The last six months have filled the news and social media feeds with stories and conversations about sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. The #MeToo movement rallied survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories, there has been a flood of resignations and firings of people – mostly men – accused, and we have now reached the point where people are publicly asking whether we are going too far to create a world free from sexual violence. Navigating these social and political issues is difficult but if we want a safer culture when the dust of current events settles, we need to keep the experience of survivors at the top of the list of priorities.
We see similar patterns emerge when sexual assault allegations are made. The alleged perpetrator usually denies the claim, advocates for survivors of sexual violence urge action, and some people emerge to defend the person or people accused. The defenders deploy a series of arguments designed to cast doubt – and in some cases blame – on the survivor coming forward. They suggest that the survivor doesn’t have proof, that they’re being vindictive, or that accusations are an attempt to garner attention.
Accepting that celebrities, artists, or someone we admire might have let us down is challenging. When everything is fine you can be loyal to a friend, love a band’s music, or stand by a political party while also believing that sexual assault is never okay. When a friend, favourite band, or political leader is accused of sexual misconduct those beliefs can clash. Our individual responses in these situations are important because our responses tell the people around us what we value. If we believe that sexual assault is never okay and never justified, then it is our responsibility to take all allegations seriously and believe survivors first.
Some of you read the last sentence and thought, “but people make false allegations all the time and we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.” A quick look at the comments below any article about sexual assault allegations show that this is a common response. As much as it is common, that response is founded on myths. People who haven’t experienced sexual violence often struggle to understand why a survivor wouldn’t immediately tell people or go to the police. In reality, the majority of people who experience sexual harassment or assault never officially come forward and the reasons for their silence are complex.
The most recent Statistics Canada numbers show that there are approximately 636,000 reported incidents of sexual assault in Canada each year. Out of every 1,000 cases, only 33 will be reported to the police. That is a tiny fraction and the reasons why so few people come forward are many and varied. Survivors often feel shame, they blame themselves for the violence they experienced, they worry about judgement from their friends and family, and fear reprisals from their perpetrator.
Having already been traumatized, many survivors want to avoid additional interrogations or dismissals from their community or police. Watching the court of public opinion question survivors about what they wore, whether they were drinking, and why they didn’t keep their knees together teaches other survivors that they will be blamed if they come forward. Even for those who press charges, their abusers seldom face justice. Only 12 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases will see charges laid. A mere half of those charges will lead to prosecution and only three will lead to a conviction.
When we doubt survivors who come forward, we tell all of the silent survivors surrounding us that we won’t believe them either. In a culture that doesn’t believe survivors, it is safer for them to pursue private healing and stay silent rather than seek public justice and face the doubt, blame, or threats that will emerge in an attempt to silence them.
The question of who to support can be especially difficult for the friends and fans of people accused of sexual misconduct. It can be painful to reassess our relationships to people and art that is important to us. Remember though, that every time we choose not to prioritize the experiences of sexual assault survivors we tell the people around us that sexual assault isn’t that serious. And choosing to ignore sexual violence is not a luxury available to everyone. Sexual assault is life changing for the one in three Canadian women and one in six Canadian men who will experience it in their lifetime. Those survivors don’t get to ignore the issue and if they can’t, neither should the rest of us.
Coordinator, Violence Prevention Grey Bruce
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