Give sexual assault victims a voice

Posters from the "Yes Means Yes" campaign remind students about the meaning of consent.

There it is again, that churning feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see the name Brock Turner in the news.

When Brock Turner began making rounds in the news back in May, every article reeked of white privilege. Male athlete. Stanford student. Excellent swimmer.

The middle-class suburban teen raped a 22-year-old unconscious woman after a frat party in 2015. He got off with three months in jail and a three year probation.

Articles from CNN, Time, Washington Post, USA Today, and Associated Press detailed Turner’s crimes but also included his swim records. He was not referred to as a ‘criminal’ by Time magazine, but rather a ‘star swimmer’. News outlets such as CNN, Sports Illustrated and USA Today called Turner the ‘former Stanford student’. Not perpetrator. Not pervert. Not rapist. Turner’s coverage in the media had all the factors that scare victims away from reporting a crime.

Mary Joe’s case isn’t any different.

Mary Joe was a Durham College student. She was working on her diploma in Environmental Technology, nursing a baby and volunteering at the on-campus women’s centre. But most importantly, she was enduring physical, verbal, and sexual assault by an abusive partner. The abuse lasted nine years.

After Joe decided to pull the plug on her relationship in 2012, she pressed charges. Her perpetrator’s punishment? House arrest and probation.

Just like Turner’s victim, Emily Doe, Joe was ready for this minimal sentence.

“I was prepped by the counselors I was seeing and through victim-witness services at the courthouse that these kind of cases very often are dropped or there’s no conviction. So I was prepared for him to get off with nothing else… I was prepared for my case to be let go.”

Joe’s story is one of many.

There are 460,000 sexual assaults per year. According to a 2012 report by Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton (SACHA), out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada, 33 are reported every year, and only 3 lead to a conviction.

But these reports don’t get public interest the same way Turner’s story did. Statistics don’t spread on social media. They don’t gain sympathy. The victims behind these numbers become just that: numbers. Maybe they will show up in student research papers or newspaper articles.  Maybe they won’t.

But something about Turner’s case was compelling. Even people who don’t watch the news pulled up page after page of his statements, his trial dates, and his sentencing.

Maybe it was his, as the victim Emily Doe, called it, “poorly written young adult novel” version of events. Maybe it was his dad’s letter to the judge begging to lessen Brock’s sentence because he couldn’t enjoy steak for dinner anymore. Maybe it was his mother’s plea to the judge saying she couldn’t decorate her new house because of how sad she was. Maybe it was his Judge Aaron Persky who was lenient on yet another student athlete, Keenan Smith, after battering his girlfriend.  Or maybe it was Brock’s plans to start university tours to educate students on “drinking and promiscuity.”

But perhaps the most compelling part of Turner’s case was the 12-page victim impact statement penned by the now 23-year-old woman Turner raped behind a dumpster.

Her statement, posted on Buzzfeed, has been viewed 1.11 million times. The statement addresses Brock Turner directly, and details Doe’s memories the night of her assault, the following morning, and the agonizing months after.

She describes how she found out about the details of her assault from a news article, one that included Turner’s swim times. She recounts how Turner didn’t just strip her of her clothes that night, but of her worth, her privacy, her intimacy, her safety, her energy, her time, her confidence and her voice.

Doe’s statement was raw. It was real. Just like a good narrative, it transported the reader to the scene of the crime: to that dumpster she was assaulted behind, to the hospital room she woke up in, to the courtroom where she faced her rapist. But Doe’s statement is not a work of fiction.

Neither is Mary Joe’s story. But her statements remain unheard. Like many survivors, her words are not plastered in capital letters on social media. She is just trying to get by. Despite the nine-year abusive relationship, Joe was able to find strength at Durham College during her ordeal.

“I think my time at school was how I survived,” said Joe. “I excelled at my studies. I had scholarships. It gave me a life that existed outside of my home, which helped me persevere.”

Joe cannot imagine what women who have endured on-campus rape have to go through.  “If the person who had assaulted me was actually a student on campus and I had to know that they were going to be there, that would be completely different. If something like that happens [to me], like a sexual assault on campus, I’d maybe like drop out. Because I couldn’t imagine having to look back if something like that happened at school.”

Joe was right. According to the American College Health Association, 1.3 per cent of students reported sexual assault negatively impacted or disrupted their academic performance at college.   But that number is the tip of the iceberg.  Sometimes staying quiet is better than having your story dismissed and your perpetrator applauded.

Michelle Moody is the chair of the Social Action Committee of Durham and part of the executive committee of the annual Shine the Light campaign for Women Abuse Prevention month in Durham Region. Moody says there’s a lot of anger and distrust by victims. Nonetheless, on average, the Durham Region Police responded to 13 domestic calls per day in 2015. That amounts to almost 5,000 domestic abuse calls last year. But Moody says mistrust means many women do not report abuse or assault.

“An incident like the Brock Turner one,” says Moody, “is going to reinforce women’s perception that there’s no point in reporting, because they’re only going to be re-victimized by the media, the social media, and the justice system.”

According to the 2012 Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton (SACHA) report, 53 per cent of survivors did not report their sexual assault because they were not confident in the police.  According to a 2014 CBC article, two out of three survivors said they were not confident in the criminal justice and court system in general.

