Does hearing those two words make you sit up a little straighter? Does it make you reconsider reading this article?
There’s a dark foreboding cloud surrounding most discussions about sexual violence and abuse that makes us want to turn a blind eye towards them if we can.
Even something as horrific as rape stories only momentarily disturb the blissfully catatonic routines of our daily lives, after which the victim is usually forgotten. Often conducted in hushed tones, or worse, dismissed and not conducted at all, the emotional and psychological trauma that sexual violence creates is best left as a problem for victims to deal with themselves.
Society would much rather pretend that sexual assaults are unfortunate exceptional occurrences.
And I wish they were in fact exceptional occurrences.
A report released by Statistics Canada last year found that the rates of sexual assault in 2014 remained unchanged from 1994 in all of Canada. There were over half a million incidents of sexual assault. Of these incidents, only 1 in 20 victims reported the assault to local police authorities. Victim shaming, lack of evidence and guilt are common factors preventing the 83 per cent of sexual assault victims from reporting their cases to the police, making sexual assault one of the most unreported crimes in Canada.
With such grim statistics, I went to waaw! TALKS on June 7 expecting to be part of an equally grim conversation about consent and non-violence in the workplace.
As I stood outside the entrance of the admittedly drab building on West 8th Avenue on that chilly summer evening, Cicely Blain, founder of Cicely Blain Consulting and organizer of the waaw! event, walked over wearing pink hexagonal hoops, a bright pink head scarf, and holding bright pink heart shaped helium balloons. She was all smiles.
A Panel Of Feminists
The event featured a panel of three ambitious women: Angela MacDougall, the Executive Director of Battered Women Support Services, Ashley Bentley, SFU’s Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Educator, and finally, Dr. Lucia Lorenzi, a sexual violence researcher and activist.
Both the panel and audience featured women of colour as well as people who identified themselves on the LGBTQI spectrum.
Not once did the panel speak at the audience. The panel and audience were engaged in a conversation that fluidly and intelligently strung together different topics. The topics included body spaces and respecting bodies, the complexities of giving or withdrawing consent, cases of micro-aggression, definitions of masculinity and perhaps most importantly, diversity and the lack thereof in leadership.
An Important Conversation
Such conversations need to become a part of daily life.
Research finds that only 17 percent of sexual assault victims contact a trained counsellor or an established support centre. In contrast, 84 percent of sexual assault victims reported contacting a friend, co-worker, or neighbour.
Each of us have a huge responsibility then of recognizing a victim’s experience, normalizing the fact that sexual assault survivors are more common than we think, and then gearing our entire culture and society towards acknowledging that reality. Banding with survivors and uplifting their voice not only helps us create bullet-proof frameworks for consent and assault protocols, but also gives victims courage in continuing to speak out about their experiences and knowing they are not alone.
We become better as a society and as human beings when we give each other the space to be heard.
Little Things Count
Sometimes violence and sexual assault are very clear cut. The aggressor and victim stand out like night and day. But throw in inebriation and informal office culture and suddenly, consent becomes blurry. Complaints of unwanted or inappropriate touching are often met with dismissive shrugs like, “Oh, I don’t think he meant it!” or, “She was probably just trying to be friendly,” which further silences the victim and encourages the offender.
Another example comes from academia. As a university student, it is common to disrespect our bodies by staying up all night and overdosing on caffeine. Overworking yourself is somehow a hallmark of perseverance in modern society, and setting aside time for yourself to rest each day is a privilege, and an indulgent one at that.
Staying in the bathroom for too long at work is embarrassing. It’s awkward to take a tampon or pad out of your handbag and walk to the bathroom. Everything about our bodies and its functions must be verbally sterilized and stay visually sanitized.
I’ve known some professors in university and teachers in high-school who didn’t like students leaving during class to use the bathroom. It was considered too “disruptive”.
I often had back-to-back classes at University of Toronto, which meant that it wasn’t unusual to be in class for more than 5 hours a day. I’ve even had a graduate level course at UBC that ran for 6 hours. So I find it rather ironic when I find posters on campuses citing the dangers of sitting too long on chairs and advocating frequent standing breaks and exercise.
When the most basic physiological needs of our bodies are disrespected, it comes as no surprise that experiences of sexual assault and abuse are also often met with dismissals.
Ashley Bentley summed up the waaw! TALK best when she said,
“If we are not generous with our leadership, we recreate oppression.”
After all, consent and personal space mean different things to different people. What might seem acceptable to you, might be culturally and sexually offensive to another. That is exactly why we need leadership that reflects diversity in order to incorporate inclusivity and eventually equity into our daily lives.
In other words, we can never have a world that respects consent, without having a world that also respects and represents the diversity of women. Promoting and supporting diverse representation is without a doubt instrumental in overcoming the systemic oppression of victims of sexual violence.