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(Jose Reyes/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Jose Reyes/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Why women who are sexually assaulted remain silent Add to ...

In one corner, there is a man with a famous voice; in the other, a group of women who have been, until now, silent. Everyone in the country, it seems, has an opinion about the allegations of violence that have been directed against former CBC radio star Jian Ghomeshi.According to reports in the Toronto Star and on the CBC, nine women have now come forward and alleged that Mr. Ghomeshi was abusive toward them, with behaviour that included punching, slapping, choking, and sexual harassment. As of this writing, only two – actress Lucy DeCoutere and author Reva Seth – have put names to their claims. (Mr. Ghomeshi has said in a Facebook post that his activities were consensual, and no charges have been laid.)

Around the country, people huffed in judgment. Why were the other women anonymous? Why hadn’t they spoken earlier? Why had no one called the police? The judgmental brigade didn’t consider that the 10 seconds it takes to type a condemnation on Twitter or Facebook is hardly comparable to the epic slog that “speaking up” actually entails – the courage it requires, and the commitment.

Because speaking up is just the beginning of a process, one that can last years, drag through a courtroom, entangle parents and loved ones, cast a cloud over work, and require the continual retelling of a uniquely horrific event. A Band-Aid ripped hundreds of times off a wound that doesn’t heal. For a few days, a YWCA chart of rape statistics was posted repeatedly: Of every 1,000 sex assaults in Canada, there are three convictions. And still people asked, “Why don’t women come forward?”

This is not a story about what happened in Canada this week. But it is a story about why women are often silent about the crimes of sexual violence committed against them. And why these reasons – which are internal and external, personal and cultural – are so similar wherever women are assaulted around the world. Which is to say, everywhere.

In countries where rape is used as an instrument of war and in countries where women march under skyscrapers to “take back the night,” the reasons women stay silent are the same – shame, and stigma, and fear of not being believed, and fear of being hounded, and a desire to just get some place beyond the pain. They worry about what their families will think. They worry about “ruining” the life of a man who is, in many cases, known to the victim. They worry about entering the dark tunnel of the justice system, with no actual promise of justice at the end.

As one of Mr. Ghomeshi’s accusers said this week, “A lot of us are really afraid right now. Afraid of backlash, afraid of what he might do or say to discredit us, afraid of what the public might think, afraid of having our privacy invaded, afraid of having our jobs affected.”

Another of the women, who had remained silent for 10 years and spoke anonymously to CBC Radio’s As it Happens, said, “When this came to light a few days ago, it gave me permission to speak, and I thought, ‘Maybe someone will listen to me now.’ Because I don’t think, if I’d said anything back then, that anyone would care.”

Women all over the world are still blamed for the violence committed against them. Think about that. They are blamed if they speak out, and if they don’t. It’s a wonder anyone comes forward at all.

This is not to say that women shouldn’t be encouraged to report their abuse, only that the reasons they don’t are complex and intractable, and so deeply ingrained that they span generations and cultures.

Denial as armour

“The feeling of shame is so intense for rape victims that many never tell anyone what happened to them,” writes Nancy Venable Raine in her powerful memoir, After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. “I found it difficult not to feel ashamed when others reacted to me with embarrassment or discomfort. And this feeling of shame silenced me.”

Ms. Raine, a professional writer, was tied up and raped in her apartment shortly after moving to Boston. The man, a stranger, took not just her peace of mind but something else that was precious to her – her words. She couldn’t write about her experience, and found it difficult to discuss, not that anyone asked her. “If I kept the nightmare to myself, it would begin and end with me. If no one knew, no one else could hurt me.”

Finally, in an attempt to defeat the words that her rapist yelled at her – “Shut up, shut up” – she decided to speak out. She wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine. After it was published, she found herself sitting next to a woman at lunch. “I thought your article was well-written,” the woman told her. Then, the sucker punch: “But let’s face it, no one wants to hear about such terrible things.”

What Ms. Raine heard was an echo of that initial Shut up. She found the strength to ignore it, and she found her voice. But many women in many parts of the world don’t, and silence is their shield in the face of trauma.

The Women Under Siege Project, founded by Gloria Steinem, looks at how sexual violence is used as a tool of terror and degradation in war zones. Its director, Lauren Wolfe, wrote about abused women she’d interviewed in Syria and Guatemala who were unable to speak about what they’d been through at the hands of military forces. One Syrian woman begged a doctor not to tell her husband she’d been raped, worried that he’d leave her. Everything else having been taken away, denial was her only protection: Women in both countries “have been terrified to talk about the brutality forced upon them,” Ms. Wolfe wrote. “Both groups are doubted, ignored, made invisible through shame.”

Doubted and ignored

Okay, from Guatemala and Syria, follow me to England for a minute, where we will look again at the question of speaking up, and just how far it gets you – if, in this case, you’re a working-class girl in a ramshackle northern city called Rotherham, and you’d like the police to take you seriously.

Earlier this year, Britain was rocked by news from Rotherham that at least 1,400 girls and young women had been sexually abused, over a period of years, by gangs of men. The media shrieked in horror: How could this have been going on for so long, under cover of darkness? As it turned out, it had been going on in broad daylight.

For years, the girls and their parents had been complaining to anyone in power they could think of – police, local politicians, social workers. Their concerns were ignored. As one mother said, the police “thought they were dirty little slags, and deserved everything they got.” A girl who was just 13 when she was first raped gave bags of soiled clothing as evidence to the police department, which promptly lost them. “They treated me as if I was a naughty child, as if I was the problem,” she told a television reporter. “They treated me like a liar.” Her rapists have never been charged.

Now over to India: Human Rights Watch’s 2013 report, Breaking the Silence, about child sex abuse in India, chronicles many heartbreaking stories, one of which is Mandeep’s. At 15, she was assaulted by a 35-year-old neighbour. She actually overcame her shame and told her family, who reported the story to police. The police called Mandeep a liar. The village chief told the family to keep it quiet. Mandeep poured kerosene over herself, set herself ablaze, and died several days later.

So that is another reason for silence: Why bother coming forward if you think you’ll just be ignored, or treated with contempt? Especially if you’re a child or, even worse, an impoverished girl child. Or anyone whose reputation bears even the slightest stain – anyone who has been alive for longer than 10 years, in other words. Or if you’re a sex worker.

Okay, let’s visit British Columbia for a moment. Former provincial attorney-general Wally Oppal’s report into the 67 missing and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was released two years ago, and sadly it’s as fresh as today’s headlines: “It is simply unfathomable that these women were forsaken year after year,” he writes. “And yet they were.”

His report is a list of evidence overlooked while a serial killer was on the loose and an endangered community ignored because, in Mr. Oppal’s carefully chosen words, they were “nobodies … persons of no influence or importance.” And those women did have people to speak up for them – friends and relatives who banged on doors and collected evidence and cried out for investigations that never came.

So, you had people who overcame their silence and still suffered as a consequence. This is not exactly a powerful lure for other women to come forward. Once brutalized, twice silent.

Hounded on the Web

In England, there’s a 25-year-old football player named Ched Evans. In 2012, he was sentenced to five years in prison for raping a 19-year-old woman who, the prosecutor argued, was too drunk to consent. The woman, granted anonymity under British law, was the subject of a concerted campaign by Mr. Evans’s supporters, and was identified more than 6,000 times on Twitter. She was forced to change her name, and move. Nine people were fined for their role in hounding and outing her.

Mr. Evans was released from prison this month, after serving half his sentence. Some 150,000 people have signed a petition urging his old club, Sheffield United, to take him back. Meanwhile, his victim’s identity has once more been revealed on Twitter: According to British police, she’ll likely have to change her name again, and move.

And we wonder why women don’t like to come forward. The silence is not just theirs; it is also forced upon them, by communities that don’t want to acknowledge crime and its aftermath. Silence smothers suffering.

In Nigeria, researchers for Human Rights Watch have just done an amazing thing – they have persuaded women who escaped from Boko Haram terrorists to speak out. These women – abducted before the more famous group of schoolgirls in Chibok – escaped from Boko Haram after experiencing physical and sexual abuse, forced conversion to Islam and unbelievable degradation. The women were reluctant to share what happened; the thugs told them they’d be “dealt with” if they spoke up.

But beyond that, even their communities wanted them to be quiet: “There’s a culture of silence and a certain taboo around the issue,” Mausi Segun, who conducted the research, said in a Human Rights Watch video. One of the abducted women, Hauwi, said her friends had told her to put the memories behind her; but she couldn’t, because they haunted her night and day.

Of course, there’s no reason to stay silent in Canada, with our Charter rights and robust justice system. If you think that, then Sandy Garossino, a former Crown prosecutor, had a bracing corrective in the Huffington Post this week. “Most members of the public, until they’re in the situation themselves, don’t understand the reluctance of women to report, and what they’ll face if they do.”

Ms. Garossino listed a series of questions a woman might be asked by a defence lawyer during a date-rape trial: How much did you drink that night? Are you under the care of a psychiatrist? What do your tattoos say? Do you like rough sex? Why are there pictures of you, passed out, on your Facebook page?

She goes on to ask, rhetorically, what kind of woman doesn’t report sex crimes. “Any woman with a past. Any woman with a future she doesn’t want derailed by the stress of reporting. In short, the kind of woman who doesn’t report a sex attack is any normal, rational kind of woman.”

Last year, Kirk Makin, the Globe and Mail’s long-time justice reporter, wrote a lengthy examination of how the courts fail sexual-assault victims. “Less than half of complaints made to police result in criminal charges and, of those charges, only about one in four leads to a guilty verdict,” he wrote.

“Women know this. Which explains why, according to the best estimates, roughly 90 per cent of sexual assaults, even those referred to crisis lines, are never brought to the attention of the authorities.” Mr. Makin traced a long and tortured history, going back 30 years to a pivotal moment when the legal definition of “rape” was replaced by varying types of sexual assault.

Much of this week’s conversation has centred on whether this is a turning point in our discussion about violence against women. But how many turning points have we had in the past 20 years alone? So many that we’re back facing the same direction. By the end of the week, women who had been assaulted but had not reported their attacks were tweeting their stories, accompanied by the Twitter hashtag #beenrapedneverreported. The stories were varied, and they were the same: I was drunk. I was sober. I was single. I was married. I thought no one would believe me.

All around the world, women are blamed for the violence committed against them. We can’t blame them for their silence as well.

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