Too afraid to speak out

By Aida Sadr

Every year, thousands of women are victims of sexual assault, but according to a 1993 Statistics Canada survey, only six per cent of females over the age of 16 who experience the terrifying and often brutal crime report the incident to the police. A recent University of Calgary study conducted by Debra Tomlinson, a Master’s of Social Work graduate from the U of C, Leslie Tutty, a U of C social work professor, and the Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, pinpointed some of the reasons why most women do not report sexual assault crimes.

Tomlinson, now provincial coordinator for the Alberta Association of Sexual Assault Centres, interviewed nine Calgary women who were sexually assaulted but did not report the attacks. In these in-depth, face-to-face interviews, Tomlinson discovered that the reasons were numerous and complex.

"All the women I interviewed felt that they were somehow to blame for the assault. They had internalized societal attitudes and beliefs," said Tomlinson, adding that by her assessment, none of the women had done anything to encourage the attack. "The women also had no faith in the justice system."

Tomlinson indicated there is a need for a re-examination and revision of our laws and legal doctrines.

"We need to look carefully at the legislation regarding sexual assault and revise the definition of sexual assault. It was looked at in 1983 but we need a re-look," Tomlinson suggested.

The study also found that victims perceived a lack of evidence of the assault, and were afraid of mistreatment by police, unsympathetic treatment by health professionals, the threat of public shame and media publicity. Some victims received no encouragement from family, friends or professionals to report the incident.

Another finding of the study was that the victims were often disabled by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some were rendered incapable of reporting the crime for up to four years after the assault. The only other Canadian study done on sexual assault, conducted in Manitoba in 1983, cited similar reasons although the finding regarding post-traumatic stress disorder is unique to this recent study.

Tomlinson admits the sample number of her study was small but she points out that her in-depth, qualitative study allowed her to get at the complexities of the issue.

"I collected a different kind of data. You don’t do qualitative studies for numbers, you do it to fully explore a very complex issue that has not been explored before," Tomlinson said.
In addition, due to the nature of the topic, finding women who were willing to share their experiences was difficult. It took Tomlinson more than a year to find the nine women and prior to the interviews, she sent out a survey in Calgary to which only 65 people replied, despite its promise of anonymity.

The findings of the study did not surprise Lanny Fritz, the manager of U of C Campus Security, who worked in the police department as an officer for 28 years.

"In Calgary, only 5 per cent of sexual assaults are reported and since the University of Calgary population is not unique, we must assume similar report rates on campus," he said. Fritz said he suspected the report rate was slightly higher among university students due to the availability of counselling services and other support mechanisms on campus.

Tomlinson disagreed.

"In my clinical experience, I have found that sexual assault is rampant within the age group of 15-24 and because the assaults often take place in familiar environments and are committed by acquaintances, victims blame themselves and do not report the crime."

Fritz and Campus Security work to prevent sexual assaults on campus.

"When we hear of a sexual offence on campus, we put out a security alert and hope that it will instill a sense of confidence that we as a security department and the University of Calgary care and are doing everything we can," said Fritz. "We hope that students will change their behaviour accordingly, such as using Safewalk or the buddy system."

Tomlinson emphasized that public awareness must be raised regarding the various support services available to victims of sexual assault.

"Alberta has the second-highest rate of physical and sexual violence against women in Canada," said Tomlinson. "This comes at a great social cost to our families and communities."

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