Alana Prochuk is manager of Public Legal Education at West Coast LEAF. Kasari Govender is a lawyer and executive director at West Coast LEAF.
There is something disconcerting about the #MeToo movement. It’s not that it’s a scary time for men or that it’s a witch hunt. It’s not that it throws due process and the presumption of innocence to the wind.
It’s the backlash.
More specifically, it’s the assumption that women raising their voices are undermining the integrity of the justice system. In fact, it often is the opposite.
The problem of #MeToo is as mainstream as it gets. There is almost no woman who can affirmatively say, “I’ve never been sexually harassed.” Almost every woman will tell you, “I always take precautions to feel safer – when I’m waiting at the bus stop, or walking around my community, or using the internet, or going on a date.”
At the same time, not all women are affected in the same ways or to the same extent by sexual violence. The number of Indigenous women being sexually assaulted should take your breath away: They are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted and four-and-a-half times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women. Women with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as women without disabilities. Trans people also face high levels of sexual violence: Nearly one in four trans youth have experienced sexual assault.
No one is calling for a life sentence immediately following an allegation. There does need to be a meaningful investigation. There also needs to be a robust defence, and judges need to be able to consider the offender’s life circumstances and social context.
But sexual assault complainants also need to be treated with dignity and compassion. Their reports must be received with seriousness and a recognition of what’s at stake for them: their reputations, the airing of their most intimate and violating traumas, a public dissection of their sexuality.
The statistics show that about 95 per cent of sexual assault survivors don’t report, and when they do, they are often not believed. Despite the reality that false reports are extremely rare, occurring at a rate of 2 per cent to 10 per cent – similar to the rate of other criminal offences – there is an entrenched suspicion of reports of sexual assault that does not seem to apply to other offences. This suspicion is compounded for survivors whose credibility is further undermined by discrimination, including stereotypes based on Indigenous identity, race, poverty, mental illness, substance use, occupation, disability and gender identity.
The paradigm of skepticism must be flipped as a matter of fundamental human rights. This is what lies behind the hashtag #BelieveWomen: not throwing away due process, but defending it by challenging the deeply rooted bias that blames survivors, automatically disbelieves them and puts them on trial.
If we want a legal system that seeks truth and justice, we must ensure that the rights of the accused – though indispensable – do not eclipse the rights of complainants. Sexual assault survivors need to know that their rights also matter in the justice system – that they matter.
West Coast LEAF released a report about the barriers women experience when reporting sexual assault. The voices of courageous and generous women – their insights and firsthand experiences about the decision of whether or not to report to police – are at the heart of the report. Why this project, and why now? Early research showed that police were coding sexual assault files as “unfounded” (a.k.a “not believed”) at much higher rates than other crimes, and The Globe and Mail’s more recent investigations confirmed the problems with unfounded rates nationwide.
Flipping the paradigm of skepticism can literally be a life-and-death matter. In the Robert Pickton serial murder case, police themselves found that if they had taken early reports of violence from sex workers and Indigenous women seriously, many of the murdered women may still be alive today.
The #MeToo movement isn’t about abandoning justice. It is about saying: Pay attention. We are here. It’s time to take sexual assault and harassment seriously. The legal system must be about more than just law: It must be about justice for all.
Alana Prochuk is the author of the report We Are Here: Women’s Experiences of the Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault.