The Toronto Police Headquarters. via.
About a year ago, I sat down to brunch across from one of the most badass women I’ve ever met. We’ll call her Sandra. Sandra’s not badass in the way many people would define the word. She’s badass because she was raped, and despite being shy, soft-spoken and extremely proper, she was absolutely determined to tell me her story. Her desire to talk about what happened stems from her belief that—if nobody talks about having been raped—the crimes will never be solved nor have any light shed upon them, and they will only continue to happen, in both literal and metaphorical dark and shady corners.
And so, as we picked away at our eggs and toast in a trendy Toronto west end bar, Sandra confirmed my hypothesis: police do not always take rape cases seriously. I was reporting on crime at the time, and had ample reason to suspect such a thing. So I set out to speak to women who had been raped and who had reported to police, and to interview police about the stories I heard. I wrote a series of three articles about these women’s stories, and about the refusal of Toronto police to take them seriously.
Sandra told me her whole story. Hers was a “stranger” rape. The rapist crawled in her window and had vaginal intercourse with her, then crawled right back out the window. The episode didn’t end as quickly for Sandra, though. She has come a long way toward making peace with it, but what makes her angry now—years later—is the way police have blundered her case. There were a number of ties they didn’t make, some evidence was destroyed, and now, she says police don’t seem interested in trying to solve the crime. Case in point: Sandra set up a Google Alert to respond to any criteria that might identify her rapist. An exact match for the words he used as he raped her popped up, and she went to police. She says a detective asked her “What’s a Google Alert?” and then proceeded to ask if her if she needed therapy. Each woman I interviewed was similarly humiliated as she tried to help solve her case and reclaim some of her freedom, and in that sense, Sandra’s case is not unique.
Alicia, another woman I spoke with, was raped by someone she knew: her husband, to be precise. He raped her each time they had a sexual encounter. They would start off with what Alicia thought would be vaginal penetration, and then her husband would force a series of objects, as well as his own penis, into her anus. Alicia, who is an extremely religious woman in her late forties and quite sheltered about sex, didn’t know this was rape until she finally told her friend about it. Her friend told her that what was happening to her was definitely sexual assault, and not to be taken lightly. Her husband had videotaped a number of the rapes, which should have been prime evidence against him. The Crown handling the case, however, apparently didn’t feel that way. Alicia was told to watch the tapes and count how many times she said “no.” She counted 35 times in five tapes. The Crown, she says, then told her it looked like she was enjoying it, and he said they’d never win the case.
With attitudes like this prevalent within the system, how could women possibly be expected to report to police when they are raped or otherwise assaulted? There’s nothing in it for them but fighting for what feels like a lost cause from the get-go. They’re not believed, or they’re painted as sluts (and not in the good, sex-positive way) or liars.
It’s because allegations of sexual assault are not believed, experts say, that sex crimes are wildly underreported. Women don’t expect the justice system to respond with due concern and effort, so they cut their losses and avoid the embarrassment that can be caused by reporting. In the last available Toronto Police Services statistical report, which sums up crimes committed in 2011, the numbers show that while crime as a whole was going down, sexual assault was on the rise.
There was a 3.9 per cent increase in sex crimes for a total of 2,961, while overall crime decreased by 5.6 per cent. Some cops I spoke with said this was because more women feel comfortable reporting, but experts in the area say it’s because more sex crimes are happening since we as a society, and by extension, our justice system, allow it.
"Jane Doe” is one of these experts. She was raped in the late ‘80s by a serial rapist attacking women who looked like her. Police didn’t warn her, and he crawled in her second-floor window one night and attacked her. Doe put out warning posters of her own, and he was caught the next day. She also sued the police for negligence—and won.
Doe is now an activist and scholar on the subject. She spoke to a room full of young journalists at Ryerson University last year.
“I’m fond of saying that if rape didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. It is that efficient and insidious a tool of fear and social control. It works well to define and regulate space and place, and to maintain status quos, particularly regarding women and equality in all places.”
She’s right, but sometimes, I hope, wrong as well. Many of the women I spoke with (not to mention Doe herself) certainly weren’t allowing themselves to be relegated in terms of “place.” Interviewing these women and keeping the tears at bay was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The women themselves didn’t cry: these were some of the most matter-of-fact stories I’d ever been told. And it just wasn’t my place to cry; it was my place to shut up and listen. No one wants to hear stories about rape, and that’s why I chose to write about it. The process nearly drove me insane. I was a haggard mess for a year, with matted hair tied in a top knot and a permanent lipstick-stained to-go coffee in my hand. Just about every time I heard a bump in the night in my basement apartment, I could only assume it was a gang of rapists coming to get me. And that’s not hyperbole. I was a nervous wreck, because I was writing about my biggest nightmare.
