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As A Counsellor, Here's Why I Think We Should Believe Survivors

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It's been estimated that one in four North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. In Canada alone, approximately 460,000 sexual assaults occur every year. Yet, for every 1,000 incidents of sexual assault, only 33 are ever reported to the police, which many would agree is a startlingly low number.

Even more disturbing is that only three cases ever result in a conviction. This means that, for every 1,000 sexual assault cases, 997 assailants are acquitted and allowed to walk freely out the courtroom.

There was a powerful piece of reporting done by 680 News in Toronto, in which Crown attorneys were anonymously asked to describe what they consider to be their "ideal" sexual assault complainant in order to help them secure a conviction. Their responses left me disheartened and in tears:

"She needs to have serious injuries, running into the street, naked, yelling 'I've been raped!'"

"She has to be a virgin, with no sexual history." (This, despite Canada's strict rape shield law -- an amendment to our Criminal Code enacted in 1992, which bans calling into testimony a woman's sexual history as a way to disprove her trustworthiness).

"She has to bawl her eyes out on the stand. But not too much, or else she seems unstable."

"She has to have no past history of anxiety or depression."

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It's been a rough week for many Canadian sexual assault survivors. Pick up any newspaper or browse your social media feed, and you will be inundated with a barrage of opinions from armchair legal experts weighing in on Judge William Horkins' verdict.

I will admit that I was glued to my Twitter feed during most of the Ghomeshi trial, swept up in the #BeenRapedNeverReported, #WeBelieveSurvivors and #BeyondGhomeshi hashtags. That last hashtag in particular is an interesting one, as I'm hoping that it will help elevate this important national conversation to one that can reach our lawmakers, police officers, educators, politicians, voters and parents.

Both male and female. So, basically, all of us. Because this conversation is more important than Ghomeshi. It's beyond the Dalhousie University Dentistry scandal. It's beyond Lucy DeCoutere and her fellow two complainants.

How many Rehtaeh Parsons tragedies do we need before we begin doing the important work of looking at our flawed sexual assault reporting processes? What will it take for us to begin making the grassroots changes from within to once and for all end this rape culture mindset that seems to permeate our day to day lives?

How many Ghomeshis, Cosbys, Dr. Lukes, Cee Lo Greens, Kobe Bryants, Sean Penns, Roman Polanskis, Woody Allens and Pee Wee Hermans does it take?

"My conclusion that the evidence in this case raises a reasonable doubt is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened," Judge Horkins said when delivering his verdict.

He made this statement after having systematically eviscerated the credibility of all three complainants over the course of about 75 minutes. He said this to cap off a trial during which the complainants were made to feel like "sacrificial lambs" throughout the brutal, though expert, cross-examinations at the hands of Marie Henein, to the point where they needed to rely on "Zoplicone smoothies" to be able to get much-needed sleep following their testimony.

As Witness #1 astutely lamented during her Chatelaine interview: "It's not fair that someone gets assaulted, and has to go to court and get assaulted again. Why can't it be adults in a room, fact-finding and looking for truth?"

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Is it any wonder that only one to two per cent of "date rape" sexual assaults in Canada are ever reported to the police? I don't pretend to have the solutions to this #BeyondGhomeshi hairball, so I will leave the armchair legal debates and reforms to those more knowledgeable about the nuances of Canada's Criminal Code.

But here's what I do know, based on the counselling work that I do with the countless female clients I see who agonize over the sexual traumas they've lived through. I know that it's not uncommon for one in four women to be sexually assaulted sometime in her life.

I know that despite Bill C-127, which came into effect in 1983 and made sexual assault against one's wife an offence, half of all sexual offenders are married or in long-term relationships with their victims.

I know that 80 per cent of sexual assaults occur in the home, not in a dark alley in the middle of night as most mothers worry.

I also know that 80 per cent of assailants are friends or family with their victims. In fact, this is quite possibly the most common theme I see with the majority of my clients; it's not "stranger-danger" who assaulted them, but usually a friend, family member, colleague or intimate partner who chose to ignore the fact that the women never consented to the sexual acts.

Here's what else I know for sure, and this is especially for those of you reading this who cannot understand why more women don't report: sexual assaults are serious traumas that leave lasting psychological, emotional and/or physical scars.

There is no one common reaction to sexual assaults. Survivors' behaviours following such traumatic events can vary from minimizing the incident and pretending everything is fine (e.g. kissing and cuddling in the park, or writing gushing love letters, as DeCoutere did following the assault); to suppressing the incident altogether, essentially blocking it from your memory; to blaming yourself, somehow, in an attempt to rationalize the trauma.

It is not unusual in my caseload to see women, years after the fact, still believing they were somehow responsible for the incident.

"I had had too much to drink, Sandy."

"I had been mildly flirting with him earlier, Sandy."

"I smoked a joint with him and got so high that I passed out, and woke up the next morning naked and with no memory of what happened."

I once worked with a client who had made herself believe that her date rape meant that she had cheated on her long-term boyfriend. She not only was reeling from the trauma of the long-ago rape, but faced the subsequent unravelling of her most important adult relationship.

Some of us seem to be so quick to judge women for not stepping forward and reporting their assaults in a timely manner, yet we discount the fact that, for many of these women, their automatic coping mechanism has been to suppress or even deny their traumas had ever happened.

And it's only many years later, when they are sitting in their psychotherapist's office, dealing with severe anxiety or debilitating depression, or trying to overcome somatic body memories such as chronic migraines, stomach aches or sleep disorders, when the truth of their traumatic personal history comes out, layer by layer.

The truth always eventually comes out.

The outcome of the Ghomeshi trial was not a surprising one to me, given our current legal system. We appear to have a strong legal system, but our justice system seems genuinely flawed when even the presiding judge admits that his verdict doesn't necessarily imply that the assaults at hand never took place.

As disheartening as it was to observe the disaster that was the Crown's case against Mr. Ghomeshi, I was heartened to see a couple of leading politicians speak out in support of the #WeBelieveSurvivors campaign, calling for changes to our current processes. Mr. Mulcair, I particularly tip my hat to you for boldly embodying your opponent's "Because it's 2016" ethos. I do, however, question why Canada's PM and avowed feminist was noticeably silent on this matter.

I am no politician. Nor am I a lawyer or judge, relying on dated criminal processes.

I am, however, a woman.

I am a feminist.

I am a counsellor.

I believe survivors.

Cartoons: courtesy of Michaeal De Adder. Used with permission.

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