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The Conversation About Sexual Assault Shouldn't Be Confined to Parliament Hill

11/25/2014 12:44 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
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Inside the Ottawa bubble, life can seem exceptional. In this special place, we think, special people go to do special things. We elect our representatives because, in some ways, we believe that they represent the best of ourselves. Over the past few weeks, as the Hill has been flooded in a wave of sexual violence allegations, we're reminded that our representatives can represent the worst of ourselves, too. But nearly more depressing than this, we are reminded that they are exactly like us.

Of course, many of the human features that enable sexual violence on Parliament Hill are unique to it. A lack of clear process for addressing harassment. An uncommonly male-dominated cohort. A kill-or-be-killed atmosphere. Alcohol. A lot of it.

After these allegations, those who work in and around the Hill will need to address how they, wittingly or unwittingly, enable sexual violence--honestly, and with a patience and resolve that outlasts the headlines.

But as MPs and staffers come forward with allegations and party leaders struggle to handle them with compassion and fairness, we're also given a glimpse into a world that isn't special at all, because it's all around us. In a world where sexual violence impacts most women, elected representatives or not, they grapple with the same fears: that the violence was their fault, that talking about it is unfair to the aggressor, that they will look vengeful if they try to have the aggressor punished through an internal or criminal investigation, and that if they decide not to go through an investigation that they will look like liars.

Sadly, not only are sexual harassment and assault persistent, so are the myths that surround them. First, sexual assault isn't rare. Over 50 per cent of all women have been the victim of violence and 25 per cent of them have been sexually assaulted. Second, sexual assault isn't committed randomly, by strangers. Eighty per cent of sexual assaults are committed by someone who is known to the victim. Finally, the act of sexual violence isn't an accident. It occurs when someone does not have explicit consent, which is often.

In other words: sexual violence is personal and violent and endemic.

And yet, when a high-profile case of sexual violence emerges, many overestimate the probability that the claim is false. This happens for cases that aren't high-profile too, even though false sexual assault reports occur at the same rate as other falsely-reported crimes: between 2 and 4 per cent.

This doesn't mean that the accused shouldn't be given due process and the benefit of the doubt in court--each person accused of a crime should. However, humans make judgements from the moment they decide whether it's better to have orange juice or coffee with their Cheerios. When the balance of probability suggests that a crime has occurred, and we make a judgment, we shouldn't doubt the claim as our first response.

The high-profile cases of MPs and staffers reporting sexual harassment and assault remind us that such acts of violence can happen to anyone, and that when they do happen, even the victim may be more concerned about the propriety of her own behavior than that of her aggressor. When an MP feels that she needs to stress that she never wanted to destroy her attacker's life by talking about the attack, and that she hoped he would be given therapy instead of punishment, she voices a belief so insidious that even victims internalize it: the needs of aggressors outweigh the needs of victims, and the responsibilities of victims outweigh the responsibilities of aggressors.

And if it can happen in the context of MPs from different parties on Parliament Hill, it can happen anywhere. So before this becomes any more of a political side-show, we should strive to focus on how although a public case of MPs being assaulted on the Hill is unusual, the violence is anything but.

It's our collective responsibility to strive to raise better men, cultivate better selves and establish better support services and processes for reporting sexual violence. As this case unfolds, sadly in public, it behooves us all to holster our most ghoulish impulses and strive to make this about what we can do combat sexual violence, rather than speculate about how it plays into the politics of the day.

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