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Academizing the anti-#MeToo movement

The baseless fear of false accusations and avoidance of women in academia helps no one and hurts everyone

Academizing the anti-#MeToo movement

Content warning: references to sexual violence.

A few weeks ago, the swearing-in of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice not only filled the court’s ninth seat, but introduced a worrisome shift in American culture: a legitimization of the fear of false sexual allegations.

The #ProtectOurBoys movement is a testament to this troubling phenomenon: mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, and friends alike are banding together to resist, in their perception, the threat of false accusers waiting to attack their male family members or friends. Even the President of the United States attests that “it’s a very scary time for young men.”

This is a dangerous ideology, as it portrays survivors in a warped light — that the ones who experience and come forward about sexual violence despite their own fears are the real threats. Unfortunately, this perverse phenomenon is spreading into academia.

In a recent piece for The New England Journal of Medicine, U of T-affiliated researchers, including Deborah Gillis, Sophie Soklaridis, and Catherine Zahn, wrote that men in academic medicine are shying away from mentoring women for fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement is sadly being used to justify the unjustified fear of lying women.

Indeed, these fears are completely baseless because false accusations are statistically rare. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that false accusations account for between two and ten percent of reports. Moreover, the reports themselves are labelled as “inconsistent definitions and protocols” by the Center.

In Pacific Standard, Emily Moon wrote that “researchers relying on federal data often conflate ‘unfounded’ reports — when law enforcement labels an accusation false or ‘baseless’ — with entirely false ones.” This means that there are ‘false allegations’ that aren’t really false at all, but instead just don’t meet legal criteria.

It can be concluded from this, then, that the wide statistical range of two to 10 per cent leans, in fact, toward the lower end. The point is that survivors who come forward are almost certainly telling the truth about their assailant. A man who has behaved professionally his entire life has nothing to worry about. Therefore, men who are fearful feel this way because of a culture and system that supports their victim status — not because there is any empirical backing or rationale behind their fear.

One possibility is that men who refuse to mentor women are not scared of the prospect of false accusers, but rather because their own behaviour is no longer acceptable. As psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon wrote in Forbes, “The essence of maturity is to be able to control and moderate sexual and power-related impulses in a context where they are not warranted. Like at work.” She explained how most men do not have to actively think about this control, because it’s subconscious. By default, they view the people they work with as respected co-workers or friends.

However, some men do worry — implying that they have heretofore viewed their female colleagues in a non-professional, non-friendly way, and that this outlook might now have consequences. Rather than professionally adjust their interactions and behaviours with women in an era where women are more likely to come forward, they choose to avoid them.

This response is detrimental to women. Currently, men dominate leadership roles in academia. According to University Affairs, in Canada, only 36 per cent of associate professors and around 22 per cent of full professors are women. For many women hoping to advance and develop within their academic fields, mentorship is a crucial asset.

The refusal of mentorship based on unfounded fears, then, hinders women’s chances in career advancement. Furthermore, they cannot close the disproportionate gender gap in leadership positions if they aren’t given the tools and assistance to do so.

Evading women in academia is also the least constructive solution for men who fear false allegations. It judges and reacts to the #MeToo movement by its false cover: a supposed male witch hunt. These men will never learn the important lessons that the movement is trying to teach — namely, how to treat women properly, especially in professional contexts.

Listening to, instead of avoiding, the movement would also make it clear that women are not the only people who are sexually assaulted. Men, too, can be victims of sexual violence. Consider the fact that, according to the Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area, one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Secluding yourself to only interacting with men is not protecting yourself — it is making a deluded assumption about how sexual assault works.

Fear and avoidance are also problematic because they put the onus of sexual assault on women in academia to not accuse others of sexual assault — instead of on the assailant to not assault women in the first place. It is not the woman’s fault if she is assaulted, and bringing her story forward is not an attack on the assailant but a call for justice and a change in culture.

Avoiding women also makes it difficult for women who have been assaulted within academic contexts to come forward, when the consequences for their fellow female academics is not only a more tense environment, but also fewer career opportunities. The act presents itself as a punishment for being a woman within the workplace and for being a woman who is assaulted within the workplace.

The final truth is that false accusations are rare, precisely because they rarely benefit the accuser in any way. Telling the world that you were assaulted isn’t a trophy to put on the shelf. For Christine Blasey Ford, her alleged assailant is a Supreme Court justice. She has had to deal with death threats, insults, and a life that has been uprooted with no result.

Men must learn that the #MeToo movement is not about living in fear; it is about changing the way that people are treated, and about making every environment safe for everyone. It is ultimately asking that they see everybody, especially women, as human beings — not as sexual objects, and certainly not as monsters lurking around the corner, waiting to attack you.

