“What did you do to stay safe?” is a common question to sexual assault victims. But asking that question is the problem, says Farrah Khan, a Ryerson workshop coordinator from the Barbra Schlifer Clinic.
“The onus is constantly on the victim to stay safe, while the perpetrator can keep on going,” says Khan. “But If you’re constantly living in a state of fear, you’re constantly living in trauma.”
When it comes to who could have prevented an assault, the victim often will bear the responsibility, Khan says, perpetuating what has become known as “victim-blaming.”
Rape Culture in the Media: From Ghomeshi to Our Campuses workshop was held at the end of November trying to deconstruct this practice at Ryerson. It opened a series of discussions on campus for the Dec. 6 National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, marking the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre at L’Ecole Polytechnique, where 14 women were gunned down.
Su-Ting Teo, one of the participants in the workshop, remembers that day vividly. Now the director of student health and wellness at Ryerson, she worked at McGill University as a research assistant when the massacre happened. What Teo’s boss said about the massacre shocked her.
“He was trying to argue that the shooter didn’t do it because we live in a sexist society but just because he was ‘nuts.‘” she said, “He didn’t think there was a culture to blame.”
This “rape culture” Teo refers to is what Khan is attempting to deconstruct in the workshop.
Khan argued the media have shaped how sexual assault is framed.
With heightened awareness on sexual assault in the wake of allegations against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi and the alleged perpetrator status of comedian Bill Cosby, it’s timely to ask how these stories are told in the media and what responsibilities public institutions have with sexual assault.
Ghomeshi and Cosby are well-covered incidents and have brought a large amount of attention to the myths and policies surrounding sexual assault. But it’s the kinds of questions journalists ask, Khan argues, that perpetuates of “victim-blaming.”
In a CBC’s As it Happens interview with one of the alleged Ghomeshi sexual assault victims, these questions were asked:
Why didn’t you go to the police at that time?
What do you make of people who have an issue with you not being identified?
Do you hope to keep your identity anonymous?
Are you prepared for the chance that police could conclude there just isn’t enough information to act on?
All of these, Khan says place some form of blame on the victim.
“We internalize victim blaming,” she says. “It’s easier to align with power because aligning with the victim is messy. It pushes against the myths that exist within rape culture — that are accepted.”
Some outlets are becoming conscious of this issue. Khan currently does workshops at the CBC on perpetuating rape culture by discussing the kinds of questions to ask and how to treat victims.
These workshops came after Khan conducted a study with the Toronto-based women’s rights organization Femifesto that found the majority of the interviewees’ experiences with media were negative.
During the Ryerson workshop, Khan asked what kinds of responses people in the group would expect if they were sexually assaulted. Here’s what the participants wrote:
This illustrated the internalizing of victim blame and shame that Khan discusses.
“We are taught to align with power. We are taught to align with the perpetrator,” Khan says. “But this is not a single issue. It’s embedded in our culture and in our laws.”
The power alignment Khan discusses in the workshop was shown through the immediate aftermath of Ghomeshi. Even well-known feminist writer Judy Rebick commented in a post later retracted, “An excellent and deserved tribute to Jian, who, whatever else he may have done, was a great broadcaster,” wrote Rebick in a comment post for a National Post column praising Ghomeshi’s work.
It’s not just the media. Other institutions, like the courts, have a responsibility when it comes to cases of sexual assault, Khan says.
For many feminist groups a case the Supreme Court of Canada could not resolve proved the kind of victim-blaming they had fought against for decades. This is similar to what Khan wrote in her blog post after the SCC decision.
In 2012, N.S. — the acronym protecting the identity of an Ontario woman who was allegedly sexually abused by her cousin in the late ’80s — had her appeal to wear her niqab during court proceedings struck down.
The SCC ruled that allowances for garments would be judged on a case-by-case basis. But they can still mandate a woman to remove her niqab.
“The decision to order a sexual assault complainant to remove a piece of clothing in order to demonstrate that her ‘demeanour‘ is trustworthy, risks the kind of victim-blaming that feminists have fought against,” Khan wrote in a blog post immediately following the SCC decision.
N.S. spent almost 30 years battling for some form of justice in her experiences of sexual assault. For Khan, this case exemplified the systemic influences that create a culture of rape.
Many other institutions place the onus on the victim or lack basic protections.
A Toronto Star investigation recently revealed that only nine out of 100 post-secondary institutions across Canada have specific policies to deal with sexual assault. And last month, the Montreal police told women not to take taxi’s alone anymore. A satirist rebuttal by Slate magazine then had a headline that read: “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”
The workshop gave suggestions of how to respond to victim-blaming, such as: “I should be able to walk alone,” or “My clothes don’t say yes, I do,” numerous participants added.
Similar workshops, such as a mini women’s self-defense workshop, will continue at Ryerson leading up to the Dec. 6 memorial, symbolizing a commitment to end violence against women.