As numerous anonymous accounts on social media named dozens of alleged sexual predators, one Canadian police department took to Twitter with a piece of advice: if survivors wanted their abusers convicted, they should go to the cops before sharing their story online or with reporters.
“If you may want to consider a criminal process, it is important to know that for potential future court processes, it is best that you provide your statement to the police prior to speaking to any media outlets or posting details of your story publicly on social media. This is to ensure that your statement belongs to you and you only,” the Victoria, B.C. police department said on Twitter, as part of a thread assuring sexual assault survivors they will be believed and treated with compassion if they speak to police.
Raji Mangat, a lawyer and executive director of the Vancouver-based West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), said this type of messaging could deter survivors from reaching out to anyone, anywhere.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the folks who posted anonymously on social media who maybe were thinking of going to the police are now having second thoughts about that,” Mangat said.
“It sounds like, from the VicPD tweet, that if sexual assault survivors who made their allegations anonymously on Instagram against tattoo artists now came forward, it would be a strike against them that they first went on social media.”
A spokesperson for Victoria police said the department stands by its messages.
“The tweet (in question) is the fourth in a thread of nine tweets which, in turn, are part of our approach to a very specific set of circumstances—reports in traditional and social media about incidents of sexualized violence in local tattoo shops,” spokesperson Bowen Osoko told VICE News.
“A person who has experienced sexualized violence has already been in a situation where their power to choose has been taken away. We, as a police department, will not participate in furthering that harm.”
Over the course of one month, multiple social media accounts have publicly highlighted anonymous sexual assault allegations in the U.K. and Canada against dozens of people, primarily in the tattoo and music industries.
The #MeToo movement made a particularly strong resurgence in Quebec, the predominantly French-speaking province of Canada, after survivors accused prominent personalities like Simple Plan bassist David Desrosiers and Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet of sexual harassment and assault through a since-deleted Instagram account. This prompted Juripop, the province’s low-cost legal service, to open 450 new files stemming from those allegations in July alone.
Only 5 percent of people who have experienced sexual assault will report it to police, according to Statistics Canada data. And of those cases, just 11 percent end in conviction, StatsCan says.
Survivors often choose to first share their stories on social media or with reporters as a way to seek support. If they do that before filing a report with police, additional barriers to charges or a conviction might increase—which offers a small degree of justification for Victoria police’s tweet.
“The fact that these anonymous posts are out there maybe would have some influence on whether the Crown would decide what charges would be laid, depending on what the person said in those statements (and) if there was anything in those statements that later would be found to be inconsistent,” Mangat said.
“But it’s already such a low likelihood that a person is going to get a conviction.”
Victoria police is not alone in issuing messaging that dissuades sexual assault survivors from speaking up about their experiences. The Commissioner for Victims’ Rights in the state of South Australia has a web page dedicated to telling sexual assault survivors how to deal with the media. One of the first thing it says is that people who choose to share their stories with the media “welcome the publicity.”
It then warns survivors that stories shared in the media may be misrepresented, and any publicity of their case may result in their families receiving undue attention.
“Be aware, for example, that media publicity might mean that your children are the subject of comment or gossip at school,” reads the website.
“It’s an absolute put down,” said Karen Willis, the executive officer of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, a non-profit group.
“Certainly, understanding what media skills (survivors) might have is important because some people are very media savvy and others have never done it before. But it’s more important to let people know what sorts of supports they've got in place because no one is ever prepared...to see (their story) in print or hear it on radio or TV.”
U.S. lawyer and sexual assault survivor and advocate Ally Coll has particular insight into speaking out about sexual assault in the media.
Coll was 18 when she alleges she was groped by a senator she was working for during an internship in Washington. She kept quiet about it at the time, but years later when the #MeToo movement went viral, she came forward about her experiences to the Washington Post.
“It's critical that that be an avenue that's available for people,” she said. ”But I also think that many, many people are just never going to reach a comfort level of wanting to share their story with the press.”
Coll worked for a private law firm until it came to light that the firm had hired private investigators to try and intimidate some of the women who came forward with allegations against now-convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein. That’s when she left and founded the Purple Campaign, which addresses harassment in the workplace.
Coll maintains that sharing one’s experience of sexual assault on social media or through the media is a way for survivors to take control of the narrative—and when it goes hand in hand with police investigations can result in a conviction.
“If you look at Harvey Weinstein as an example, his victims did not get justice by reporting to The Weinstein Company; they were settled with an NDA and were required by law to remain silent about their experiences for years,” she said. “It wasn't until those stories came out in the media that he faced consequences for his actions.”
And because so few sex assault cases result in a conviction anyway, telling people if they post on social media they can’t go to the police “seems like a really bad idea,” said Mangat.
“It limits access to the criminal justice system and it also means people aren’t speaking out about what’s happening to them.”
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