Content warning: discussions on sexual assault and harassment.
In 2017, more than 50 women have come forward with sexual allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Actress Rose McGowan was temporarily suspended from Twitter after tweeting “fuck off!” to Ben Affleck who denied knowledge of Weinstein’s patterns of sexual violence. Twitter claims to have disabled her account due to tweeting a private phone number, which angered her growing following of supporters. These events prompted the resurgence of the “#MeToo” social media campaign, which was originally founded in 2014 by Tarana Burke to raise awareness about sexual violence.
Soon after, Anthony Rapp accused actor Kevin Spacey of sexually assaulting him when Rapp was a minor. Next came the publication of a New York Times exposé, which brought to light . In a public statement, the comedian admitted to these allegations of sexual misconduct. Shortly thereafter, his upcoming film, I Love You Daddy, about an underage girl being seduced by an older man was dropped by its distributor. The list of Hollywood men accused of sexual misconduct continues to grow, including names such as Ed Westwick, James Toback, and many more.
The multiplicity of stories about powerful men caught in sexual assault allegations has been dominating the media as of late. The awareness and discussions surrounding these crimes are reaching new heights in the public sphere.
Despite this increase in media attention, rates of sexual assault are not decreasing. According to the Canadian centre for Policy Alternatives, sexual assault is one of the only crimes in Canada whose rates are not declining. Although recent discussions are raising awareness,, reporting sexual assault is still dangerous for women and their reports of sexual violence are not taken seriously.
In early 2015, Stanford student Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault. Turner was sentenced to six months in prison with three years of probation. After three months, Turner was released and registered as a sex offender. This case went viral when the victim, known as “Emily Doe,” read a victim impact statement during the sentencing phase of the trial. The statement was then published on Buzzfeed.
In early 2017, The Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle exposed the inefficiencies in the ways police officers handle sexual assault cases. The report uncovered that police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as “baseless” or “unfounded,” meaning that an officer does not believe that a criminal offence occurred. Any case that is deemed “unfounded” is not sent to Statistics Canada.
Doolittle’s investigation highlighted the case of a Western University student who was raped after attending a party. The young woman’s case was deemed “baseless” and closed by police. This case is not unique; more than 5,000 cases of sexual assault have also been dismissed as “unfounded” by Canadian law enforcement.
At the beginning of 2017, post-secondary institutions started amending policies to be in compliance with Bill 132: Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Plan. The bill outlines that schools must put in place a policy for responding to sexual violence as well as incidents and complaints of harassment. UofT’s past sexual violence and harassment policy was widely criticized for its unclear descriptions of procedures. In April of 2017, Tamsyn Riddle, sexual assault victim and an organizer of the UofT chapter of Silence is Violence, came forward with her story of reporting sexual assault to UofT. The school mishandled her case and inadequately investigated her complaint.
A new policy at UofT on sexual violence and harassment deals specifically with responding to incidents and providing support for victims. The policy is part of the university’s attempts to strengthen awareness of sexual assault and violence on campus; it implements two years’ worth of research and consultation with expert panels of students and faculty.
In the 2016 Annual Campus Police Report for UTSG, the most recent report available, the number of reported sexual assault crimes to the Campus Police rose from 2 in 2015 to 11. The increase in reports doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase in crime. Instead, it may reflect students becoming more comfortable with reporting assaults. UofT created a Sexual Violence and Support Centre to respond to sexual violence on campus. The Annual Campus Police Report takes into account reports made to this centre. The support centre is present on all three UofT campuses and educates administration in dealing with sexual harassment and violence. Although Campus Police are also trained to investigate sexual misconduct and harassment, escalated cases are sent to the Toronto Police Service for investigation.
Historically, universities have been known to conceal sexual assault incidents occurring on campus. From “rape chants” at St. Mary’s College to a rape committed by a member of the University of Ottawa hockey team, university policies for reporting sexual assault have proven to be ineffective. Most universities deal with sexual assault instances internally—very few of these cases lead to investigation by officials.
Dr. Sable of the University of Missouri-Columbia explains that the major reasons an individual may choose not to report assault are shame, guilt, and embarrassment of what happened; concerns about confidentiality, and fear of not being believed. Sexual assault is frequently imagined as occurring to cisgender women in heterosexual encounters. Those with experiences who do not fit this stereotype could face additional barriers to reporting an incident.
There is often a lack of empathy for women who report incidents of sexual assault. A tendency to blame the victim results in questions concerning attire, sobriety, and mental health.
Earlier in March of this year, Silence is Violence ran a campaign titled “Silence Fights Back” which featured posters around campus exposing the mishandling of sexual assault by the university. According to Silence is Violence’s Facebook page, the campaign is meant to “highlight the experiences of people impacted by violence and abuse on campus and their reflections on seeking out resources and supports from the University of Toronto.” Within its first 24 hours, the campaign received more than 70 responses. 10,000 copies were printed and posted around campus. Although the posters complied with the university’s size and placement policies, they were later removed because administration deemed them to be in violation of the Procedure on Distribution of Publications, Posters, and Banners. The university’s pushback creates a culture of silence.
How are student unions involved with all of this? The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is one of many student unions in partnership with Our Turn, a student-led group that focuses on sexual violence and assault policies throughout Canadian universities. Our Turn rated the sexual violence and harassment policies of 14 Canadian universities after they were created or updated to reflect Bill 132. Nearly half of the universities studied received failing grades, with UofT’s policy receiving a C-. The evaluation also exposed the problems students face when reporting an assault, which include: being barred from making a complaint to police or the university, the ability for university presidents to make unexplained exceptions to their sexual violence and harassment policies, and judges’ orders to silence survivors. The UTSU claims to be improving their approach to sexual violence and harassment by taking student input into account. The UTSU also plans to join twenty other student unions, including UBC, McGill, Dalhousie, and the University of Ottawa to create an action plan that will improve prevention of sexual violence, support survivors, and advocate for change.
Coverage of sexual violence in the media—such as Lauren McKeon’s Toronto Life story recounting her rape and the aforementioned cases of women reporting their experiences of sexual assault—shows that journalism has the ability to catalyze change. Shannon Giannitsopoulou, co-founder of Femifesto (a feminist organization that works to shift rape culture and consent), helped create a guide for writing about sexual assault. The guide was created in consultation with survivors of sexual assault. Giannitsopoulou explains that sexual violence often happens “in the grey areas,” and responsible reporting takes this into account.
Since the publication of “Unfounded” by Doolittle in The Globe and Mail, OPP officers that investigate sexual assault have become required to undergo extensive training and accept feedback from local victim support groups. The OPP will also review approximately 4,000 cases that were originally deemed “unfounded.” Several of the investigated cases have also been reopened, resulting in the arrest of one of the attackers.
Silence is Violence continues to run campaigns that foster discussion and raise awareness of gender-based discrimination. The organization also provides education and training on the subject with guest speakers on campuses.
Through responsible reporting on sexual violence and an increase in media attention, policies and views regarding sexual violence are starting to change.