Nadine Waiganjo is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.

To not publish, sometimes, is the highest form of journalism

The publication of Jian Ghomeshi’s essay points to an urgent need for media organizations to recognize the relationship between platform, voice, and power

To not publish, sometimes, is the highest form of journalism

Content warning: this editorial discusses the intersection of journalism and sexual violence.

It has been almost a year since #MeToo became a viral social media movement, through which survivors exposed a slew of sexual misconducts, harassments, and assaults by high-profile perpetrators, among others. Yet a number of the powerful men exposed in the #MeToo movement are now attempting to make comebacks in the public arena.

Last month, comedian Louis C.K. performed an unannounced set at the Comedy Cellar in New York. He made no reference to the accusations that had ostensibly ended his career. He received a standing ovation before he even began performing. 

Also emerging from the shadows, though, are those whose ‘silences,’ a natural consequence of public scandals, have stretched beyond the #MeToo movement. These individuals are being aided by media organizations that choose to enable them to tell their side of the story.

On September 14, The New York Review of Books (NYRB) published an essay entitled “Reflections from a Hashtag” by disgraced CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. In 2014, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Ghomeshi became public. He was fired by CBC, but following a high-profile trial, he was acquitted of all charges in 2016.

On September 16, New York magazine profiled Soon-Yi Previn, wife of director Woody Allen, in which she described her adoptive mother and Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow as an abusive parent. In response, Previn’s adoptive brother, Ronan Farrow, accused Previn of “planting stories that attack and vilify my mother [Mia] to deflect from my sister’s credible allegations of abuse” — referring to the longstanding allegation that Allen sexually assaulted his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow.

Both of these cases have resulted in backlash because they provided a platform for alleged perpetrators, or defenders of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence. The backlash is entirely justified: the NYRB and New York should not have published the pieces. In the era of #MeToo, the responsibility of media organizations is to report and publish in accordance with a sharp awareness of the power dynamics that underlie voice and narrative.

In the context of sexual violence, survivors are often pushed into positions of shame and silence. If they choose to come forward with their stories, they risk being treated with skepticism, disbelief, harassment, and threats. In contrast, perpetrators are shielded by public sympathizers who demand the legal principle of ‘innocent before proven guilty,’ and who criticize the ‘court of public opinion.’

The voices of survivors, then, are often not heard and are often overpowered by their abusers and their supporters. Given the risks, they already have less access to the media. For media organizations that seem to attempt to ‘level the playing field’ by publishing the perspectives of high-profile figures like Ghomeshi, their decisions reflect a false sense of journalistic balance that is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, dangerous in its reproduction of trauma for survivors.

Given his connection to Toronto, Ghomeshi’s case warrants a closer examination. In his essay, Ghomeshi manipulates the reader through a ‘self-humanizing’ narrative — a narrative that dismisses the stories of his accusers as “inaccurate” and fails to portray any genuine remorse. He attempts to rally sympathy by sharing how he became an “outcast”; how he was “weeping in shame”; how he has been reduced to a “singular, sexualized identity”; and how he has felt “hopeless,” “pathetic,” and “suicidal.”

Most reprehensible, though, is how he manipulates his identity as a person of colour. Indeed, he has, and wrongly so, received racist backlash from those who associate his behaviour with his cultural background. However, describing oneself as a victim after abusing others is a deflection tactic whereby a position of power is used to appropriate the status of the abused. This complicates the otherwise straightforward narrative that they are the perpetrators and should accept responsibility.

Rather than take responsibility, Ghomeshi largely blames the structures around him for his mistreatment of women, pointing to careerism and the attainment of success as a broadcaster. He describes how he tried to use fame to impress and manipulate women. “Dating and having sex became another measure of status.”

The conclusion of the essay suggests that anonymity — no longer manipulating his fame or being “a Somebody” — is the way forward. Indeed, perpetrators should pursue the route of silence and cede space for the voices of those who have long been voiceless as a first step toward rehabilitation.

But the reality of Ghomeshi’s essay contradicts this very suggestion. Ghomeshi emerged from his silence last year with a podcast commentary series, The Ideation Project, with no acknowledgement of the circumstances surrounding the downfall of his career, just like Louis C.K. He decided on the terms of justice and unilaterally made a comeback. And with this essay, he demonstrates that he still capitalizes on his fame — or infamy at this point — to draw an audience and attempt to polish his image. He may no longer be abusively “dating and having sex” to attain status, but by manipulating his status, he challenges the naive assumption that #MeToo would be a turning point in existing power dynamics.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of the essay are also troubling. Following backlash against the essay, the editor, Ian Buruma, felt forced to resign after the threat of an advertiser’s boycott. However, Buruma continues to stand by his decision to publish the essay.

