Why Hollywood Is Bad for Sexual Violence Survivors


Something has been bugging me – and some of our readers – for a few days. So, I decided to write about it.

On May 8, I received two email messages from a producer at CBC Radio in Winnipeg, Donna Carreiro, asking me to speak with her about the criminal case in which a former police officer, Richard Dow, plead guilty to 11 of 27 sexual assault and other charges against him. Here’s an excerpt from her message:

Last week, a former city police officer was acquitted of sexually assaulting a woman years earlier…..(it was alleged he got her very drunk, had sex and videotaped it….she had no recollection of it until years later, when he was investigated for related incidents).

The victim herself had to testify and it was a grueling cross examine for her…..the accused was then acquitted.

Today, however, that same accused pleaded guilty to several counts of sexual assualt-related [sic] offences against others.

We’d like to talk to someone about how a sex assault survivor ‘survives’ the whole court ordeal…..and is it things like this that dissuage [sic] victims from coming forward at all?

Ideally, we’d interview someone on our Information Radio show tomorrow morning.

The messages got my attention, so I called Ms. Carreiro and we talked for approximately 15 minutes. We talked about the case, about why so few victims of sexual assault report the crime to police, about the justice system re-victimizing survivors, and about why I started Survivors Guide. Ms. Carreiro asked if I would participate in an interview the next morning with the hosts of CBC Information Radio, Terry MacLeod and Marcy Markusa. By the end of the conversation, I agreed to do the interview. In a confirmation email she stated

the discussion will be much like what we talked about…. your experience, how difficult do the courts make it for sex assault survivors? Is this an example of why they’re reluctant to come forward? Are there any victories in this? (ie….accused pleaded guilty today to several other related charges involving other victims?)

The next morning around 9:00 AM EST, I received a call from CBC Information Radio that dropped me right into the interview. The voice on the phone simply told me to hold on the line and that the interview would start shortly. There was no chat with the hosts prior to interview to serve as an introduction.

Terry MacLeod opened the segment with this statement

When former police officer Richard Dow pleaded guilty to sex assault charges yesterday his victims were spared the ordeal of having to testify against him. The guilty plea comes just weeks after another alleged victim took the stand against him last month only to have Dow acquitted of those charges.

However, Marcy Markusa interviewed me. Although I was quite nervous, I thought the interview was going well. That is until Ms. Markusa stated that she imagined if she were ever the victim of sexual violence

As a woman, ever since I saw Jodie Foster in The Accused… and I’m sorry to go to a movie, but that was based on a real case. I’ve always been aware that should anything happen to me, I’d be ready to stand up…

I was surprised and a little thrown when Ms. Markusa used a movie as her point of reference to counter my argument about how sexual assault victims should be treated when they engage with the justice system because they are trauma survivors; and the inappropriate questioning they often encounter. I was also surprised by her conviction about how she would react if she were ever to experience sexual violence.

Here’s the thing Marcy. Even if the movie The Accused was based on a “real case”, Jodie Foster was acting. She was playing a character. She had to imagine how a sexual assault survivor would “behave” under the scrutiny of the justice system; and she was, regardless of how well she did it, repeating words from a script and mimicking actions as she was directed to.

For “real life” sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors there is no script. There is no director on the sidelines giving them cues about how to express emotion in a particular moment. Sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors do not have to imagine the violence because they lived it, survived, and most likely re-live it in some form every day. Furthermore, regardless of how strong and resilient we may each believe we are, sexual violence traumatizes a person and changes them in ways no one can predict.

I saw The Accused in 1988 and it did not compel me to disclose the sexual abuse I experienced. If anything, that movie deterred me from disclosing. It confirmed some of my greatest fears: I would not be believed. I would be blamed. I would be publicly shamed. I would have to stand on my own.

All of these things – disbelief, blame, shame, and isolation – and many more happen to survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault when they disclose and engage with the justice system in Canada and throughout the world. All of these things further traumatize survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. All of these things are the reasons why 93% of sexual assault survivors do not file reports with the police. All of these things are the reasons why sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors report feeling re-victimized by the justice system.

Even as an adult, I was reluctant to speak out. When I did, I experienced all of the things I feared – disbelief, blame, shame, and isolation. However, I expected these things. What I did not expect, were the unspeakable affronts I experienced at every stage of the justice system, which took every ounce of psychological and emotional strength for me to endure to the end the criminal case process.

All of these things Marcy are why we cringe at and doubt your conviction about how you would react in the face of sexual violence.

Instead, the conviction we must all have is to working to eliminate the possibility of any of these things happening to a single survivor of sexual abuse or sexual assault when they engage with the justice system and to eliminating sexual violence from our society.

You can listen to the 8-minute interview here:

CBC Radio Winnipeg – Information Radio Interview with Terry MacLeod and Marcy Markusa

If you are unable to open the link above, copy and paste this address into your browser’s address bar: http://www.cbc.ca/video/watch/Radio/ID=2232479631

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Always remember that you may have been victimized by sexual violence, but by searching for help you have started your healing.

