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

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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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Recovery Bill of Rights for Trauma Survivors


Trauma is defined as “any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident” and “an emotional wound or shock often having long-lasting effects”. Sexual abuse and sexual assault are trauma.

When most people think of trauma, they do not include sexual abuse or sexual assault. The things that come to mind are physical injuries caused – in most cases – by accidents or serious illness. The loss of a loved one is considered a traumatic incident, whether that occurs through death or the sudden end of a relationship. For some, the loss of a beloved pet may be traumatic. In these situations, the affected party is usually given space and time to heal in their own way. They are treated with compassion and care, and they are respected for having survived a tragedy.

Unfortunately, these thoughts and sentiments are not always extended to survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. Many survivors never receive the space or time necessary to heal. In some cases, survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault may be treated as if a disease that requires aggressive treatment or a cure has inflicted them, while some may not receive any care at all. As a result, quite frequently, survivors are re-traumatized.

According to the Trauma-Informed Toolkit developed by Klinic Community Health Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba

“People who have been affected by trauma are at risk of being re-traumatized in every social service and health care setting. This is often due to a lack of knowledge about the effects of traumatic events and a limited understanding of how to work effectively with survivors. Trauma effected people frequently feel misunderstood and unsupported which can impede healing and growth. This can be prevented with basic knowledge and by considering trauma-informed language and practices.”

 As survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, in social service and health care settings, we can demand the care, time, and space that we need for healing. The Recovery Bill of Rights for Trauma Survivors written by Thomas V. Maguire, PhD in 1995 provides a guide to the rights entitled to every survivor in four areas

  • personal authority
  • personal boundaries
  • personal communication
  • the domain of psychotherapy

As you move forward in your healing, you may use this guide to assert your rights. ___________________________________________________________________

A RECOVERY BILL OF RIGHTS FOR TRAUMA SURVIVORS

 As a Matter of Personal AUTHORITY, You Have the Right . . .

  • to manage your life according to your own values and judgment.
  • to direct your recovery, answerable to no one for your goals, effort, or progress.
  • to gather information to make intelligent decisions about your recovery.
  • to seek help from a variety of sources, unhindered by demands for exclusivity.
  • to decline help from anyone without having to justify the decision.
  • to have faith in your powers of self restoration — and to seek allies who share it.
  • to trust allies in healing as much as any adult can trust another, but no more.
  • to be afraid and to avoid what frightens you.
  • to decide for yourself whether, when, and where to confront your fear.
  • to learn by experimenting, that is, to make mistakes.

For the Preservation of Personal BOUNDARIES, You Have the Right . . .

  • to be touched only with your permission, and only in ways that are comfortable.
  • to choose to speak or remain silent, about any topic or at any moment.
  • to choose to accept or decline feedback, suggestions, or interpretations.
  • to ask for help in healing, without having to accept help with work, play, or love.
  • to challenge any crossing of your boundaries.
  • to take appropriate action to end any trespass that does not cease when challenged.

In the Sphere of Personal COMMUNICATION, You Have the Right . . .

  • to ask for explanation of communications you do not understand.
  • to express a contrary view when you do understand and you disagree.
  • to acknowledge your feelings, without having to justify them as assertions of fact or actions affecting others.
  • to ask for changes when your needs are not being met.
  • to speak of your experience, with respect for your doubts and uncertainties.
  • to resolve doubt without deferring to the views or wishes of anyone.

Specific to the DOMAIN of Psychotherapy, You Have the Right . . .

  • to hire a therapist or counselor as coach, not boss, of your recovery.
  • to receive expert and faithful assistance in healing from your therapist.
  • to be assured that your therapist will refuse to engage in any other relationship with you — business, social, or sexual — for life.
  • to be secure against revelation of anything you have disclosed to your therapist, unless a court of law commands it.
  • to have your therapist’s undivided loyalty in relation to any and all perpetrators, abusers, or oppressors.
  • to receive informative answers to questions about your condition, your hopes for recovery, the goals and methods of treatment, the therapist’s qualifications.
  • to have a strong interest by your therapist in your safety, with a readiness to use all legal means to neutralize an imminent threat to your life or someone else’s.
  • to have your therapist’s commitment to you not depend on your “good behavior,” unless criminal activity or ongoing threats to safety are involved.
  • to know reliably the times of sessions and of your therapist’s availability, including, if you so desire, a commitment to work together for a set term.
  • to telephone your therapist between regular scheduled sessions, in urgent need, and have the call returned within a reasonable time.
  • to be taught skills that lessen risk of retraumatization:
  • containment (reliable temporal/spatial boundaries for recovery work);
  • systematic relaxation;
  • control of attention and imagery (through trance or other techniques).
  • to reasonable physical comfort during sessions.