Furthermore, the NYRB amended the essay with a preface stating that they should have made an acknowledgement of the allegations against Ghomeshi, and that the following issue would feature letters to the editors in response to the essay. Yet this preface does not reflect any remorse for having published the essay in the first place. There is therefore concern as to whether it was the financial threat of an advertiser’s boycott, rather than the ethics and responsibilities of journalism, that compelled the NYRB to take action.

Last year, alongside the emergence of the #MeToo movement, The Varsity Editorial Board noted that the role of the media is to ensure that journalism “does not further contribute to the conditions that make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult.” Ultimately, it is difficult to understand what media organizations hope to achieve by featuring the perspectives of alleged perpetrators. It does not advance meaningful conversation about sexual violence; rather, publications like these undermine it by confusing perpetrator for victim.

The Varsity’s mission statement expresses a commitment to the “provision of meaningful, just coverage for our readership.” A diverse range of opinions, perspectives, and stories, and reasonable debate and discussion between them, is what renders media coverage holistic, fair, and credible. However, coverage must also be committed to justice.

For publishers and editors of influential media organizations, meaningful journalism means making principled choices. The heart of ethical and responsible journalism is to amplify the voices of those who have not spoken, as opposed to those who have always spoken. By locating the maldistribution of power in society, media can recognize that, sometimes, to not publish and provide platform is itself a worthwhile ideal of journalism. 

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email

Breanna Stewart talks about the importance of #MeToo

The WNBA star uses her platform to help fellow victims of sexual abuse

Breanna Stewart talks about the importance of #MeToo

Rising WNBA superstar Breanna Stewart joined the #MeToo movement last October, when she wrote about the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a child in a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune. Stewart attributed the #MeToo movement for giving her the strength to share her story. She wrote that her dad would say to her, “It’s not a dirty little secret. When you’re comfortable with it, and when you’re comfortable being open about it, you could save someone’s life.”

Stewart wrote that she survived two years of sexual abuse at the hands of her aunt’s husband. She said that from the ages of nine to 11, she was always on guard and had a hard time falling asleep at night, that her uncle always found an excuse to be near her, which prevented her from feeling safe.

During those extremely challenging times, the basketball court was a safe space for Stewart. At 11, she found the inner strength to confide in her parents about the abuse. That same day, she went to practice, because “the only thing [she] wanted to do was go play basketball.” For Stewart, like other female athletes who have endured sexual abuse, sport was an outlet to cope with the pain and anxiety caused by abuse.

Stewart went on to become a budding superstar for the University of Connecticut Huskies, leading them to four consecutive national championships, the only team to do so in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history. Her team success was matched by her personal athletic accolades Stewart is the only athlete in NCAA history to have won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award four times.

After graduating, the Seattle Storm selected Stewart with the first overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft. Her rookie season in the WNBA mirrored the success she had playing for the Huskies. She was named 2016 WNBA Rookie of the Year and won gold with the US women’s basketball team at the Rio Olympics. More recently, Stewart was featured in ESPN’s 2018 Body Issue in the hopes of supporting others in accepting and celebrating their bodies and the stories they hold.

Stewart credits former US Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney’s account of the sexual abuse she faced at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar for inspiring her and giving her a sense of community. The sexual assault case against Nassar was greatly fuelled by the rise of the #MeToo movement.

Along with others who spoke out, Maroney international attention to the case against the former US Gymnastics and Michigan State University team physician, who molested the Olympian hundreds of times over her athletic career, starting with her very first appointment.

In January 2018, Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison, after more than 160 women testified that he had sexually abused them over the past 20 years under the guise of medical treatment. Like Stewart, Maroney wants society to realize that sexual assault is not just something happening in Hollywood. “This is happening everywhere. Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse,” Maroney wrote in a statement posted to her Twitter account.

While the accolades that come along with being a professional athlete may create the illusion of perfection, it’s impossible to know what an individual is dealing with under the surface.

Stewart’s willingness to speak out and share her story will help fellow victims of sexual abuse understand that they are not alone. Through her partnership with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, her goal is to connect survivors with someone they can relate to in their struggles and assist people on their journey after surviving abuse.

As more female athletes find the strength to share their stories, speaking out will further the important dialogue surrounding sexual abuse and ultimately help to put an end to it. At the same time, society must also continue to encourage people to share their experiences as a function of the healing process, and inspire others to do the same.

