11/05/2014 05:50 EST | Updated 01/05/2015 05:59 EST

You Don't Need to Act Like a Lawyer in the Court of Public Opinion

Dennis O'Clair via Getty Images


When I used to do sexual assault and consent awareness training with first year university students, we facilitators had an expression for a particular type of student: Grade 9 Lawyer Boy.

After posing hypothetical scenarios, Grade 9 Lawyer Boy -- who was sometimes male, but sometimes not -- would be the first to pipe up that something didn't "count" as rape.

In group sessions, Grade 9 Lawyer Boy's instincts were to raise doubts about the validity of sexual assault claims, point out what constituted "bad evidence" and lean ad nauseam on the mantra "innocent until proven guilty."

This is not dissimilar to when Jian Ghomeshi news first started to trickle out. Many people on Facebook and Twitter called on friends and family to adjudicate the scenario as a third party trier of fact would. This approach remains a prominent part of Jian Ghomeshi discourse. It's likely underlying part of the quest for criminal action. And it's an undeniable part of the news coverage.

But here's the thing, "innocent until proven guilty" is a criminal law concept used in conjunction with the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard to guarantee an important legal doctrine: it's better for guilty people to go free than infringe the liberty of the innocent.

This high threshold isn't used in civil action, where judges decide guilt on the balance of probabilities standard. And it certainly isn't required in Facebook or any public forum of debate.

Most of us aren't police officers, lawyers or judges. We are not the triers of fact. We're just friends, family and coworkers of friends, family and coworkers.

We don't actually need to be Grade 9 Lawyer Boys to each other. In fact, it's OK to just believe when a person -- usually a woman, but not always -- tells you she's been sexually assaulted. It's OK to believe a person when she tells you she feels she has been violated, especially but not limited to if she is in crisis or relaying a personal story of trauma. It's OK to just believe her, no questions asked.

Take, for example, a friend who shows up at brunch complaining about a parking ticket they just got. How do you respond to your annoyed friend? Do you start asking questions about where they parked and what the sign said? Do you explain how the city needs the funding and how it's irresponsible to park illegally? Maybe, but that would make you kind of an asshole. Most people would just let their friend vent and add in some supportive comments about how parking tickets suck. Because they do.

Here's another, more serious example. Let's say a colleague has just disclosed to you a recent death in her family. Do you accept this death as the truth, or do you question the details of it? Do you ask about what kind of proof she has? Do you point out how there might have been some confusion and maybe she's overreacting? No, you wouldn't. That would be inhumane.

And so it is with sexual assault.

For those in the difficult situation of knowing both the sexual assault survivor and perpetrator, I again say, it's OK to believe what a friend tells you, no matter what. There may be two different accounts of the same incident; that's OK. Trust me when I say, there is no need to Columbo such a situation. It's possible for multiple people in the same situation to recount it differently. Two people may perceive the same sexual situation entirely differently, and their subjective feelings can both be valid.

Gender roles, sexual assault myths, and an aversion to communicating for the purposes of acquiring enthusiastic consent play a role in creating rape culture.

Our movies, ads and social norms, such as slut shaming, teach that boys are sexual storm troopers and women are sexual gatekeepers. A smart, kind heterosexual male teenager once told me -- and without a hint of irony -- that "everybody knows, no means no the third time." It still bothers me to think about the ramifications of such a "rule of thumb" approach to consent.

Moreover, a strong myth exists that sexual assault involves a woman walking home alone at night, who is attacked in a park or an alley by a stranger. If we are not in an alley or a park, and we are not attacking a stranger, we are able to psychologically disassociate ourselves from potential situations of sexual assault directly under our nose. In fact, most sexual assault happens between people who know each other. Sometimes a person doesn't know their partner felt assaulted.

Sexual assault is not the problem of a few individuals or even an entire gender. To point fingers at Jian Ghomeshi, or blame men, is unhelpful. Sexual assault is a widespread social problem rooted in cultural misogyny.

In a 2009 Canadian national survey, women reported 460,000 incidents of sexual assault in just one year. Half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16, and 67 per cent of all Canadians say they personally know at least one woman who has been sexually or physically assaulted.

It's going to take us a long time to tackle this huge inequality in society. But one thing you can do to make the world a better place is to believe the next sexual assault survivor who discloses to you. Another thing you can do is question the underlying biases that would make you respond in any other way.


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