Survivors Guide

Sexual Violence Against Young Women and Police Response


“[The police should] make us feel more safe and do more to make the community aware they are taking abuse seriously.” (Youth Alliance Report, p.14)

These are not my words, but I understand them.

Imagine if you filed a police report about the sexual abuse or other form(s) of sexual violence overwhelming your life and you did not receive the support you expected. Support from the men and women we are all taught to trust from the time we are small children because it is the job of the police to protect us from bad things and bad people.

A police officer once asked me why I had waited so long to file a report about the sexual abuse I had experienced in my youth. As an adult, that question shocked me and for a moment, it made me feel as if there was something wrong with me for not coming forward sooner. That question still haunts me today because I know it should never have been asked.

Imagine my sadness a few months ago when I began working to raise awareness about the Youth Alliance Report, and learned that young women in Toronto are experiencing barriers to accessing real support from the police. Young women in Toronto report feeling blamed for being victimized by sexual violence. Young women in Toronto feel re-victimized when they report experiences of sexual violence to the police. Young women in Toronto feel uncertain that they can trust the police to follow through when they report incidents of sexual violence, especially if the perpetrator is someone they know.

No young woman in Toronto – no young woman anywhere – should ever feel any of this.

The Youth Alliance is a group of five young women leaders in Toronto who came together to address policing, sexual assault, and gender-based violence against youth. The group was supported by the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes Unit to review police policies and procedures from a youth perspective. The Youth Alliance also engaged in community-based research.

The end result is the Improving the System: Police Policy and Practice on Sexual Assault against Young Women, a report developed with support from METRAC (The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children).

The report identifies strengths, challenges, and gaps in Toronto Police Service policies and procedures and proposes recommendations in five key areas of concern:

  • policy and procedures
  • youth leadership
  • training
  • communications
  • accountability

As adults, even when we have a vague understanding of our rights, the workings of the justice system, and the people in place to support and protect us, we struggle. We struggle with the trauma of having to re-tell our stories of sexual abuse and other sexual violence to multiple sources to get them to see us as credible people who have survived and deserve the benefit of justice. We struggle to understand the existing policies and practices that re-victimize rather than protect us.

Young women should never experience these struggles.

One Toronto Police Service officer who participated in the development of the report stated, “Public and/or victim feedback is the best feedback the service can receive” (Youth Alliance Report, p.13).

It is important for everyone this report reaches to read the report and give feedback.

If you have concerns about what is detailed in the Youth Alliance Report contact Toronto Police Service:

Phone: 416-808-8000
Email: William.Blair@torontopolice.on.ca
Mail: Chief William Blair, Office of the Chief of Police, Toronto Police Service, 40 College Street, Toronto, Ontario M5G 2J3

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Penn State’s Biggest Failure


This past week we watched – with horror – as individuals attempted to use their positions of power and fame to broker deals to save their careers and reputations amidst the ruins of the lives of little boys. The sexual abuse of nine little boys was cited as the root of a scandal that has toppled the sterling reputation of Penn State in the happy valley of University Park, Pennsylvania.

We learned that for nearly a decade senior staff and university administrators at Penn State knowingly turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children in their athletic facilities. After receiving an eyewitness report of an attack on a 10-year-old boy, no one notified the police. Instead, the known offender was allowed to continue to run an organization that gave him unlimited access to children who became his victims.

No action was taken until 2009 when one of the victims disclosed the abuse and filed a report with police. The courage of this child led the Pennsylvania Attorney General to launch an investigation that uncovered more victims and placed a spotlight on the adults that failed to protect them – the adults that failed in their duty to report the known and suspected sexual abuse of children to the authorities.

An equally tragic aspect of this scandal has been the rallying and rioting of Penn State students in support of their “heroes”. A group of men who – through inactivity and agreed upon silence – collaborated in a cover up and enabled brutal violence against children. These students are worried about the lucrative careers that have ended in disgrace instead of the lifetime of healing ahead for each abused child. They have failed to recognize the terror these children experienced at the hands of a predator because people who had the power to keep them safe chose to stay silent.

The offender has been charged. The negligent staff and administrators at Penn State have been fired and some face criminal charges, but we know the harm to the children cannot be processed as swiftly or neatly. This investigation may be ending, but the children at the center of this case will need the support of their families and communities for years to come.

Now, in the wake of Penn State’s biggest failure, the question remains: what does it take for adults to put the welfare of children first?

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Always remember that you may have been victimized by sexual violence, but by searching for help you have started your healing.

Survivors Guide

The Collision of the Personal and the Professional


Someone once told me that at some point our personal and professional lives are bound to collide. I chose to believe that it is possible – although often times difficult – to keep the two separated. My personal and professional lives collided recently, and I am forever changed.

Last Sunday evening I was talking with a person that I have long considered a close friend. I endured the displeasure of listening to him speak words that enraged me and caused feelings of physical illness with the hope that I might be able shift his thinking. However, the impossibility of sparking any change became evident when he made statements that revealed the distance that exists between our core values.

