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

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