Rehtaeh Parsons. via.
Look. If you read the news, you’ll have read about Rehtaeh Parsons, and you will already know that Sandra is not alone in encountering a complete lack of police support in her case. Know, too, that she is one of many. As of the last census, Statistics Canada says the police-reported number of sexual assaults in the country stood at about 21,800. StatsCan also says that only one in ten sexual assaults end up being reported. If that’s true, it would mean that about 218,000 women are sexually assaulted each year. What’s more, about one in four women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime, and a woman is “sexually assaulted by forced intercourse” in this country about every 17 minutes. Every six days, a woman is killed by her partner in our country.
Experts suggest that the number of sexual assaults that take place in Canada is much higher than 218,000, because so many sex crimes go unreported. Women know their stories of sexual assault are likely to be met with skepticism, if not ridicule. They’re afraid of their rapists, and they’re ashamed of themselves because they’re repeatedly told that what happened was their fault. I spoke with one counselor at a Toronto women’s shelter who sees thousands of women each year. They come to her for different reasons, not strictly sexual assault. But, she says, nearly all of them eventually tell her they’ve been sexually assaulted at some point, alongside their other problems. And as I wrote, I spoke at length about rape on what felt like a constant basis.
I had long conversations with the many incredible women in my life, and the vast majority of them told me they’d been raped and/or sexually assaulted at least once. These women who make my life so beautiful—writers, artists, musicians, teachers, performers, inspirations of all sorts—had been assaulted in any number of ways. They’d been touched by their babysitters or step-relatives or fathers. They’d been assaulted at school, in locker rooms or on dance floors or at parties. Or at work, or at home. Almost all told me in the same matter-of-fact tone Sandra used, as though it was just another thing that had happened to them. I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that just about every female I spoke with told me one of these stories. I think the numbers are just much higher than anyone suspects—or is willing to suspect.
It seems like too many of us are turning a collective blind eye, especially those who are supposed to act as authority figures and protect us. What prompted me to write about all of this in the first place was my exposure to police culture in Toronto. I worked in the Toronto Star’s radio room at the time, where my job was to listen to police scanners and keep an eye on breaking crime in the city. Not once in an entire year did I hear the word “rape” over the scanners.
“Sexual assault” is used as a blanket term, and police descriptions of those sexual assaults never come close to describing the horror some women experience. And because police give such little information, the papers often can’t do these stories any justice. I realized I had to cover this because no one talks adequately about rape and sexual assault. Journalists try to sometimes, but they wind up embroiled in cold, clinical police-speak, as though what happened was some sort of benign occurrence. They also overuse the word “victim,” as though the woman attacked has been stripped of her identity following the crime and is now a shallow, helpless husk of a person defined only by the rape.
Sexual assaults have been making the news more often lately. But the ones that garner attention are only the most gruesome tales. The ones that make people weak with relief that it wasn’t them, or their child. Case in point: the Steubenville case in which a teen girl was raped by two high school football players, and the community defended the players. The case of Rehtaeh Parsons, who was taken off life support after trying to hang herself because a photograph of her alleged rape circulated for a prolonged period at school. And the case of Amanda Todd, who was stalked after a photo of her was circulated online, and to her family and friends. Rape and sexual assault are systemic failings in our society, not especially horrific incidents that happened to three specific girls. What’s more, the reporting on these cases tends to focus on social media, as if it’s somehow the internet’s fault that these girls were raped. The way people behaved online certainly didn’t help matters, but we need to remember it’s people who are doing hurtful things, not machines. What happened in Steubenville, and in B.C., and in Nova Scotia should not have surprised us—because the sick truth is, these are anything but isolated incidents.
Sexual assault doesn’t just happen to one particular type of woman. It happens to teenagers who are bullied to within an inch of their lives. It happens to elderly women, shy women, fat women, thin women, and bossy, loud-mouthed feminist women. And it’s not a transgression that incites judgment on the perpetrators. It incites judgment on women.
We need to develop a culture that does not take rape lightly. We need to teach men that when a woman walks that walk, drinks that drink, or dances in that slutty red dress, she is not coyly saying she wants to be fucked against her will. Women walk around expecting to be raped, and the men who rape walk around and expect to get away with it. They do that because our society allows them to think that way—and unfortunately the lack of consistent action from our justice system helps to keep this rape culture alive.