Learning the business: education and the Weinstein complex

Sexual misconduct in Toronto theatre schools highlights the need to address institutional flaws that are characteristic of the entertainment industry

Learning the business: education and the Weinstein complex

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, it has become clear that Hollywood is not the only institution in the spotlight when it comes to sexual misconduct. In Toronto, theatre programs at postsecondary institutions like Randolph College for the Performing Arts and George Brown College have also been rocked by sexual assault accusations.

While it is productive that these allegations are being heard and taken seriously, it is problematic that many conversations revolve around accused individuals as outliers. This rhetoric allows institutions to target perpetrators without addressing the deeper issues of policy and culture that create and enable them in the first place.

Here’s what has happened at the two colleges so far. At George Brown, several students accused former Acting Teacher Todd Hammond of inappropriate sexual comments. Though the first accusations from a former student appeared in February 2017, Hammond was still associated with the school as a director as late as April 2017. His name has now disappeared from George Brown’s Theatre Faculty Directory, but the college has yet to make a formal announcement regarding his absence.

At Randolph College, founder and former President George Randolph announced his intended retirement for spring of 2018. Then, in January 2018, the college issued a formal statement saying that Randolph had been accused of making “unwelcomed comments and physical gestures” by former students and staff. The administration did not explicitly state that his preemtive retirement last December was due to these accusations, but I would say that the timing deserves scrutiny due to the quick succession of events.

In the end, we have two colleges specializing in acting and performance, and two high-ranking individuals accused of sexual misconduct, both of whom have now vacated their positions. While this is a good start, there is still much institutional action required. If we are now acknowledging that the entertainment industry is a breeding ground for sexual harassment — whether it be in Hollywood or within educational facilities in Toronto — institutions have to dig deeper and ask why this is the case and what they can do to prevent harassment in the future.

Professional entertainment settings are characterized by intense competition over employment, a theme that underlies the Weinstein allegations. A startling amount of Weinstein’s victims stated that fear of losing current or potential job opportunities was a reason they initially chose to stay silent about their experiences.

Similar factors appear to be at play at the Toronto theatre schools currently under scrutiny due to sexual misconduct allegations. Students at George Brown have cited the school’s system of regularly eliminating students for not meeting the program’s standards as creating an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.

In an interview with The Varsity, two graduates from Randolph College who wished to remain anonymous recalled how they were made to believe that expressing any “concern, objection or dislike” of teachers or faculty would potentially ruin their career. This took place through instructions on professionalism and a lack of willingness to address concerns in conversations with various staff members. Furthermore, graduates of Randolph College stated that Student Services, the proscribed avenue for sexual misconduct complaints at the college, is widely perceived by students to be not confidential.

If these schools are creating atmospheres where objections are perceived as tantamount to throwing away one’s career, and where they may not even be heard confidentially, it is hardly a surprise that sexual harassment allegations fester.

To move past individual perpetrators into institutional changes, the first step should be breaking the culture of silence and fear. Weinstein had a reputation in Hollywood of being predatory before the accusations, but silence prevailed over fear that anyone who hurt his career would face consequences to their own employment. Randolph College and George Brown could combat this tendency toward silence by clearly stating the conditions under which Hammond and Randolph stepped down.

While both colleges claim to be revising policy, nothing has yet become public. Bringing the conversation out into the open is imperative to digging into policy and culture in a productive way. If the institutions remain hushed about the proceedings, it seems akin to the previous environments that cultivated fear around hurting the reputations of industry names.

It must also be acknowledged that theatre programs are a unique academic setting. One graduate from Randolph College noted that “theatre training does sometimes require physical contact between student and instructor,” a requirement that probably does not occur in many other fields. A specific setting requires specific policy: if physicality is the norm, there must be a clear way for students to express when they are comfortable and when they are not, without fear of their education or career being jeopardized.

Institutions like George Brown and Randolph College exist for the purpose of preparing students for the professional industry — if sexual harassment goes overlooked or unaddressed, it is tacitly accepted, and undoubtedly bleeds into the professional industry. But if schools take the initiative in ensuring students’ ability to express discomfort without repercussion, they can begin to change the industry from the ground up.

Maighdlin Mahoney is a second-year student at University College studying English and History.

Talking #MeToo with The New York Times

Rotman event hosts investigative reporters to discuss the challenges of reporting on sexual harassment

Talking #MeToo with <em>The New York Times</em>

Jodi Kantor and Emily Steel, two investigative reporters from The New York Times who broke the allegations of sexual harassment against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, sat down for a discussion at the Rotman School of Management on Wednesday, February 21.

The sold-out event, titled “Journalism and the #MeToo Moment,” also featured the Times’ new gender editor, Jessica Bennett. Bennett is the first individual to hold this position, the goal of which is to improve coverage of women’s and gender issues across platforms.

