Sexual assault is often associated with a redundant Hollywood movie scene — the one where the innocent female lead is stalked by the creepy middle-aged man with over-sized glasses in a sketchy van. This Hollywood scene is unrealistic, especially considering that one in four North American women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, often by someone they know. The stereotypical roles of the male perpetrator and the female victim need to be challenged because sexual assault can happen to anyone by anyone. People need to change their attitude and understanding of what sexual assault is and how it happens — open discussion will help change distorted perceptions and attitudes.
Women do experience the majority of sexual assault. In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that young women under 25 experience the highest rates of sexual assault.
However, women are not the only ones victimized. Men are also victims who may not be aware of how to prevent sexual assault. Sexual assault is not strictly a women’s issue — it is a social issue that affects everyone.
Students, especially men, need to ask serious questions like, Why is sexual violence being perpetrated by men on university campuses?
“Most men in their lives will not commit sexual violence, but most acts of sexual violence are committed by men,” says Joe Campbell from Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, the primary sexual abuse and sexual assault crisis and education service provider for Calgary and the surrounding area.
Campbell emphasizes that general attitudes about women need to change. Potential attackers may not realize that their attitude or behaviour may lead to an assault.
“I would love to challenge men to talk about women the same way they would want another man to talk about their mother, sister or girlfriend. It is important to challenge this sexist language that exists within guy culture,” says Campbell.
Campbell educates University of Calgary students on sexual assault through the Women’s Resource Centre and provides a self-described male perspective through talks about masculinity.
“Women have the right to dress the way they want, the right to flirt and the right to get drunk. But no one has the right to sexually assault someone,” says Campbell. He also says the current methods of educating women about preventative measures implies that the responsibility is solely on the victim. Education of preventative measures, such as the buddy system or being aware of the effects of alcohol consumption, should be targeted toward everyone, not just women, so everyone can understand their possible role in sexual assault.
According to the Edmonton Police Service’s website, sexual assault “is an assault of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim.” The Supreme Court of Canada states that “The act of sexual assault does not depend solely on contact with any specific part of the human anatomy but rather the act of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim. When investigating a sexual assault case, there are certain relevant factors to consider: the part of the body touched, the nature of the contact, the situation in which the contact occurred, the words and gestures accompanying the act, all other circumstances surrounding the act, any threats that may or may not be accompanied.”
Sexual integrity is an individual conception of boundaries regarding one’s personal levels of comfort and the extent to which someone desires to be physically intimate.
These definitions show the many grey areas associated with sexual assault. Most people don’t realize the severe consequences of sexual assault. Sexual assault is a federal offence that, in the case of conviction, can mean a jail sentence of two years less a day. These cold, hard facts can be quite alarming as not everyone is aware that they could be charged with sexual assault without having sexual intercourse. According to the Criminal Code of Canada, verbal abuse of a sexual nature is classified as sexual harassment, and unwanted touching of a sexual nature is considered sexual assault.
In contrast to the idea of the creepy middle-aged man with over-sized glasses, victims frequently know their assaulters. A Calgary police officer, who has to be off the record for legal reasons, says that 40 per cent of sexual assault victims are assaulted by someone they know and 60 per cent of victims are under 18 years old.
Stories exist of assaulters being, “the guy who I flirted with in French class for four months,” or “the girl who randomly started talking to me in the library — we met at the football game and texted every day after that.” The relationship can be innocent before sexual assault happens. An assaulter may not realize that he or she has sexually assaulted a friend. People in a relationship also do not have a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. Sexual assault happens in relationships of varying degrees of commitment, from friends to casual dating partners to marriages.
Georgia Thompson*, an 18-year-old U of C student, had been seeing a guy for four months before he sexually assaulted her.
“We were together all afternoon, he picked me up . . . it was a good date, we had lunch in the park,” says Thompson. “That night I went out with my girlfriends and got super drunk. He was the only one who would pick me up at four in the morning. He picked me up and took me home. I told him I didn’t want to have sex with him. He reassured me that he just wanted to cuddle. I asked him the next morning if we had sex. I honestly could not remember anything from that night. That night was the night I lost my virginity. I could not believe that he could do something like that to me.”
Andréa Rojas, a 21-year-old U of C student and former Gauntlet editor who was sexually assaulted a year ago, also knew her assaulter.
“He wasn’t a 50-year-old man lurking in the bushes late at night. He was a Dinos varsity sports player, he was charming and attractive, he was in my degree program and in a couple of my classes. We went on one date and I told him I wanted to continue on as friends afterwards because his aggressiveness was off-putting — that was the only red flag.”
There are stories of drunken hook-ups or walks of shame from a one-night stand. What if, in fact, these stories are really cases of sexual assault? A lack of knowledge about consent and alcohol consumption play a part in sexual assault. When alcohol is involved, lines get blurry — in Canada, consent can’t be given if either party is impaired or intoxicated. Being intoxicated and inviting sexual contact does not qualify as consent. When the victim is sober, he or she can press charges for being sexually assaulted. Silence or implied consent is not recognized by Canadian courts as a defence against sexual assault charges.
