Content warning: discussions of sexual violence.
It is highly likely that while you are reading this article, a survivor of sexual assault is living through the following scenario or something similar:
A young woman reports a case of rape and is then subjected to a paradoxical investigative and judicial process.
Her role of survivor shifts, without her consent, to that of the bearer of guilt.
A nonexistent verdict accompanies the lack of actual empathy from the police and court system.
As a survivor of assault, she becomes the bearer of guilt and shame. Then the accused is given an inadequate punishment and she is left with the infamous words: “You asked for it.”
According to recent data provided by Statistics Canada, only one in 10 reported sexual assault cases will result in the criminal conviction of the perpetrator, with the vast majority being allowed to walk away from their actions. Survivors are silenced by a criminal justice system with flaws.
Why is society desperate to assume that most alleged victims are lying or mistaken? Is it because we’re afraid of how prevalent sexual assault really is?
The disturbingly low convictions for sexual violence have many explanations, but a major contributing factor is the prejudice and stereotypes that surround sexual assault cases.
For instance, survivors are often blamed for their own assault because of prejudices rooted in societal norms, which often suggest that the survivor put themselves in a risky situation. This furthers a narrative that the assault was bound to happen.
Alberta, 2014. Former Canadian Federal Court judge Robin Camp said to the 19-year-old sexual assault complainant in court, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”
Camp continued to engage in this misogynist rhetoric. He acquitted the accused, telling the young man that “sex and pain sometimes go together… that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Camp’s behaviour and response to this case is a clear demonstration of the prevalence of myths and stereotypes about sexual assault in our society and our court system. This is a serious concern and should be treated as such. Judges who display beliefs like Camp’s should have no place in our justice system.
Despite the recent rise of legal and social movements such as #MeToo and #WhyIDidn’tReport — which attempt to record the inequality of the outcomes of sexual assault — victim blaming remains a constant and fixed undercurrent in our culture.
The reality is that, as survivors stand to testify to their experience in front of judges and juries, they are often interrogated with questions of a highly intimate and volatile nature.
Defence lawyers actively strive to dismiss the case by using invasive tactics of questioning, which not only forces survivors to relive their experiences, but at times demoralizes and embarrasses them to the point where they have to drop out of the case entirely. This is yet another reason why perpetrators are able to slip through the cracks of our justice system.
Lawyers and judges often quickly dismiss these cases and move on to the next, allowing the perpetrator to continue harming others — who were, once again, simply ‘asking for it.’
Legal Director of the Women’s Legal Education Action Fund, Kim Stanton, addressed Camp’s conduct in an interview with FLARE, saying that “[having] a judge who is not adhering to the rule of law in Canada [is] very, very worrisome. For over 30 years, we have fought to have [women’s rights] protections in the actual letter of the law and if we now have a judge who knows the law and just simply chooses to ignore it or refuses to apply it — it’s a concern.”
The neglect from our criminal justice system is yet another problematic hurdle that survivors of sexual assault face.
It amounts to a system that allows perpetrators to walk away without having to acknowledge the consequences of their actions.
A system that is firmly founded on the concept of stereotyped female sexuality.
A system that will enable those in power to condemn the survivor as though it is their responsibility not to get raped in the first place.
Although Canada is, on the whole, socially progressive, we continue to struggle to acknowledge the problems plaguing our justice system with respect to sexual assault.