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What is consent?

“A drunk can consent.” This statement was said by Judge Gregory Lenhan following a sexual assault trial in Halifax in which he acquitted a man who was practically caught red-handed trying to have sex with an unconscious woman in the back of his taxi. Those four words have caused a public outcry, and a petition signed by 34,000 people is circulating asking for an inquiry into the judge himself.

Apparently, this whole idea of consent is rather confusing. So confusing that a judge, a man that has dedicated his life to justice and the law, thinks that sexual assault is something that can be decided be given without actually being conscious.

I know — I don’t get it either.

To help, let’s actually define the term consent.

Consent, according to the Oxford dictionary, means to give “permission for something to happen.” In the case of a sexual relationship, both parties must clearly agree to a sexual act and each person has the right to say no. Consent should never be assumed or implied. Seems simple enough, right?

What people tend to forget is that consent is continually. At any point during a sexual encounter, a woman or a man may tell his or her partner to stop — and that partner MUST stop. That is the nature of consent.

Therefore, considering that very basic definition, a person who is incapacitated through alcohol or drugs cannot give true consent.

In the Halifax case, the woman was found unconscious in the vehicle vehicle. She was naked and the taxi driver was found stuffing her pants and underwear into the front seat of his car. His pants were undone. The woman had an alcohol level of 241 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood. This would have severely impacted short-term and long-term memory. Staff at the bar where the woman was picked up said she was incredibly drunk and was turned away at the door. That is when she hailed a cab.

Did I mention that her DNA was found in the accused’s mouth?

All of those details together should have resulted in a guilty verdict. Instead, the judge said there was no way to know whether the woman gave consent prior to her losing consciousness, and therefore the man could not be found guilty.

In essence: “a drunk can consent.”

This verdict verges on the ridiculous and unbelievable — and yet, it does not shock me. It doesn’t shock me because, as a woman, I know the judiciary system is not on my side. I know that, in the event of an unwarranted and unsolicited sexual act, it will take even more persuasion to convince a police officer that it was not my fault. And that’s a real shame.

Using the above definition, it is clear, without a doubt, there was no continual consent in the Halifax case. Even if the woman in the taxi urged the driver to have sex with her, the fact that she was unconscious nullifies whatever consent was originally given. The consent, at that moment, cannot be continual as the woman is not awake to give it.

Let me run through a few other scenarios in which consent is implied, but not actually given:

  1. A woman dresses provocatively, and that implies she is “looking to get some.”
  2. A woman invites you into their house or hotel room following a date, she is implying she wants to have sex.
  3. A woman asks a man if he has a condom. He puts it on. That means that sex is inevitable and what happens afterward is a consequence of that act. No one is allowed to change his or her mind at that point.
  4. A woman is intoxicated and their judgement blurred. That means they are looking for a fun time.

In all of these scenarios, a woman – or a man for that matter – has the right to change their mind and say no. None of these acts should be able to prove consent in the court of law, as consent is continual.

However, in many of these situations, lines are blurred and the judiciary system falls on “implied consent” rather than actual consent. There is also a double standard when alcoholism is thrown into the mix. How many times have you heard the defence say the following: “He was drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing. Let’s not ruin the reputation of this person based on one stupid choice.” The accused is then acquitted. When a victim of sexual assault says they were drunk, it is used to imply guilt and irresponsibility. This should not be the norm in our judiciary system.

That simple four-word verdict “ a drunk can consent” shows an ignorant and naïve understanding of the term itself. I am absolutely distraught and offended that a judge, someone who is in a position of power to determine whether or not a victim of sexual assault was in fact a victim, thinks it’s okay to make such generalized and harmful statements like this one.

Canadian women deserve better. They deserve not to be discriminated against in the court of law. They deserve to feel safe — and this can’t happen unless everyone is taught the real meaning of consent.

What did you think of Jian Ghomeshi’s trial?

The last year has been eye-opening, and not in a good way. The case of CBC radio broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting and choking four women, really shed light on how messed up our justice system really is. It also demonstrated why so many women (and men) don’t report instances of sexual violence.

At the end of the day, Ghomeshi was found not guilty of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking. The second round of the trials ended with an apology and a peace bond, which essentially is a contract that stipulates the accused must maintain good behaviour for a year and cannot contact the complainant. It is not an admission of guilt and it will result in no criminal record.

Ghomeshi was asked to apologize to the final complainant, Kathryn Borel. His apology mentions the power he held at the CBC and how, after serious consideration, he misunderstood how his actions could be interpreted: “I was a person in a position of authority and leadership, and I did not show the respect that I should have to Ms. Borel … I failed to understand how my words and actions would put a coworker who was younger than me, and in a junior position to mine, in an uncomfortable place.”

Borel decided to forego the trial after being presented with the option of a peace bond because it seemed “the clearest path to the truth.” In a statement following the trial, she said that “In a perfect world, people who commit sexual assault would be convicted for their crimes. Jian Ghomeshi is guilty of having done the things that I’ve outlined today. So when it was presented to me that the defence would be offering us an apology, I was prepared to forego the trial. It seemed like the clearest path to the truth. A trial would have maintained his lie, and would have further subjected me to the very same pattern of abuse that I am currently trying to stop.”

So, it’s over. After intense investigations by various media outlets, excruciating witness interviews, and hours of court time, the Ghomeshi trials are done.

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INFOGRAPHIC: less than 10% of sexual assaults are actually reported

It seems that every morning, as I turn on the radio to listen to the news, there is someone who has been a victim of a crime. Whether it is a violent crime like physical or sexual assault, or something a little more tame like petty theft, it’s sad to hear it happening all the time. But, how many of these crimes are not reported?

