Canada’s Awkward Relationship With Rape Culture
“Women — and this is not to blame victims of sexual assault — are often their own worst enemy.”
It’s hard out there for a rapist, apparently. At least, that’s what a group of pundits and public intellectuals would have you believe. As Canada struggles with the trivializing of sexual violence on the campuses of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, the University of Ottawa and the University of British Columbia, some people are still looking to dismiss the scourge of sexual assault, often blaming victims and feminists for whatever incidents may occur.
We’ve all heard the term “rape culture” thrown around, and it’s a term that can lose its meaning or significance with repeated use, but as we experience sexual crimes like those committed in Steubenville or against Rehtaeh Parsons–and the delayed and insufficient responses to the crimes–it is inescapable that rape culture persists and, perhaps, thrives.
The opening quotation comes from National Post‘s Christie Blanchard, who argues that, too often, victims of sexual assault are inappropriately coddled by the justice system. Publication bans and sensitivity shown by police officers are, in her estimation, factors that will bring our justice system into disrepute. Never mind concerns about sexual assault often going un-reported, somehow justice will be served (and society protected) by being a little tougher on these women. Her logic is… interesting.
Blatchford’s critique stems from the unpleasant reality that many women are assaulted while drunk, high or drugged. These women–by the very nature of a key component of the assault–are not always able to clearly remember every aspect of the crime. In the case upon which Blatchford is commenting, the accused men, doctors, deny any sexual activity took place. The victims, drugged or drunk at the time of the assault, do not have clear memories of the assault. It would seem the worst sort of He Said/She Said case for prosecutors. Well, it would be if the medical evidence didn’t prove that the men had intercourse with the incapacitated women. A tidbit of truth Blatchford merely waves away as inconvenient to the defense.
It takes a great deal of gall to use such a case to rail against society’s attempts to combat sexual assault. Further, as she continues into the state of mind of victims of sexual assault, Blatchford decides to take the tack that women who drink too much are contributing to their own rape. She writes, “But when they included voluntary drug and alcohol use, 35.4% of the women were victims of DFSA — with themselves as the de facto facilitators.”
This is rape culture manifested: the argument that victims asked for it, that they facilitated it, that they are partly responsible. Blatchford, naturally, does not want to be seen as blaming rape victims, stating, “No one who is drugged or drunk, let alone unconscious, can consent to sex.”
This statement would carry a little more weight if the very next word in her column wasn’t “but”.
There’s a bit of a confluence of events about sexual assault and rape culture occurring in Canada right now. And, interestingly, much of the defenders of rape culture are women. It’s a simple mode of debate. Women decrying women can’t be an instance of misogyny. It’s also as simple-minded as it is simple.
Last month, CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi hosted a “debate” on rape culture on his radio show, Q. Ghomeshi is a repsected and well-loved radio host (even if his background is a little more comical than your average journalist’s). One of Ghomeshi’s guests was the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald. MacDonald disputed the notion of rape culture on university campuses, for if there was actually such sexual assaults occurring, daddys wouldn’t allow their precious little angels onto campuses. Oh, and if those women just wouldn’t drink so much, they wouldn’t get assaulted. Seriously.
Coming to MacDonald’s defense was National Post‘s Barbara Kay, who had no qualms about blaming rape victims:
A storm of indignation erupted, describing Macdonald as a “rape apologist” for expressing the perfectly sensible view that if girls did not “drink [themselves] blotto” at parties, the entire phenomenon called rape culture would virtually disappear. She is not wrong, but it is politically incorrect to “blame the victim.” No, the only correct view is that “Drinking doesn’t cause rape, it’s the decision of rapists that cause rape,” in Ms Gotell’s words.
This drinking red herring is a favourite of rape apologists (which MacDonald assures us she is not!). Writing prior to the Ghomeshi embarrassment, Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Wente offered a column in which she asked the question, “Can she consent to sex after drinking?” The answer, according to Canadian law, is “no”, yet Wente continued on for a few hundred words in order to blame all these drunk women.
The notion that these drunk, regretful women will just have a bunch of well-meaning guys jailed for alcohol-fueled sex has no basis in reality. Even though a woman cannot legally consent to sex when intoxicated, that doesn’t mean that the cops will actually pursue the crime:
Staff Sgt. Edward Hickey of the Windsor police Special Victims Unit says officers often have a difficult message for women and girls reporting a sexual assault while they were drunk or high.
