Reprinted with permission. Originally posted on the Times & Transcript on Nov. 6th, 2014.
It was difficult to even begin to think about how to write this week’s column. It was a foregone conclusion that I’d be covering the allegations of sexual violence that have emerged against CBC radio darling Jian Ghomeshi, as well as the way that the nation has responded to said allegations.
But how would I tackle the topic? What small fraction of the massive, tangled issue of sexual violence could I focus on in the space I’m allotted here?
There is so much that needs to be addressed and none of it can be left out.
The brave women who have accused Mr. Ghomeshi have created an opportunity for a national dialogue on sexual violence – and with that opportunity comes a pressure for anti-violence advocates to say as much as we can, as fast as we can, as compellingly as we can, while so many people are finally paying attention.
I want to talk about the ways in which our culture minimizes and normalizes violence against women, especially women who are marginalized by poverty, race, colonialism, gender identity, disability, etc.
I also want to discuss how that culture teaches us that unless sexual violence presents itself in a certain way, it must not have been ‘real.’
I want to talk about the ways in which institutions like the justice system fail survivors and victims of gender-based violence – and the ways in which individuals fail, too. I want to write of just how many women are survivors of sexual violence and didn’t report, and how they are always listening for indications as to whether the people around them – their friends, families, coworkers – would believe them if they dared to share their stories.
I want to talk about how the presumption of innocence – that is, to be presumed innocent of lying – is rarely reflexively extended to women who’ve made accusations of assault.
I want to talk about how very rare it is for a woman to report sexual violence – especially if they are marginalized or engaging in sex that has been labeled ‘deviant’ – and how false reporting rates are no higher for sexual assault than any other crime. Yet so many of our conversations around sexual violence are derailed at some point into somber discussions of how allegations ruin men’s lives (ahem, Bill Cosby? Roman Polanski? Woody Allen?). As if that conversation merits as much airtime as discussion of the problem of sexual violence does; as if false reports were the norm, rather than not reporting at all. As if the amount of space that concern over false reporting takes up is anything other than proportional to our distrust of women.
I want to talk about how all the tips women hear about reducing their vulnerability to assault – walk in pairs at night, don’t accept open drinks from strangers – ignore the fact that most women know their assailants and most assault happen in a residence. These tips teach us that by stepping out of domestic spaces, we are choosing to make ourselves vulnerable – as if these domestic spaces aren’t where women are often the most at-risk.
There is a terribly repetitive cadence to this column, because this issue is one of terrible repetition.
Repetition of the same myths about sexual assault and lying women; repetition of tips that are supposed to keep us safe but really just reinforce that women could have always done something different to have prevented the violence enacted against them; repetition of all too familiar stories of violence.
I hope that as Canada continues to grapple with the allegations against Mr. Ghomeshi’s, what is repeated changes.
I hope that anti-violence advocates start to breathe a little easier as the general population begins to repeat truths about sexual violence rather than myths.
Finally, I hope that condemnation of sexual violence and support for survivors becomes a repetitive refrain; a mantra that cannot be interrupted or drown out.
Beth Lyons, associate director of YWCA Moncton, writes about equality issues and social justice.