“We need to get away from this old thinking of ‘no means no,’ but rather implement ‘yes means yes.’ There has to be an affirmative yes. There is a big difference between sexual assault and regret,” says Campbell.
A drunken hook-up can be a mutual decision made jointly between two people, but sexual assault is a single decision made and carried out by one person. This is why the lines get blurry — if both people are drunk and don’t know what they’re doing, is it a drunken hook-up or sexual assault?
“The most common incidents we hear of are alcohol-facilitated acquaintance sexual assault on campus,” says Campbell. “Oftentimes people use being intoxicated as a scapegoat for sexual assault, stating that they were too drunk to control themselves or that they don’t remember what happened. But if you drink and drive, you will be held accountable for any actions that you take. The same thing goes for being intoxicated and committing sexual violence.”
Pat Morrison*, a 26-year-old U of C student, says that sex is always about power and control, whether it is consensual or not.
“I think the idea that there is no power or gender or anything bounded up in consensual sex is one of the reasons why sexual assault has become so difficult to categorize and discuss,” says Morrison.
Morrison experienced sexual assault while in a committed relationship, but did not want to share her specific story.
“I’m sure he thought it was consensual,” she says of her experience with sexual assault. “I’m sure he thought it was fine.”
After experiencing sexual assault, victims may experience feelings of shame and guilt. They might also blame themselves for the incident.
“Did I feel guilty? Yes, immediately, because I felt as though I betrayed my partner,” says Morrison. “It was that instant feeling of, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done to us?’ Then it took me about a week to tell him.”
An individual who has experienced sexual assault has a choice about whether he or she will press charges. Pressing charges can be the ultimate act of closure, the one thing that will help the individual move forward by confronting their attackers. Pressing charges can also result in a legal mess with a strong possibility of a mistrial. According to a 2006 Statistics Canada report, victimization surveys suggest that less than 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police.
“I’m aware of how the legal system works. I’m aware of how these cases can drag on for two, three years,” says Morrison. “At the end of the day, the law is not about morality. One needs to always be aware of how much it will end up costing in terms of time and psychological effort. I have to work really hard to be the kind of person I want to be, I’m not going to let anything jeopardize that process.”
Morrison’s mother and sibling encouraged her to press charges. Morrison went to the Calgary Sexual Assault Response Team, which is part of Alberta Health Services and provides comprehensive care to victims of sexual assault within 72 hours, including gathering of forensic evidence, counselling and help with police reporting. The staff at CSART informed Morrison that if she wanted to press charges, they would encourage her to consent to giving medical evidence. She said that the experience of doctors prodding at her was more traumatic than the sexual assault itself. Although Morrison had strong external pressures, she made the decision not to press charges.
As Morrison’s story shows, the process of pressing charges and gathering physical and verbal evidence can create an environment where the victim has to re-live the crime, which is one of the reasons why sexual assaults are rarely reported.
For others, like Rojas, pressing charges is an act of re-gaining that control.
“It took me two months to come forward as I wasn’t even sure that what happened between us was assault and I wanted to forget the situation and move on with my life. When I investigated the Criminal Code and realized what he did to me was illegal as well as morally wrong and personally traumatic, I went to the police, who told me that it was unlikely the case would go to trial as I had waited so long. But I felt that as long as I kept silent he still had that control over me. I never wanted him to go to prison and was well aware that it was unlikely that my statement would lead to a conviction. It was enough for me that the police showed up knocking on the doorstep of his parents’ house, because I knew that would let him know that what he did was not okay and, in fact, a legal offence.”
Rojas is not ashamed of her experience.
“What happened to me was not my fault, it was a crime committed against me by someone else,” says Rojas.
Men who have been sexually assaulted endure another kind of pressure when trying to press charges or find closure.
“Men aren’t even allowed to identify what had happened to them as sexual violence because of those pre-existing stereotypes that say that males aren’t victims,” remarks Campbell.
Campbell relates that many male victims of sexual assault who he has worked with have feelings of shame. Also, a female assaulter can cause them to question their sexual orientation because when confiding in friends about their experience, the reaction is often something along the lines of, “Dude, you got laid. What’s the problem?”
The act of sexual assault doesn’t just pertain to heterosexuality. The lines are just as blurry in drunken homosexual hook-ups.
Sexual assault affects an individual mentally, physically and socially. It violates the individual in all possible ways. Even after the assault, doctor’s appointments and testing, professional counselling, group therapy and adapting to society with new eyes can all feel threatening.
Individuals process their experiences differently.
“There was a little bit of feeling uncomfortable in my own skin for a little while. There was a little bit of the feeling of removal from my physical self. There was a little bit of feeling like my sexual identity was gone. There was a little bit of crying when I touched my boyfriend’s skin. You question your worth for a little while,” explains Morrison.
“In the long run, sexual assault ultimately doesn’t change anything. Having something bad happen to you doesn’t make you any less good,” she says.
The silence surrounding sexual assault needs to be broken so fewer victims feel stigmatized and can come forward with their stories in order to create awareness and understanding.
A few of the victims interviewed wished for their stories not to be in print but they have inspired this article nonetheless. Most articles end with a conclusion, which stops the mind from pondering the ideas presented. However, discussions about this heavily-charged subject should be ongoing.
* Names have been changed