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By Kathleen May
Only ten per cent of women who experience non-spousal sexual assault – the most egregious of which is rape – report this crime to police*. The reasons for this are as complex and varied as women themselves. Perhaps they are not comfortable revealing intimate details about the event or themselves; maybe they reconcile with the perpetrator (as the vast majority of rapes and other sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows); likely they fear repercussions of reporting.
Unfortunately, we now have even more information about the primary reason women don’t report rape and other sexual assaults: because they don’t think they will be believed.
In early February of this year, The Globe and Mail released an astonishing report on the statistics behind sexual assault investigations that police deem unfounded. Unfounded is a policy designation that means the investigators don’t believe a crime occurred. Unfounded does not mean there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a case—there is another designation for that. Relegating cases to an unfounded status improves a police department’s ‘resolved case’ statistics—because if a crime has not been committed, it doesn’t count against the rate of closed cases.
While some districts apparently use this to pad their numbers, and others simply don’t want to pursue sexual assault cases for reasons of bias, it appears that marking cases as unfounded is often the result of a misunderstanding of what that designation means. The Globe and Mail report discloses a number of instances where cases were not actually unfounded, but that this designation is used as a catch-all for cases that won’t be pursued. Statistics Canada used to release these statistics but stopped—in part, they revealed, because of this inappropriate filing.
The top five districts in all of Canada each had between 55 per cent and 60 per cent of reported sexual assaults deemed without foundation. Huntsville was fifth poorest in Canada with 55 per cent, and Bracebridge third at 56 per cent. Districts that employ the Ontario Provincial Police were especially high—they had an overall rating of 34 per cent compared to the national average of 19 per cent.
The most interesting statistic, however, may be this: The Globe and Mail revealed a distinct correlation between low unfounded numbers and high percentages of female officers on staff. “The unfounded rate among communities with a higher-than-average percentage of female officers was 15 per cent,” (Globe and Mail)—lower than the national average.
As with all areas of life, the efficacy and insight of women in decision-making roles makes society function more equitably, which in turn directly improves the lives of vulnerable women and other populations within our communities. As a feminist, when I denounce patriarchy, this is exactly what I refer to: when men hold statistically disproportionate amounts of decision-making power, women often suffer, most egregiously in the arena of sexual violence.
Was this Bracebridge and Huntsville’s error—not employing enough female police officers to bring balance to cases where the sex of the victim or complainant is so dramatically skewed female? I don’t dispute that more female officers would improve matters. However, more to the point, it seems that the persistence of rape myths continues to prejudice otherwise well-meaning (one hopes) officers against female victims of sexual assault.
The OPP touts its one-week ‘specialized training’ courses in policing sexual assault—according to the report, this training is heavily focused on ‘how to spot a liar’. It is certainly not trauma-informed. As someone who has worked with victims of sexual trauma in this community in multiple avenues for four years, I can tell you a week of good training is woefully insufficient, especially as a one-off. As our understanding of neurobiology deepens, training must be kept up to date. Trauma-informed education and practise is a necessity when dealing with sexual assault survivors because rape is a traumatic event.
In reading and hearing responses to this report, I continue to be disheartened to see persistent rape myths upheld. Please allow me to clarify some of the oft-repeated and oft-refuted myths.
It is a myth that women frequently report rape as an act of revenge or cruelty. The truth is, false rape reporting is statistically the same (or lower) as false reports of any crime. Women are pointedly pressured by investigating officers to be ‘very careful to be sure’ about reporting sexual assault because it can ruin a man’s life. This is demonstrably untrue—the president of the United States has been accused of rape more than once; Casey Affleck, recipient of the Academy Award for best actor, is a serial sexual abuser. In our own community, abusers maintain their statuses despite ‘common knowledge’ of their crimes. Rape accusations rarely ruin men’s lives because women do not have the systemic power to do this.
It is a myth that women whose lives include addictions, mental illness, race oppression, or poverty are more likely to invent sexual assaults. To the contrary, each of these factors make women exponentially more vulnerable to predation.
It is a myth that having sex with someone once, or one hundred times, means that consent is implied. Consent is never implied. It’s a myth that rape cannot exist within a marriage. It’s a myth that if a woman does not fight, scream, plead, or say no, that no rape occurred. Rape is not indicated by the presence of a ‘No’ but by the absence of a ‘Yes’. This is the law.
The lead investigative journalist behind the Globe and Mail report, Robyn Doolittle, says there are positive changes that can be made immediately to move toward reconciling this issue and restoring women’s trust in the police. First, she recommends StatsCan begins once more to release the numbers of unfounded cases publicly: this is key to accountability. Second, there must be mandatory, specialized, ongoing, trauma-informed training for officers—and an environment where rape myths will not be tolerated. And last, she highlights the importance of oversight.
To this end, let’s examine the Philadelphia model, so named because in 1999, Philadelphia police invited Carol Tracy, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project, to create an oversight committee to work in collaboration with the police, over time lowering their unfounded rate to nine per cent. Important to note: at this time, the rate of unfounded cases in Philadelphia was approximately 1/5—the same rate as currently exists across Canada. The Philadelphia model, also known as VACR (VAW [violence against women]advocate case review) allows victims’ advocates to do a yearly review of unfounded sexual assault cases, communicating with police officers any concerns or avenues for further investigation, with the potential to reopen cases.
North Bay, among other districts, is en route to implementing the Philadelphia model—a significant roadblock for them is funding, so they are applying for a grant to help cover the additional costs. This model was also proposed by a group of advocates in Ottawa, where unfortunately they have come up against significant resistance, despite the positive outcomes this model has created elsewhere. The Ottawa OPP state their main concern is for the privacy of those they serve. A simple proffered solution was for the advocates on the oversight committee to be considered consultants and sign a confidentiality waiver. Another possibility could be gaining consent from the victim in having her case overseen. This Philadelphia model is so encouraging because not only does it offer the best chance for anyone who reports a sexual assault, but it establishes a working relationship between the agencies in any given community whose goal is to eradicate sexual assault.
And at the end of the day, through all the numbers and debates and strategies, we can all agree on one thing: we need to create a world where rape no longer exists. One of many steps toward this goal is to make sure victims of sexual assault feel heard—and know that justice is possible.
If you are interested in joining the swell of women striking for change in all avenues of life, consider joining the Day Without Women on March 8th—where women strike from paid, unpaid, and emotional labour in order to highlight the value of women in our society and the inequality we still face every day. See International Women’s Strike – Muskoka on Facebook for more information, or meet us in front of the Algonquin Theatre between 1 and 5pm to add your voice to the struggle.
Kathleen May is a writer, lesbian, and feminist. Many years after moving to Toronto to get her BA in English from York University, she returned to Muskoka for the escape of nature and sense of community. Kathleen works for the two women’s shelters in Bracebridge and Muskoka, volunteers as a survivor mentor with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and co-runs a free weekly drop-in with Huntsville Women’s Group. When she is not advocating for and learning from women, she frequently escapes to the wilderness, preferring to hike or backpack solo in Ontario’s many parks. As an activist, Kathleen works toward a world where women, animals, and the planet are all valued as inherently worthy beings, not resources to extract from. You can find her writing at womanwalkingaway.com and just about any social media platform.
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