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Disclaimer: Some scenes in this story may be triggering for people who have experienced sexual assault. Names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of sexual assault survivors.
“How does it feel to be a Monday?” he yelled across the street to a group of black people.
When Laura didn’t laugh, he turned to her and clarified: “You know, Monday—the worst day of the week.”
That was when Laura knew something was off about him.
“That’s not OK,” she said. “It’s not funny to be racist.”
He hastily apologized. She called him an asshole. Laura's roommate walked on ahead, furious.
He said he was nervous because he really liked her.
“Don’t say that shit. It’s not funny,” she said.
Laura met him in grade seven, through a close friend, at a party. They chatted over MSN on and off. In her second year at Dalhousie, he messaged her on Facebook. He was at Dal too! Did she want to meet for coffee? They met, once. She ran into him that night at the Alehouse. The place was packed with people she didn’t know. She was there with her female roommate. He bought drink after drink for Laura. He wanted to take her on a date sometime. She said, “We’ll see.” When the girls were drunk and it was time to go home, he offered to walk them. They gratefully said yes.
It was mild for mid-October. They walked up Sackville Street, took a right, and walked past the graveyard where Alexander Keith is buried. Laura’s roommate kept her distance. A few minutes later they came to her front door.
“Can I come inside for a minute?” he asked. “I just want to talk to you. I feel like shit about what happened.”
“Fine,” she said. “Fine.”
She let him in. Her roommate was already inside with her bedroom door locked. They walked to Laura’s room on the main floor and she went into the ensuite bathroom, brushed her teeth, took out her contacts and changed into sweatpants. When she opened the door, her room was dark.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m right here,” he said from the bed.
She sat on the bed. He was under the blankets.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just being really comfortable.”
“This isn’t a sleepover party. You said you wanted to talk."
“Whatever. It’s cool. You know me.”
She had the spins so she lay down under the covers. He was naked.
“This isn’t cool,” she said. “I don’t really like this.”
He ripped off her sweatpants.
“This isn’t OK. I’m really pissed off at you. I don’t want to sleep with you. Stop. Don’t do that.”
She started to cry. He was taller and stronger than her. What was she supposed to do?
Laura woke up the next morning to a note on her desk. Her attacker had written: “Get Plan B. We didn’t use a condom."
According to a 2004 Juristat report, in 64 per cent of sexual assault cases the survivor knew his or her attacker.
Laura didn’t report her rape.
A few days later, when she couldn’t handle her feelings by herself anymore, she called her mom.
“I got sexually abused,” she said, sobbing, and told the whole story.
“Well you’re fucking stupid,” her mom said. “What do you expect, letting a boy into your house. What, do you think you’re a slut?”
“We often tend to look for, ‘What did you do?’ or, ‘What was it about you that caused [your rape]?’” says Jackie Stevens, co-ordinator of community education for the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. “We still do that as a society. We tend to do that more than, ‘What causes this person to commit a sexual offence?’ or, ‘What’s wrong with that person?’ We still put the blame on the victim as to what caused the sexual assault."
Rather than report what happened, rather than deal with blame or disbelief from authorities, Laura wrote a poem called “Tattoo.”
...This violence you’re playing
Is far too intense
So in my defence I’m saying
Because men like you have had me tattooed,
Stripped me nude on the first date;
You’d wait for my last sip of the grape to drain
Soon you’d be out on to my sisters;
Blaming our bushes for begging,
Claiming our cunts couldn’t come,
So you’d just keep on banging
‘Til we bled, soaked the bed,
And you’d leave us to rot...
“Ideally”—Stevens lets out a soft, skeptical "Heh"—“because we have a crime-and-punishment kind of culture, because we have a legal system, [rape is] supposed to go through the legal process, but in reality, sexual assault is one of the lowest reported crimes.”
A 2005 statistical profile of Nova Scotia by Juristat found that only eight per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police.
Over the last decade, acquittal rates for sexual assaults have risen in this province while remaining stable for other violent offences, according to a 2009 report by the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Over the same period, the proportion of prison sentences handed to adults convicted of sexual assault has significantly declined, again remaining stable for other violent offences.
“The high incidence of sexual assault in Nova Scotia, combined with a declining police and court response to sexual offences, leaves women in this province in a position of vulnerability,” according to the report.
“Even when someone has been convicted of a sexual crime, they might serve their time, whatever that is,” Stevens says. “But the impact on the victim is never going to change, is never going to go away. Regardless of what happens to the perpetrator, the trauma and the stigma attached to the person who has experienced victimization is never going to change—because of our perceptions.”
When a woman comes to her for help, Jane Doe* of the Dalhousie Women's Centre tells her not to report the rape.
“I say to women: ‘Don’t bother.’”
The local activist says the legal system is a bandage solution that doesn’t prevent sexual assault.
“I don’t have to get them to report. All I have to do is empower them, to let them know that they’re loved, to let them know that they did nothing wrong, that every anger, every hate, every feeling that they have is completely justifiable. If there’s any way that you want me to help you express those feelings, I’m here for you," she says.
She says creative expression, such as writing a letter to the newspaper, helps a woman grow past her negative experience; the court system does just the opposite.
“If a woman chooses to use the justice system to redress the crime that has befallen her, she had better be prepared to absolutely have no human dignity at all when it’s over. You better be prepared that everything you screwed, licked, ate, puked, shat, for the last 25 years, is now fair game.”
Many sexual assault cases rely on a man’s DNA evidence. If the victim cannot prove there wasn’t consent, or if the defence can establish reasonable doubt about lack of consent, that DNA evidence often won’t matter. All it proves is that they had sex.