The event was co-hosted by the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Institute for Gender and the Economy at Rotman, as well as the Times. Jamison Steve, the Prosperity Institute’s Executive Director, opened the event by acknowledging the value of Rotman’s relationship with the Times; this is the third event that the outlet has hosted at U of T.

Panelists discussed the cultural impact of #MeToo and the explosion of stories regarding sexual harassment and misconduct that have emerged since Kantor and her colleague, Megan Twohey, broke the story on October 5, 2017 of Weinstein’s mistreatment of women over the course of three decades.

Ian Austen, who has reported on Canada for the Times for over a decade, thanked the paper’s subscribers for their support of quality journalism and briefly introduced the discussion’s moderator, Catherine Porter. Porter, a former columnist for the Toronto Star, has served as the Times’ Canada bureau chief since February 2017.

In her introduction of Kantor, Porter noted that Kantor’s reporting has not only focused on Weinstein as an individual actor, but also the “complicity machine” that enabled him to continue his behavior, even as it was something of an open secret in Hollywood. For their investigation, Kantor and Twohey spoke to more than 200 people over the course of four months.

In addition to her reporting on O’Reilly alongside fellow Times reporter Michael Schmidt, Steel has written about the culture of harassment and inappropriate conduct at VICE News. Porter pointed out that Steel’s reporting has demonstrated how legacy media outlets are not the only ones with issues of sexual misconduct, but that newer and millennial-oriented ones have problems as well.

Bennett began her tenure as gender editor on October 30, just weeks after the Weinstein story had broken. She said that it was “overwhelming” to see the widespread response to the story. “We’ve been staggered by the global reaction to this reporting,” added Kantor.

One audience member asked about the factors that had led to this public reckoning. “People always want to look for one moment,” said Steel, “but it really is a chorus of voices growing louder and louder over the years.”

The difficulties that journalists face while reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct were a recurring theme of the conversation. Kantor and Twohey were writing under legal threat from Weinstein, and they were pushed by their editors to obtain as much documentation as possible to corroborate the women’s stories.

They were also trying to speak directly to high-profile actresses without involving agents or managers. “How do you get Gwyneth Paltrow’s phone number?” asked Kantor, to laughter from the crowd.

Other stories, like Bennett’s reporting on allegations by nine women against the playwright Israel Horovitz, did not have the same type of paper trail available, and they relied more heavily on corroboration of each woman’s story.

All of the panelists were vocal about how many of the high-profile figures accused of sexual harassment, such as Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, and Charlie Rose, were “narrators and authors” of the culture, who often exerted significant influence through the media.

“These were people who were, in part, responsible for how we thought about ourselves,” said Kantor.

Kantor noted that there are often institutional obstacles to preventing sexual misconduct, which she termed the “systems and machinery of harassment.” Human resources departments may not be properly equipped to deal with allegations, or workplace sexual harassment training may be treated as a joke.

Still, Bennett seemed hopeful. “I do think there’s a lack of tolerance among young people for a lot of behaviour that has been normalized,” she said. “Young people are not going to put up with what our mothers’ generation did.”

Changes to U of T’s Sexual Violence Centre parallel recent global events

Re: “Sexual violence centre sees structural changes in leadership”

Changes to U of T’s Sexual Violence Centre parallel recent global events

Just this past weekend at the Golden Globes, women in the entertainment industry made a bold statement against sexual violence. Many prominent actresses invited women’s rights advocates to accompany them to the event, and together they raised awareness for the #TimesUp campaign, which raises money to help pay the legal fees of sexual assault victims.

This, along with movements such as the widespread #MeToo campaign, suggests that our culture is beginning to face up to the startling realities of sexual violence. In many respects, the current discussion we are having will lead to seismic changes, as it should. In others, changes will be small, but should nevertheless not go without their due praise.

The recent changes made by the university to restructure the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, for instance, is a relatively small change. The centre has split a portfolio between two staff members, stating that delegating responsibility in this way will ensure each part of this portfolio is granted more time and attention.

The willingness to make this change seems to indicate that those in charge actually care about the work they do and about improving their services for students. This sentiment is also supported by the fact that that the centre promises to try to minimize disruptions, vowing that students who seek assistance over a period of time will be able to work with the exact same staff.

It is unclear whether the restructuring of this portfolio was in direct response to the current conversation taking place, or merely in the spirit of improving services long-term. However, any attempt to improve the quality of care to those who have suffered from sexual violence should be noted and appreciated, particularly within the current social climate.

Vidhant Pal is a graduate student at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.