Statistics Canada keeps track of how many Canadians report violent crimes, and the latest update came earlier this week on Nov. 23. It showed a startling difference between crimes reported in 1999 and in 2014. Here is a breakdown of what these numbers mean:

The original Statistics Canada report can be found here and here.

Those who hurt us

When Mayor Ford sexually assaulted me he demonstrated the extent a powerful man and his colleagues will go in order to hide the truth and destroy someone’s credibility. Their ability to influence talk show hosts into using their microphones to twist and distort events with commentary designed specifically to destroy my credibility wasn’t just unethical but it validates the need for a stronger code of conduct in the broadcast industry.

The morning following my assault, one of my friends at Newstalk 1010 informed me that the Fords were trying to get their radio hosts and others in the media to denounce me. They used the same strategy that Jian Ghomeshi tried to use in his Facebook statement – they tried to define me as an unstable woman seeking attention. Ford’s people succeeded in coercing their media friends to question my motives, to attack my integrity and cast me as a woman not to be believed. Not only did this elevate the Mayor, it ensured other victims stayed silent. Everything from my hair, to my looks, and behavior was attacked. And while the average person got the impression that I wasn’t credible, others who knew a little more about the Mayor reached out to me. Some had seen Mayor Ford drunk, there were women who had endured his lewd behavior at parties – yet none of them were willing to speak out, driven to silence in part due to the shaming I was getting from a few unethical media personalities.

This is the problem with public shaming. It silences those who might speak out, who might come forward. And it stops women from speaking out about sexual assault, especially when the perpetrator is in a position of power and influence. There are some who suggest that simply because a victim has turned to social media it makes them fair game for media attacks ­– it is time broadcasters follow a code of conduct that protects victims of assault from media lynching.

Michael Coren was one of the media personalities whose attack on me was particularly hurtful. It stung most because we had been colleagues for years at the Women’s Post. We met when a mutual friend suggested I hire him to write columns for the magazine, explaining that Coren had children, wasn’t working and needed financial help. We worked together for over a year, and often attended the same events. I edited many of his columns and although we shared different views we developed what I thought was a mutual respect — he knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t a person to make up stories. And yet instead of standing up for me when I came out publicly with Mayor Ford’s assault, he used his pulpit at Sun News Network to attack and degrade me – from my looks, to my hair and my actions, and the entire time pretended that he barely knew me. I’m not sure if the Fords intimidated him, or if he desperately wanted to impress them, but there is something very sad about a man who fails when confronted with a moral decision.

Jian Ghomeshi tried to define his story differently by shaming and blaming his victims. He didn’t have as much help doing this as Mayor Ford received in degrading me, but the truth in both instances eventually came out. The women who have come forward to call out Ghomeshi are very brave, each had to risk to their reputations. I was glad the media commentators who attacked me didn’t attack these women, but I worry that the only reason they didn’t lash out was because Mr. Ghomeshi wasn’t one of their Conservative colleagues.

“Ghomeshi-gate” has caused women across North America to tell their stories and it is through these stories that we as a society can learn and grow and change. Their courage is inspiring, and their stories need to be told.

So far in my life I have endured assaults by three men. One man threw me across a room in a fit of rage. Another thought that punching my face repeatedly might change my negative feelings towards him. I stayed home for a week hiding my swollen face, ashamed and scared to go to the police, or do anything that might cause him to enter my life again. The third happened when Mayor Ford groped me while high, drunk, or probably both.

Like so many victims my first feeling after Mayor Ford assaulted me was guilt. I told myself that I should never have posed beside Mayor Ford after his comments about wanting to have “fun” in Florida with me. When he lewdly called me a “dirty, dirty, girl” I should have realized he was in some drug-induced machismo high and left. But instead I stood there beside him smiling for the camera. I wished I had simply kneed him in the groin and been done with it, and like most assault victims, I blamed myself for not reacting. Today I understand that it was not my fault. Mayor Ford was intoxicated and his choice to grope me was a power play on someone in the crowd that he knew.

My guilt was followed by worry over how my actions might impact my family. With so many cameras flashing around Mayor Ford, someone may have captured a picture showing me stupidly smiling with his hand on my butt. Why did I smile? What if people thought I’d enjoyed it? The humiliation this could have caused my husband was horrifying. I love him more than anything in the world, he is an amazing man and father, gentle and quiet, and he prefers to stay far from the spotlight. Shaming him would have devastated me and there was no way I could risk the chance of some picture or video hitting the media that might have made it look like I was a willing participant. Like other victims of assault, I mistakenly worried about how the assault might hurt everyone else around me, instead of focusing on how it hurt me. In hindsight I should have gone to the police and let them deal with it.

Every person who has suffered abuse goes through the same turmoil of guilt, self-blame and confusion over how to handle the issue.

In the year that followed the groping most of the accusations I had made about Mayor Ford came to light, from his drug use, to his vulgar attitude toward women, as well as the lies his staff told to hide the truth about his condition that evening. To top it off, radio host Ryan Doyle had the decency to apologize for the things he had said about me.

A lot of time has passed, situations have changed significantly for all of us, and today, as I sit typing, Rob Ford struggles with cancer. Despite the horrible way he treated me, I find myself praying that he’ll beat his cancer. I feel compassion and it is this compassion, this ability to forgive, to accept and to move forward that makes us stronger.

When it comes to sexual assault our society must change the way we handle it. The media can lead in this area or they can refuse to change. Broadcasters like Newstalk 1010, Sun News Network, and others should follow a code of conduct that puts victim protection first. They must stop their commentators and hosts from lynching, blaming or making disparaging comments about victims of assault. Broadcasters must begin to see that they have a duty to protect victims, not judge them or publicly shame them – and without a code of conduct that broadcasters actually honor, victims of assault will forever be at risk of public shaming and choose silence over exposure.