Aftermath: How authorities of justice and safety look at sexual violence
By Riggs Zyrille Vergara, Staff Writer
In the 2015 study of Women’s Media Center on how the U.S. media covers campus rape and sexual assault, they found that 41 per cent of the topics given focus in these stories are rape proceedings and only 12 per cent are on the impact of the event on victims and perpetrators. They also found that it’s rare for the public to read whether the self-identified victim suffered mental health issues or a loss of social status because of the event.
In response to the need of giving more focus on the well-being of the survivors rather than just the personalities involved or the circumstances surrounding the incident, The Reflector initiated “Aftermath: Sexual Violence” – a three-part series shedding light on the importance of the outcomes of sexual violence for the survivor.
It was October 1991 when law professor Anita Hill came forward publicly with a sexual assault allegation case against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Being in the senatorial hearing, Hill was bombarded with questions such as having mistaken the experience as a fantasy from the movie The Exorcist and her memory being faulty due to the time of the incident, which destroyed her credibility. Just last September, another woman faced the same experience.
Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford emerged with sexual assault allegations against another Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She also faced questions highlighting inconsistencies on her memory like how she might have mistaken a different person for Kavanaugh or how she doesn’t even remember how she got home that day. In both cases, the two accused nominees were sworn in as Supreme Court Justices.
Memories of highly stressful and traumatic experiences, at least their most central details, don’t tend to fade over time.” – Jim Hopper, clinical psychologist
Questions and statements like these always arise when authorities deal with sexual violence cases. The two cases are almost three decades apart. With it having a striking resemblance, not only on the involved personalities but also on how the situation was met by the authorities and the media, it becomes an alarming notice for us to probe into how our justice systems and law enforcement systems deal with these cases and how it has affected sexual violence survivors through the years.
According to clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School educator Jim Hopper’s Psychology Today article “Why Incomplete Sexual Assault Memories Can Be Very Reliable,” our brains have evolved in a way that it more strongly remembers negative experiences, to enable survival.
What this tells us is that when faced with trauma, like sexual violence, humans tend to remember more of what happened. But what they do remember are not what are called “peripheral details,” which are aspects of the event that have little to no significance, like the specific dates, time and locations or color of clothing. Research has shown that what people who experienced trauma highly remember are “central details,” which are aspects of the event with higher emotional significance.
Victim’s accounts are usually scrutinized to exhaustion,” – Psychologist Beverly Engel
But memories fade over time. It becomes more and more abstract mainly due to external influences like other people’s stories or movies we watched.But Hopper emphasizes that “memories of highly stressful and traumatic experiences, at least their most central details, don’t tend to fade over time.” Although some sexual violence survivors might tell themselves and others superficial abstract stories, it doesn’t mean the worst and central details are lost. The vivid sensory details and emotions are still there, waiting to be accessed whenever they are ready.
In any criminal case, thorough investigations are needed to prove the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But sexual violence cases are unique in such a way that when met with inconsistent peripheral details, key central details become more reliable as it is the hallmark of memories and experiences met with trauma.
Psychologist Beverly Engel underscored in her Psychology Today article that one of the main reasons why most survivors do not come forward sooner is the fear that they won’t be believed. “Victim’s accounts are usually scrutinized to exhaustion,” Engel reports, which comes from common beliefs that women make up stories for attention or revenge on men who rejected them.
Even in high profile cases, like those of Hill’s and Ford’s which took them more than 10 years to disclose, they get branded as opportunists with hidden agenda.
Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” – Alberta judge Robin Camp
These destructive, common beliefs also seemed to have seeped into the authorities of our law enforcement. “Unfounded,” the 20-month long 2017 investigation of The Globe and Mail, had discovered that one in five reported sexual assault cases in Canada are dismissed by the police as baseless claims. The news agency reported more than 5,000 allegations of sexual assault closed as “unfounded” by Canadian law enforcement every year, which means that the police did not recognize that any crime was attempted or has occurred. It doesn’t necessarily brand the victims as liars, but it means they were not sexually violated.
Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson, who extensively studied the unfounded cases, believed that the high rates “reinforces damaging myths that women lie about sexual victimization, and could act as a deterrent to already low reporting.”
Our justice systems also didn’t escape the trouble of these damaging myths. In 2014, then-Alberta Judge Robin Camp presided over a sexual assault trial where he asked the 19-year-old victim, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” Also, when the complainant said that at one point she asked the alleged perpetrator if he had condoms, Camp said it led him to the “inescapable conclusion” that the woman had wanted sex. Another notable statement from Camp was him asking that if the victim was truly frightened, “wouldn’t she have screamed?”
Camp even allowed the defence attorney to ask whether the complainant had been flirting with other people at the Calgary house party before the alleged incident, which clearly violated Section 276 of the Criminal Code, also known as the Rape Shield Law. This law explicitly prohibits a court to be presented evidence of a victim’s prior sexual history to determine whether they are “more likely to have consented to the sexual activity that forms the subject-matter of the charge.”
Power of information
Our justice systems and law enforcements are clearly lacking vital training and knowledge when it comes to dealing with sexual violence cases. What’s even worse is that efforts like of Rona Ambrose’s Bill C-337 that mandates training for incoming judges on sexual assault law were not being met positively. The former federal Conservative Party interim leader told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that she is upset that the bill had been stalled for two years now.
Judges, lawyers and law enforcement authorities are important figures in ensuring that sexual assault cases meet justice. If most of them still adhere to false stereotypes and myths surrounding these issues, external efforts focused on helping survivors will almost be useless. This doesn’t only affect survivors themselves but also the public’s view on the credibility of sexual assault disclosures.
What’s important in letting these systems be fully informed is that we are giving the survivors the power of choice. Cari Ionson, MRU’s Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator told The Reflector that it’s important to note that not all victims see court trials and reporting to the police as helpful in their healing or is the right thing to do at any given moment. After all, it is still their healing that matters.
But to give that choice to them, whether they want to report or not, comes down to our efforts to having more dependable, more open and more informed authorities on the places where survivors expect they can achieve safety and justice.