Putting trauma in print

As sexual assault allegations continue to surface in the media, journalists must critically examine their responsibilities as storytellers and public informants

Putting trauma in print

Significant media attention has been focused on the explosive accusations of sexual assault and misconduct recently leveled against some of the most powerful men in entertainment and politics. As story after story has been broken — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Louis CK — the voices of those victimized by sexual violence have reached the ears of international audiences.

More disturbing still is that many of these highly publicized outcries are paralleled by the experiences of the people around us. The social media campaign #MeToo has emboldened hundreds of our peers to share that they have been victims of sexual violence and harassment. Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against Trinity College and the University of Toronto for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault case is still ongoing. Around the same time the CK story came out, one of The Varsity’s masthead members received a wholly unsolicited pornographic photo from another student.

Sexual violence is not limited to what is portrayed by international headlines: it is a nefarious reality that will affect most people in some way during their lives. It is also something that has proven very difficult to talk about for many people. These cases involve vulnerable persons and deeply intrusive information, not to mention facts that can be muddled by stereotypes and by the competing interests of the implicated parties.

It is the media who are given the incredibly important task of consolidating the facts into a narrative, of informing the public in the way that is both ethical and true. In light of the sensitive nature of sexual violence cases, journalists must critically examine the means by which they carry out their duties in this respect.

On November 15, in partnership with Silence is Violence, The Varsity hosted a panel entitled “Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence.” Led by Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Life writer Lauren McKeon, and  activist and co-founder of grassroots organization femifesto Shannon Giannitsopoulo, the discussion centred on how media professionals can adopt appropriate reporting practices and reconcile any legal or ethical conflicts they encounter.

In the Unfounded series Doolittle spearheaded at the Globe, it was revealed that one in five claims of sexual assault in Canada are dismissed by police as baseless. While some complaints may indeed have been unfounded, in other cases, blatant negligence or misogyny on the part of police forces — such as in the famous case of Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police — have left complainants out in the cold, aggravating feelings of fear or mistrust when dealing with police in general.

When complainants do not feel comfortable dealing with police, or they feel as if their cases are not being taken seriously, the media can play a role in helping them achieve justice. In this sense, journalists are often known both for blowing the whistle on powerful people and for battling against efforts being made to bury the hatchet.

The Harvey Weinstein case is particularly galling given the complicity and wilful blindness demonstrated by Weinstein’s many enablers, and the lengths to which the producer went to cover up his actions. In a follow-up to his original exposé in The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow revealed that Weinstein had enlisted ex-Mossad agents to get close to some of his victims and mine them for information, sometimes under the guise of being women’s rights advocates. Journalists who were in dogged pursuit of Weinstein, including Jodi Kantor of The New York Times and Farrow himself, were also targeted by Weinstein for investigation.

Given the influence of the media in shaping people’s perceptions of events, journalists must ensure that their work does not further contribute to the conditions that can make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult. At the same time, many people are genuinely concerned about the influence media coverage might have on the public’s perception of accused persons. What is often alluded to in this regard is the presumption of innocence under section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which requires the accused to be presumed innocent until the  Crown can prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt and before an independent and impartial tribunal.

The presumption of innocence is an important and often misconstrued idea that, in the context of sexual assault cases, squarely applies to representatives in the criminal justice system. Given that the media is neither a criminal law institution nor a representative of the government, it does not owe the accused the same right; rather, it finds its obligations within defamation law, an entirely different set of standards.

Nevertheless, media professionals are also required to be watchful of baseless allegations — in acknowledgment that a false or misleading story can potentially ruin the life of the person about whom it is written. As Doolittle pointed out, journalists tend to be extremely cautious when writing about sexual assault, including through the use of words like ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ when discussing claims yet to be confirmed by the courts.

Reporting on these stories can therefore involve a delicate balancing act, one often sorted out case by case. The discussion that took place at the panel last week provided insight into the steps journalists can take to ensure they are engaging in appropriate practices.

For one, journalists should be keenly aware of the impact stories might have on the people represented in them. Before publishing the Unfounded series, Doolittle gave each of her interviewees the option to be quoted anonymously or to withdraw from the story altogether. She was careful to emphasize the importance of explaining to complainants how their lives would be affected by going public with their stories.

Another point of caution pertains to language usage. In a guide entitled “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,”  femifesto advises journalists to omit details about the accused that might serve to imply that they are not ‘the type’ to commit such acts. This is to avoid the pitfalls of media attention centred on people like Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was convicted of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman. Turner was often referred to in headlines as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than, for example, ‘the convicted felon.’