This lack of confidence stems from the process victims go through after they report an assault. Victims report inquiries about their outfit at the time of the attack, their sexual history, their relationship status, and their alcohol consumption. Reliving the experience just isn’t worth it.

Rape court cases often become a version of he said, she said. Brock Turner’s was not. He was caught at the scene. There were witnesses. They testified. His victim’s DNA was on found his fingers. Yet Turner walks free. He lives at his parents’ house. He makes plans to do speaking tours.

It makes sense women on college campuses are scared.  In a Canadian study conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA), only 37.3 per cent of college students reported feeling very safe on their college campuses at night, 27 per cent of those surveyed were women.

According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault at college. Let that sink in for a minute. There are 5,035 female students currently enrolled at Durham College. If one in five experiences sexual assault, that means by the end of the year over 1,000 women will experience sexual assault right here on campus.

At his trial, Turner’s childhood friend Leslie Rasmussen wrote a letter to Judge Aaron Persky urging him to spare Turner because, according to the letter, rapists are people who kidnap and rape women in parking lots as they walk to their cars, not intoxicated teenagers who sexually assault unconscious women at parties. Even though Rasmussen is from the States, her statement underscores the fact that, like Rasmussen, only 1 in 3 Canadians understand what sexual consent means.

The lack of understanding about sexual consent is why rapists like Brock Turner continue to deny their crimes in court. Despite the posters stapled around campus that say “My dress is not a yes”, the Brock Turners of the world do not realize that a lack of a ‘yes’ constitutes rape. Brock Turner is a reminder that rape culture exists on campus and in society.

According to a 2015 Globe and Mail article, less than 10 per cent of sexual assault complaints on campus are resolved through a formal investigation. At some institutions, that number is less than 1 per cent. The article was one of many responding to harassment and assault cases at Brock University, the University of Victoria, Dalhousie University and the University of British Columbia. These cases, along with Brock Turner’s case, shone a light on the fear of sexual assault felt on campus.

“[The fear of sexual assault] may not stop you from going to college or university,” says Alison E. King, a UOIT expert in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, “but it may impact where you go.”

King conducts research in women’s history and the student experience. She says students from small towns or communities might choose not to go to colleges whose campuses are somewhat bigger or secluded because of fear for safety. Students, says King, might choose a more private campus close to home.

“In general, students do better when they feel like they are part of a community. And being part of a community is that you feel safe,” says King. “So if you’re not feeling safe, that undermines that sense of community and the sense that you can be on campus and take part in activities and walk around campus safely. “

King says if a sexual assault victim’s perpetrator were on campus, the victim would feel like campus was a dangerous place. Because of that fear, the student would be suspicious of the people around them.

That is exactly what Joe thinks.

“I think [the fear of sexual assault] is so ingrained in our society that women don’t really know it on a conscious level,” said Joe. “But I think there’s a lot of anxiety. I think there’s a lot of awareness, even on campuses or walking around at night anywhere. I think it’s a very real fear.”

That fear is not going unnoticed. In 2015, Kathleen Wynne’s government announced a provincial action plan to deal with sexual violence. Over $40 million dollars will go into the three-year plan, which defines sexual violence as “any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent, and includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.”

With the introduction of Bill 132, known as the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, faculty at Durham College and UOIT are required to take online sexual violence modules. These modules are designed to help recognize sexual violence and create a safe space. All employees must complete the modules by December 1st. The modules provide precise definitions of sexual assault and violence, set clear standards for reporting and responding to disclosures of sexual violence, and provide resources both on campus and within the community to support individuals affected by sexual violence.

DC and UOIT also provide on-campus support services through the Office of Campus Safety, Campus Health Centre, Access and Support Centre, Good2Talk, and the Outreach Services run by the Student Association. The institutions also provide connections to off-campus services, such as Durham Rape Crisis Centre and Sexual Assault Care Centre at Lakeridge Health.

Stanford offers similar services requiring faculty and staff to complete training that addresses sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. This raises the question: for Turner, what change did faculty training make?

But Brock Turner’s case itself made a change. It ripped off the veil of rape culture.

The details of Brock Turner’s story fascinated yet enraged many. Facebook posts emerged with a picture of Turner in a suit captioned: “here is the guy you don’t want in the bathroom with your daughter.”  #BrockTurner garnered more than half a million tweets.

Tweets, Facebook posts and memes leave a digital trail all over the web as a reminder that rape culture exists, and continues to be ignored by many on campus and in society.

Brock Turner is a reminder we still teach people to avoid getting raped, not to avoid raping.  He is reminder of how we don’t want men in our Canadian society to be. He is a reminder that every year college students could be walking away from the college of their dreams for fear of meeting a Brock Turner on campus. He is a reminder rapists are not always perverts lurking in the corners of dingy alleyways waiting for the next miniskirt to pass by. Sometimes, they are men like Brock Turner: educated, privileged, and as we’re reminded in every media report, good at swimming.

Brock may have stolen Emily Doe’s integrity, but he gave her, and thousands of others, a voice.

Mary Joe is one voice at Durham College. She is not the first and will not be the last victim of sexual assault on campus. Brock Turner is not the first and will not be the last rapist to attend a college or university.

But hopefully a dialogue has started, one that will replace the churning feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see the name Brock Turner in the news.