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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

Leaving 2011 Behind


2011 was a hard year.

We were triggered by an endless stream of situations in which survivors were blamed for their abuse. We endured as members of the media, law enforcement and the criminal justice system perpetuated myths about sexual violence. We witnessed institutional cover-ups of sexual abuse that protected the abusers while ignoring the needs of society’s most vulnerable. We were reminded that power, in all its forms, is the tool used by abusers to victimize, avoid detection, and to escape punishment.

But, we were encouraged by the countless survivors who chose to break their silence to name abusers, hold abusers accountable, and make abusers powerless.

Now we must look ahead to 2012. In the year ahead, we will continue to focus on healing. We will widen the scope of information about resources and support services available to survivors across Canada; and we will share stories from survivors about how they have coped in the aftermath of sexual abuse and sexual assault and what has helped them in their individual healing journeys.

We wish everyone the best for the New Year as we move forward together in our search for healing.

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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

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

Silence and Sexual Assault: The Case of Nafissatou Diallo vs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn


The identity of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault victim was released through her own will for the entire world to know this morning.

Newsweek magazine published an interview, in which Nafissatou Diallo tells her side of a story that has been front-page news since May 2011. In the article, Ms. Diallo shares details of what happened to her during the assault and how she reacted when it ended. She tells us how she feared losing her job as a housekeeper at the Sofitel hotel in New York City and how she soon became fearful for her life when she learned the next morning, through a local news report, that the man she says sexually assaulted her might become the next president of France. Due to constant hounding by the press who revealed her identity and address, the New York City prosecutor placed Ms. Diallo and her daughter in protective custody, which cut them off from communicating with the outside world for nearly two months.

During this time, Strauss-Kahn’s team of defence lawyers denied that Ms. Diallo was sexually assaulted. Instead, his lawyers claimed that she had engaged in consensual sex for which they insinuated she had expected payment. Strauss-Kahn also hired a team of investigators to dig through Ms. Diallo’s life. Investigators claimed that she lied on her application to the United States for asylum when she said she had been gang raped in her native Guinea; cheated on her taxes; associated with criminals; and they accused her of being involved in a plot to ruin the life of the French politician and now former IMF chief. They shared much of this information with the public and led the New York City prosecutor to doubt her credibility as a witness in her own sexual assault case.

In response to Ms. Diallo’s Newsweek interview, Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer William Taylor stated, ‘“What disgusts me is an effort to pressure the prosecutors with street theater, and that is fundamentally wrong.”

So, here’s our question: Why is it acceptable for Strauss-Kahn’s high-powered defence team, hired investigators, a public relations firm, his circle of powerful and wealthy supporters, and certain media outlets to publicly make statements that raise suspicion, criminalize and characterize Ms. Diallo as an “unreliable witness” in her own defence, but unacceptable for her to speak publicly about her ordeal?

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is free to proclaim – quite publicly – his innocence while Nafissatou Diallo must remain dutifully and fearfully silent. She was silenced by her fears for her job and her life. The New York City prosecutor silenced her when he placed her in “protective custody” and prevented her from even using a telephone. The same prosecutors deepened her silence when they stated, “the case is in jeopardy after prosecutors called into question the accuser’s credibility on several fronts” after their investigators discovered that Ms. Diallo might not be the perfect victim. Worst of all, the media silenced her when it printed accusatory sound bites void of context about her life.

The necessary silencing of victims of sexual violence seems to be the norm. In spite of this, what we know is that it is never wrong for a sexual assault victim to use the power of their voice to tell the truth.

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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