Finally, accusations made against certain people cannot be differentially treated on the basis of the institutions in which they work, or ‘the type’ of people we think they are. As allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Mark Halperin, and others have shown, the media itself is hardly immune to outbreaks of sexual misconduct. An anonymous spreadsheet entitled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” — the virtual embodiment of a whisper network — circulated online last month, allowing women to document their disturbing experiences with men in the media. This means that journalists should not only take great care when reporting on the experiences of others, but they must also watch for any violence happening around them.

Reporting on sexual violence is an immensely important responsibility, and the integrity and critical self-reflection that must underlie journalistic practices in this regard cannot be understated. The sheer number of accused abusers and misogynists seemingly crawling out of the woodwork might make us enraged or pessimistic, particularly since so many stories festered for years before being brought to the surface. But as McKeon put it, the current momentum of these stories also provides journalists with an opportunity to shed light on those not being told.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

Robyn Doolittle, Shannon Giannitsopoulou, and Lauren McKeon joined The Varsity to discuss responsible journalism for difficult subject matter

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

At the end of the last academic year, my friend Tamsyn Riddle announced she was filing a human rights complaint against U of T and Trinity College for their handling of her sexual violence complaint. Shortly after, I was elected as The Varsity’s Features Editor. Throughout the summer, while working a nine-to-five job, I began preparing potential feature stories for this year. Following the aftermath of ex-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault acquittal, I was adamant that the issue of sexual violence needed to be covered in-depth in my section — I just didn’t know how.

It was sometime during my two-hour commute to work that I came up with the idea for a series on the subject. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would look, but I knew it would be a multifaceted endeavor.

In the middle of the summer I caught up with Riddle in a small Annex diner. I wanted to get her opinion on the potential series. She liked the idea, agreed the issue should be covered, and expressed interest in writing a feature on her experience reporting her assault to the university.

Her article was published on September 25. In the process of editing the story, I had multiple conversations with the Editor-in-Chief and Riddle herself on whether to name faculty and staff members relevant to her story. Because the story was a first-person narrative, it didn’t make sense to reach out to those mentioned for comment. Instead, with Riddle’s permission, we included an editor’s note at the top of the article explaining that “allegations made toward the faculty members and staff members identified in this article are unproven in court;” Riddle could write an open account of her experience, and The Varsity could protect itself legally.

The conversations we had in the newsroom regarding this article were crucial. We all recognized the importance of publishing the story, but the path to doing so was not clear-cut. I wanted Riddle’s story published, but I also wanted to ensure I was being fair to all those involved. Ultimately, the topic of the Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence panel, hosted at The Varsity on November 15, stemmed from this tension: how should journalists cover stories of sexual violence in a respectful and responsible way?

I had the privilege of hosting this panel discussion and moderating it with Riddle. The Varsity collaborated on the event with a sexual violence activist organization at U of T that Riddle is a member of called Silence is Violence. The panelists came from an array of backgrounds and spoke from varying perspectives. Shannon Giannitsopoulou is the co-founder of femifesto, a feminist organization based in Toronto. She is also a contributing writer for “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a guide for the media when covering issues concerning sexual violence. Her perspective was valuable at the panel because it is not from inside the media itself, but rather from working to educate those who work in the media and how they should cover the subject.

Lauren McKeon, our second panelist, has primarily worked in magazines. She is currently the digital editor at The Walrus and a contributing editor at Toronto Life. McKeon also taught at Humber College and is the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism. Her article for Toronto Life, “Fifteen years of silence: I was raped three times in less than 10 years. I knew all of my attackers. This is my story,” was an honest and raw portrayal of the experiences of a sexual violence survivor. I was grateful to have her speak at the event.

Our final panelist, Robyn Doolittle, broke one of the largest stories in recent Canadian history on police treatment of those who formally report their sexual assaults. Her investigation took approximately 20 months, during which she explored instances of police dismissing sexual assault cases as “unfounded” — essentially, when police believed the assault never occurred. Before this “Unfounded,” article, Doolittle wrote for the Toronto Star covering former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Given the breadth of her coverage and implications it has had on policy, we were happy to have her attend the panel.

With the unique experiences of these three women, the conversation was extremely insightful. It explored questions that I had as a student journalist who has covered this topic, and it showcased perspectives I hadn’t considered. In this vein, I thought it was fitting to break down the key issues discussed at the event — for the public, for journalists, and for myself.

We need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told…what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.


Over the last few weeks, the outcry of sexual assault allegations against multiple men in Hollywood has been astonishing. Riddle asked the panelists how these stories and similar ones impacted conversations about sexual violence and its media coverage.