In a common scenario, the women say they woke up with their clothes off after a night of partying, with a fuzzy memory. One thing they would be sure of is that sexual contact happened while they were in no state to agree to it.
Sometimes there’s hard evidence of crimes like this, such as pictures, video or eyewitness accounts. But if there isn’t, police are often stuck telling them something that’s hard to hear: what you’re saying may well be true, but we don’t have much of a chance in court.
“I’d say, don’t expect any miracles here. It’s a good step, I’m glad you’re here and we’re trying to help you, but don’t have any unrealistic expectations,” Hickey said. “All (the accused) have to do is create a reasonable doubt. One small doubt in the judge’s mind and they win.”
I don’t read Hickey as a callous police officer. I read him as suggesting that, regardless of the existence of a crime, the criminal justice system is still not fully able to deal with sexual assault. Far from coddling victims, we, in fact, do have to tell them to just deal with it. When even those of us who want to help victims can’t, it is just more evidence that we are living with rape culture.
There will still be more who object to the notion that rape culture exists. We are becoming over-saturated with the term, and it is easy to grow weary of these discussions. That seems to be what is happening. As more than one Men’s Rights groups have sought to have Dr. Janice Fiamengo speak on university campuses to denounce rape culture, noting that it’s men who are the real victims, dontchaknow.
The apparent uptick in rape apologias is coming at a noteworthy time. Blatchford’s column, for instance, was published a day after a suspect was arrested in the Amanda Todd case. For those who don’t know who Amanda Todd was, she was a 15-year-old who took nude pictures of herself and was then stalked and harassed online for years before killing herself.
It was her final goodbye, presented in a Youtube video, that really captured people’s attention:
The Todd case mirrors that of Rehtaeh Parsons, except that the police seemed to take it seriously.
My local police force has more of a mixed record. A few years ago, a young women was stopped by cops for walking while black. She didn’t like it (naturally), told them so and was subsequently arrested for her insolence. At the cell block, she was abused, resisted and was eventually stripped by the officer in charge of the cell block, Steven Desjourdy. Desjourdy cut off her top and bra and left her in a cell, half-naked. It appeared to be nothing more than punishment.
There’s video of the incident; it’s horrible. Eventually, the abuse this woman suffered was called out by a local judge, triggering multiple investigations. Desjourdy was found guilty of discreditable conduct by a police disciplinary committee. the Special Investigations Unit charged him with sexual assault and he was prosecuted.
In any other situation, cutting off a woman’s clothing would be considered sexual assault. Desjourdy’s superiors noted that it went completely against the rules of conduct (hence the guilty verdict from the disciplinary committee). Unfortunately, the justice system didn’t agree and Desjourdy was sent free.
This, it would seem, is a further instance of rape culture. But, perhaps you wish to brush this off as just a minor glitch in the system. Sometimes, the guilty go free and there’s no systemic oppression underneath. Fine, but even if we grant that, the response by city councillor Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the police services board, is pure filth:
“The taxpayer of the city is on the hook for approximately a million — so did the SIU have a case?” he asked Wednesday. “The question should be sent to them — are they dealing with those cases on the merits of the evidence or are they dealing with it based on public pressure, they read the paper and they see public outrage about something and they acted?”
I wrote about this yesterday (and went on a bit of a twitter rant last night), but the response by El-Chantiry is just another chapter in rape culture. According to El-Chantiry’s argument, crimes shouldn’t be punished based on justice or public safety, but on a strict cost-benefit analysis. It was not, it would seem, in the interests of the city’s pocketbook to prosecute a man who was found to have (likely) committed a crime by SIU, as well as prosecutors–a man who was found guilty by a disciplinary committee, and a man whose conduct forced the city to concede guilt in a civil lawsuit. None of that matters to the councillor.
To be sure, El-Chantiry isn’t arguing that rape should be excused (neither Blatchford, Kay, Wente, Fiamengo or MacDonald make such explicit arguments, either), but his line of argument leads directly to the notion that, although rape may be bad, the harm that it causes should not be the ultimate concern of prosecutors. It should be of less importance than cost.
Rape, harrassment, assault, stalking, chants–these are all aspects of sexual assault that still must be combated.
Accusations of false allegations, the desire to out rape victims, blaming drugs or alcohol, cops and city councillors looking the other way–these are aspects of rape culture that foster misogyny and sexual violence. Decrying rape culture isn’t about calling men rapists; it’s about treating victims of sexual assault with respect and placing blame for sexual assault solely on the perpetrators. It’s about common human decency.