
It didn’t help much at the time but it was a piece of corroborating evidence years later, when O’Neill’s own sworn testimony might not have been enough.
Lucky that, after hours drifting in and out of consciousness in a strange apartment, being violated in ways she can only recall in fragments, she begged, convinced, cajoled the stranger to drive her home, where a police officer was waiting.
Lucky that, even though she was too confused and scared to respond affirmatively when the officer asked “Have you been sexually assaulted?” even though she declined the gruff offer of a rape kit in the hopes she could will her assault away, the police hung on to her file and followed up by phone later.
“I knew something had happened. … But at that moment maybe a part of me said, ‘Maybe you don’t have to remember.’”
Lucky to have friends there as she lay prone on her couch, struggling to piece herself together.
“When someone blows up your life, no one shows you the way to your brokenness. You find it yourself.”
They told her bible stories, fed her popcorn, put on a movie, drew her a bath.
“They were the most generous, kind people I could ever ask for.”
Lucky that, as debilitating trauma precluded her attempts to go back to work as though everything was fine, and her boss’s moral support didn’t stop her from becoming jobless and income-less when she took time off, she could pack herself and her belongings on the bus to her parents’ home in Kingston.
“They thought it was nuts that I was trying to go back to work. I was like, ‘I’m fine, mom. I’ve got this,’” she recalls.
“They had ears for it; they had love for it; they believed me and were willing to have their kid move into their basement. …
“In other situations people would become homeless — this is how people spiral.”
Lucky that her parents not only believed and supported her but accompanied her weeks later to a Toronto police station to spend hours giving a statement.
“It was two hours of, just, purging,” she said.
That included, more literally, a trip to the bathroom to puke as she relived the experience.
“I remember just being like, ‘You’re talking about my body! That’s really weird. …
“Aside from the court process it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
And that was before she realized she wouldn’t have access to her police statement until the trial began months later.
“[They say], ‘Try to stick to your statement and say what’s true,’ but, really, how do you remember 200 pages worth of statement?”
Lucky that she and her parents had the financial means to pay for therapy to help her overcome the overwhelming depression, the “growing into my mattress phase” – therapy no one would have paid for otherwise.
READ MORE: ‘I needed to know it wasn’t my fault’
Lucky she had the education and the agency to fight for answers from the Crown and cops on her case; lucky she had the profile — white, middle-class, articulate, attractive (she’s a former model) — to help make her the “right” kind of victim witness.
“The goal of the victim witness is just to be credible. And what credible looks like, sadly, is being invisible,” she said.
“Smooth down the anger,” the Crown told her. “Become the benevolent teacher. And I think that’s actually good advice. But hearing that when you’ve been hurt, it’s like, why do I have to take care of everybody else? Someone just messed my life up.”
O’Neill learned the hard way that the Crown was not her lawyer.
“They’ll tell you, ‘We represent the crime and we represent the state,’ but what that means doesn’t make sense.”
It means she couldn’t confide in the Crown, or even the court-appointed victim witness meant to help her through the process — anything she told them would have to be disclosed to the defence counsel.
“As a victim witness you’re given very little information about the court process itself or why things are happening,” she said.
“It was this slow, slow process of, every time I interacted with police or the Crown, realizing, ‘This isn’t for me. But it’s important that I do this. I think.”
O’Neill had second thoughts about taking her rape to court almost immediately.
But “I don’t think I would have recovered from” backing out.
“That would be me deciding that my country was incapable. That would be me deciding that I was, in fact, a second-class citizen and that was the way it was going to be and that my experience wasn’t worth my tax dollars.”
If she needed any extra convincing, her last chance to call it off, get a peace bond and leave the accused with no criminal record coincided with the Jian Ghomeshi allegations going public along with the former CBC personality’s now-infamous exculpatory Facebook post.
READ MORE: Timeline of the Ghomeshi case
“That’s when I decided that there was no way I could possibly take a peace bond for this.”
But all O’Neill’s privilege, all her conviction, didn’t make it any easier to be cross-examined on the stand.
“The first question I got asked was what medications I was on at the time of the assault” — even though the defence’s application to ask questions about O’Neill’s medical history had been denied.
“[The defence] didn’t say that I was crazy directly, didn’t say that I was a poor decision-maker directly, but it just planted this idea in people’s minds of, ‘Ohhhh, she’s on meds.’”
It went on from there.
The defence asked “where the accused was in my vagina,” she said.
“I recall being asked if I was embarrassed, if I was just going through this [court process] if I was embarrassed.
“I recall being asked whether I was into it. Whether I was into him.”
She recalls flipping through her own police statement, struggling to recall exactly what she’d said, and how.
“It felt like my feet were being shot at and I was dancing. And that’s not a cool feeling. That doesn’t feel like justice.”
It felt like she was the one on trial, O’Neill says.
“I didn’t see any of his personal business being dragged out, you know what I mean?”
But she made it through the trial, and the conviction. In the agonizing period between verdict and sentencing, O’Neill gave a provincial legislative committee a piece of her mind last May, elucidating the ways she feels Canada’s system fails survivors of sexual violence.
“This is absolutely a political issue – not just one to be kept in sexual assault crisis centres,” she said.
O’Neill believes justice should be more restorative than retributive. But it galls her that her abuser got a conditional sentence — no time behind bars. He still lives in Toronto, as far as she knows.
“It’s terrifying every single day. …
“It’s terrifying to speak about this and know that he may see this on the news,” she said.
“While I’m all for critically looking at our justice system and our incarceration system and looking at maybe better ways of healing, if we’re not going to offer rehabilitation or community justice or other routes of justice for survivors and other routes of accountability for perps, then we ought to maybe sentence them properly.”
And that, she argues, means treating sexual violence with the same gravity as physical violence.
She’d like to see more support for survivors going through the process. Ontario isexperimenting with something along those lines, giving sex assault complainants legal counsel of their own.
And she wants her own experience — harrowing, but survivable — to be a reality for people who aren’t as privileged as her.
“I don’t think justice — official, legal justice in our system — is possible for women who are poor, for women of colour, for women who are queer, who are overweight, any identity that doesn’t look like privilege or status quo is a deterrent from your ability to negotiate this process.”
“Without support, without family, without economic support, without social service support, without legal support … I would have been lost.”