Giannitsopoulou began by mentioning that, when working on femifesto’s guide in 2011, a lot of these large stories were not yet published. She’s pleased that the guide was created before the Ghomeshi case and the Harvey Weinstein scandal because it’s readily available at a time when reporters need it.

Giannitsopoulou also discussed the importance of diversity of stories, paying particular attention to whose stories are told and which stories garner attention and space. She said, “Indigenous women from Saskatchewan that were missing… have 3.5 times less coverage than women in Ontario that were also murdered and missing. And they were less likely to have images of the women.” Giannitsopoulou continued by pointing out that Indigenous women who are shown in newspapers are more likely to be “on the corner of the page and not on the front page.”

McKeon agreed with Giannitsopoulou, saying, “I think we need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told… what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.” Given the increasing coverage of this subject, McKeon said that “now’s the time that there is this appetite for [sexual violence coverage] and people are really listening… which is both encouraging and a little depressing.”

Doolittle discussed the impact these stories have had on policy given the increased attention. She specifically spoke about the implications of her Unfounded series: “since Unfounded ran in February… something like half of the police services in this country have reviewed thousands of sexual assault cases, they’re passing policies around having supervisors involved in decisions, they’re doing a training overhaul that takes the neurobiology of trauma into account, the federal government has committed a hundred million dollars to address violence against women.”



Language was, unsurprisingly, discussed at length. I asked the panelists what process journalists should follow when choosing language and phrasing about sexual violence. The question stemmed from my understanding of sexual violence terminology, specifically the common use of the term ‘survivor’ over ‘victim.’

Acknowledging that wording can be “tricky,” Giannitsopoulou stressed the importance of ensuring the consent of a source when deciding how they will be identified in a story: “I personally prefer the word ‘survivor.’ I think it underlines resilience. But some people don’t like the word ‘survivor’, some people prefer the word ‘victim’ because it speaks to their experience of healing.”

While objectivity is key when reporting, Giannitsopoulou mentioned that all language has connotations and that “no language is neutral.”

Doolittle mentioned that the “Use the Right Words” campaign Giannitsopoulou has worked on in femifesto has taught her a lot as a journalist. “What it’s really taught me is that journalists are very careful about some of the language they use around sexual assault allegations and not careful around allegations for other crimes.”

Instead of removing the term ‘allegedly’ when reporting on sexual violence, Doolittle suggested that news reporters and investigative journalists actively include the term when referring to other types of crime. In doing so, the term ‘allegedly’ is no longer associated with sexual violence but rather all unproven crimes. Additionally, Doolittle doesn’t use the terms ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ in her reporting unless a court ruling is made — she often uses the term ‘complainant’ instead.

“If I say someone was a victim of sexual assault, I am saying it happened. If I say they were a victim, I am saying it happened. And, it’s not that I don’t believe them… but I do the story a disservice by not being as objective as possible,” said Doolittle.

McKeon spoke on the relationship between language, communication, and trust, saying that once trust is broken between a reporter and their source there’s little way to reclaim it. Because sexual violence survivors already face high rates of skepticism, confidence in a reporter for accurately sharing their stories is imperative, McKeon added.


Given the virality of the #MeToo campaign following Weinstein’s coverage and the popularity of the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported a few years earlier, I was interested in what the panelists thought about social media activism, if it has helped progress conversations, and if it has influenced their work.

McKeon said that social media activism encouraged her to come forward with her own story, and that online activism and hashtags have the potential to build a community. However, she said that journalists should use online sexual violence trends as “a launching off point.”

“What we have to do though is find a way to move beyond those hashtags in our reporting, because they don’t tell the whole story,” said McKeon.

Doolittle expressed that the power of #MeToo was in demonstrating both explicit instances of sexual violence and injustices that women face on a daily basis.

Giannitsopoulou discussed the subject of social media activism and the #MeToo campaign as requiring nuance: “I’m glad that people are sharing their stories, but I don’t want survivors to feel like if they’re not feeling safe or if they don’t want to share their stories that their experience as a survivor is not valid.

“I would also not like to put the onus on survivors to have to keep telling our stories when we know one in three women, one in six men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and [for] trans and non-binary folks it’s disproportionately higher than that,” said Giannitsopoulou.

Throughout my process of organizing and moderating this panel, one common theme stood out: consent in reporting. While there are a variety of considerations to take into account when reporting on issues of sexual violence — and I definitely learned a lot — it’s important to remember that, as McKeon stated, “No survivor owes you their story.”

It is crucial for us as journalists to ensure open communication, respect, and to uphold the consent of survivors in each step of the publishing process. This includes consent with terminology, consent to going on record, and consent to sharing their story.

— With files from Priyanka Sharma.


Watch the full livestream on the panel on Facebook.