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Finally, the media is (slowly) changing its tune on sexual assault

"Sexual assault has been astonishingly widespread throughout Canadian history," legal historian Constance Backhouse wrote in her epic 2008 book, Carnal Crimes. "It emerges out of disparities in power....To review how our legal system characterizes the wrong of sexual assault...brings us face to face with the raw power of law, along with the enormous potential and appalling failures at the root of the Canadian justice system."

Here in Calgary, where Judge Robin Camp faced judicial review for asking a sexual assault plaintiff why she didn't keep her knees closed, we've heard a lot about "appalling failures of law" lately, mainly due to biassed judges.   

The public outrage actually caught me by surprise. Until very recently, the wind of public opinion seemed to be blowing the other direction, despite decades of attempts to reform and strengthen relevant laws, to make them more enforceable.

In 1982, the Criminal Code changed its terminology from "rape" and "indecent assault" to a broad range of "sexual assault” charges, on a spectrum from unwanted touching to penetration with foreign objects.  Still, rape crisis centres reported that any woman who filed a complaint with police faced a barrage of skeptical questions about whether she'd consented and then regretted it; or somehow incited the attack by her attitude. 

Then, legal protocols relied on the premise that most sexual assaults involved strangers. This conflicted with women's reality that most assaults happen at the hands of men we know. Public sympathy often lay with the accused male, whose reputation and future seemed to be at stake -- still a common media reaction with recent sexual assault cases involving star athletes at universities like Duke, Yale, Florida State, UCLA, and Vanderbilt.

Take swimmer Brock Turner at Stanford University.  Last June, Turner faced a potential sentence totalling 14 years for three felony convictions over the way he forced himself on an unconscious woman at a frat party. Instead, he served 12 weeks, due to his fame, his family, and a raft of character witnesses. His father urged leniency on the grounds the act was "only 20 minutes of action."  Judge Aaron Persky said agreed that prison would have "a severe impact" on the young man.

When officials lean to a certain point of view, often the news media covering them just follow along. Although that may work with some general stories, "sexual assault cases are particular," Catherine Porter wrote in the Toronto Star. "Its victims are among the only ones we instinctively distrust. We're nursed on the perverse myth that women lie about being raped, to get attention or get even, and those poor men, think of their reputations!"

On the other hand, one news publication has evolved dramatically lately. I’ve been quite impressed by reporter Robyn Doolittle and The Globe and Mail for their "Unfounded" series, which has been running since February 3. A 20-month investigation involving sexual assault complaint data from 870 police departments found serious flaws at every step of the process of dealing with those complaints.

Damningly, Doolittle and her team found the rate at which police departments dismissed cases as "unfounded" was nearly twice the rate of other assault charges (19 per cent vs 10 per cent), and varied dramatically, from single-digit rates in big cities to as much as one-third "unfounded" rates in smaller centres. Uniform police policies should yield much more even statistics.

The Globe’s series has provoked spectacular reactions. By February 10, the Globe reported that "32 police forces serving more than 1,000 communities have launched investigations into more than 10,000 recent sexual-assault complaints, in light of a Globe investigation that exposed serious flaws in law-enforcement practices across the country."  

Subsequent updates reported that:

In short, by dint of a massive research effort, feminist statistical analysis, and sheer tenacity in keeping sexual assault case studies in the paper every single day, the Globe has put a major social issue on the political agenda and advanced it towards stated goals of analysis and uniformity. Though the Globe has raised other issues before (e.g. Thalidomide victims),  I can only stand in awe of advocacy at this level.   

I'm also astonished by editorial changes at the Globe, which used to have a reputation for being good on LGBTQ issues but weak on gender equality. Indeed, the paper was known as the "Globe & Male" for decades over its blindness to women's issues. During the 1980s constitution campaigns, I practically wrote a column in its Letters-to-the-Editor section because the Ottawa Bureau could not understand that women’s groups were autonomous, not party puppets.

In recent years, the Globe has featured columnists such as Elizabeth Renzetti, Tabatha Southey, Marsha Lederman and Leah McLaren, who have raised entertaining feminist voices with important perspectives. Women and minorities are visible in the photos, in the by-lines, and in the news.

"Unfounded" marks a media milestone, in my opinion, something that would not have been possible even two years ago, because of the required technology and computer-reporting skills, and because of a change in media attitudes.

What a pleasant February surprise to discover that Robyn Doolittle's team found a way to get a handle on an elusive but toxic hazard that affects one in three women in Canada. After centuries of denial, Canada is finally tackling carnal crimes.    

You can download a free digital version of Carnal Crimes from carnalcrimes.ca At nearly 500 pages, it's a very readable and moving discussion of nine (unfortunately) typical sexual assault cases since Canada's founding.     

Image: Flickr/Richard Potts

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