Here is some of what he said:

  • Children are sexually abused because of flaws in their characters that are targeted by sexual predators
  • Children are sexually abused because they are not strong, grounded individuals
  • Children are sexually abused because they come from families that are not strong or stable and the parents of these children are ultimately responsible for the abuse
  • Children must bear a share of the responsibility when they are sexually abused, and that responsibility is increased when they choose not to disclose the abuse immediately
  • Studies need to be conducted to determine the “type” of child that becomes a victim of sexual abuse

The shock of these words coming from someone I held as a friend has still not worn off. No matter how much evidence I offered to counter his arguments he continued to assert his beliefs – his very dangerous beliefs. He shamelessly minimized the criminal responsibility of anyone who harms a child. As a parent, he refused to recognize the fact that any child – according to reported statistics 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 3 girls by the time they are 18 years old – could become a victim of sexual violence. Moreover, he displayed the weakness of his character when he repeatedly stated that the most vulnerable in our society should be held responsible when they are sexually abused.

Children are sexually abused because they are vulnerable. The people children trust and love abuse them. People in positions of trust, power, and authority abuse children. Family members abuse children. Family friends abuse children. Strangers abuse children. The trauma of sexual abuse has lifelong effects and sexually abused children are NEVER responsible for the abuse.

I know this because I am a sexual abuse survivor.

The person I had this conversation with did not know that I am a survivor because it is not information I often disclose in my personal life. In my personal life, I talk around the edges of sexual abuse. This collision between my personal and professional lives has made me realize that hiding behind my work while shrouding my personal life in secrecy are no longer options. I cannot truly advocate on behalf of survivors of sexual violence if I cannot be truthful about who I am in all areas of my life because I choose to do this work because I am survivor. Unfortunately, as this experience shows, a part of this work is trying to eliminate the misinformation and myths that exist about sexual abuse and sexual abuse survivors.

Because of this person’s beliefs I can no longer maintain our friendship, but I am walking away with renewed purpose and the knowledge that I am stronger without it.

T. Bennett
Founder,
Survivors Guide

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Always remember that you may have been victimized by sexual violence, but by searching for help you have started your healing.

Survivors Guide

Annual Reports of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime


On September 19, 2011 the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Honourable Rob Nicholson, tabled the 2008-09 and 2009-10 annual reports of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

The reports provide information about the progress and accomplishments of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. The Office was created in 2007 as an independent resource to ensure the federal government meets its responsibilities to victims of crime in Canada by addressing their needs, promoting their interests, and making recommendations to the federal government about issues that affect victims negatively. According to the reports, there was a continued rise for its services in the Office’s second and third year of operations.

Sue O’Sullivan, Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime stated, “The Office has made tremendous progress in the few short years since it opened its doors and I am proud to share those accomplishments with Canadians. Our dedicated staff work everyday to effect positive change for victims – whether it’s helping victims one-on-one or talking to the decision and policy makers in this country about what needs to change to make the system work for victims. I look forward to continuing this good work in collaboration with victims, the federal government, and various victim-serving organizations across Canada.”

The 2008-2009 Annual Report overviews the following issues and recommendations:

  • A Voice for Victims – working closely with victims, victim service providers and other federal government departments to push for change and to build an office where victims’ voices matter
  • Awareness and Partnership Building – reaching out to stakeholders at conferences and other forums that helped to raise further awareness of victims’ rights and concerns in Canada
  • Progress towards positive change
    1. Making offenders convicted of child sexual exploitation ineligible for accelerated parole
    2. Expanding the network of Child Advocacy Centres in Canada
    3. Notifying victims of the deportation status of offenders
    4. Making offenders accountable to harm done to victims
    5. Providing support to victims of crime through Bill C-550
  • Updates on 2007-08 recommendations

The 2009-2010 Annual Report overviews the following issues and recommendations:

  • A Voice for Victims – providing victims of crime with a voice and to ensure that the Government met its commitments to victims
  • Privacy Laws and Victim Referrals – providing an opportunity for RCMP officers to provide proactive, active and passive referrals, depending on the circumstances to victims of crime
  • Sexual Violence and Harassment in the Military – recommending the Minister of National Defence consider the unique challenges that some recruit victims face in reporting sexual violence and to ensure that existing support and services available were meeting victims’ needs
  • Missing Persons Index – recommending the Minister of Public Safety develop a Missing Persons Index (MPI) for victims to be given high priority
  • Victims of Hate Crime – recommending that the Government consider amending the Criminal Code to allow for community victim impact statements, since hate crimes attack an entire community based on a certain characteristic that ultimately define their identity as a member of a particular group

You may read the full reports on the web site for the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime:

2008-09 Annual Report

2009-10 Annual Report

If you have questions or concerns about the reports contact the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime:

Telephone (toll-free): 1-866-481-8429
TTY (Teletypewriter): 1-877-644-8385
Outside of Canada: 1-613-954-1651
Email: victimsfirst@ombudsman.gc.ca
Fax: 613-941-3498
Mail: Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, P.O. Box 55037, Ottawa, Ontario K1P 1A1

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Always remember that you may have been victimized by sexual violence, but by searching for help you have started your healing.

Survivors Guide