Doe says the defence will often try to undermine a woman’s credibility to show she is making up the rape because then it is one person’s word against another’s.
“That’s a big barter: 'I will give you my human dignity in exchange for justice for this crime.' We don’t do that to other so-called victims. That’s why women don’t report it, because, ‘I can handle the rape; I can’t handle the loss of human dignity.’”
Women tell her all the time: “The worst thing that happened to me is not that I got raped.”
Laura’s poem didn’t help her get over her experience, but it did help empower her.
...But this time I’m on top
How does it feel
Being used just for the skin you’re stuck in?
Like my needle slowly stretching your outsides thin?
When you’re red I’ll spread you out
So I can slowly
Fuck you instead.
But me, I won’t leave you chewing
Your swollen cheek, doing nothing,
Soul stolen and weak.
I would wait until morning and tell you
El Jones doesn’t censor herself. She speaks the raw truth regardless of criticism or praise, both of which she’s garnered as a black spoken word poet and professor at King’s College.
In her poem “If I Had a Penis,” Jones points to inequalities between the sexes, such as men earning 30 per cent more than women in the same jobs with the same skills. She says these inequalities are at the root of rape.
“If I had a penis, I’d be on the right side of rape statistics, and my reproductive system would never be used for politics."
“I’d go out at night wearing short skirts without getting blamed for being raped, and I wouldn’t even need to wear short skirts because, hey, I’d have a penis, and when you have a penis you don’t need to put yourself on display.”
We see sexual assault as accidental, she says, or as acted out by men who are sociopaths. However, a 1993 StatsCan survey showed half of Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of sexual or physical violence.
“We still tend to phrase rape as abnormal—‘What is it that made this man rape?’—as if it’s an oddity, not part of society."
Jones says sexual assault is systematically deployed against women worldwide.
“I think we have to consider it an act of terror that’s upon women in our society. It’s so endemic to our society and so many women suffer from it.”
Sexual assault by men is the same rape for all women, she says, but it takes on different forms depending on race, class and cultural background.
“When it comes to women of colour, it’s who’s considered ‘rapeable,’ and that’s where the difference is." Like sex workers and women living in poverty, Jones says women of colour are more vulnerable because they are not considered ‘real’ women. “So raping that woman isn’t the same as raping a white woman, a white middle-class woman, in many cases.”
When black women were considered property, slave owners would often rape them, sometimes to produce more slaves. Jones says labouring women were not considered real women because of their muscular bodies, and they weren’t considered vulnerable because the assumption was they could protect themselves: “She could have fought him off, so she must have wanted it.”
Even today, Jones says black women aren’t considered human in a lot of ways. In fashion ads, black women are presented as backdrops to white women. Dark black women are considered threatening and non-human, she says.
“Black women aren’t in the position where people see them as fully human, as receptive of any kind of generosity. So that makes you rapeable.”
White women don’t often report rape because they fear blame or disbelief from authorities due to sexism, but the Avalon Centre and Jones agree women of colour are at increased risk because of racism.
Jones says police are less likely to believe women of colour when they report sexual assault. On the other hand, black women are less likely to trust white authorities because of Nova Scotia’s history and reputation of unfair law enforcement.
“It’s not your people who are coming to take the report,” Jones says. “It’s going to be a bunch of white male cops—or white females—not necessarily people who understand you.”
As a result, the sexual assaults of black women go unreported.
Because the African Nova Scotian community is so close-knit, and because the majority of sexual assaults are by acquaintances, a black woman may not report rape by a neighbour or relative. The same is true within immigrant populations, according to Jones and Avalon: due to the small populations of immigrant communities, women risk social isolation if they report sexual assault to police.
There are fewer reports of sexual assault in Aboriginal communities as well, according to Avalon, and Aboriginal women are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-Aboriginal women.
An Amnesty International report from 2004 showed that racist and sexist attitudes toward Canadian Aboriginal women made them more vulnerable to sexual assaults. Several studies over the last decade showed Aboriginal women had less access to justice in Canada because of racist and sexist stereotypes.
“The portrayal of the squaw is one of the most degraded, most despised and most dehumanized anywhere in the world,” wrote Metis professor of Native Studies Emma LaRoque in 1994. “The ‘squaw’ is the female counterpart to the Indian male ‘savage’ and as such she has no human face, she is lustful, immoral, unfeeling and dirty.”
According to a Canadian research paper from 1998, “Aboriginal Women: Invisible Victims of Violence,” up to 75 per cent of sexual assault survivors in Aboriginal communities are young women under 18. Half of those are under 14. One-quarter are younger than seven.
“Such a grotesque dehumanization has rendered all Native women and girls vulnerable to gross physical, psychological and sexual violence,” LaRoque wrote. “I believe that there is a direct relationship between these horrible racist/sexist stereotypes and violence against women and girls.”
As a result of these lingering stereotypes, and distrust between communities, Jones says silence surrounds the sexual assault of coloured women.
“You don’t hear black women speaking out,” she says. “If you go to something like Take Back The Night, there’s three or four black women total."
On a wall just inside the Dalhousie Women’s Centre, flash photos from last year’s Take Back The Night protest show white women marching Halifax’s dark streets together.
“It’s not old news that mainstream feminism has tended to focus on issues relevant to middle-class white women and ignored women of colour, poor women. I think there’s a lot of distrust. Affirmative action has tended to benefit white women. White women have been co-oppressors in a lot of cases. So on the one hand white women suffered patriarchy, but at the same time when white women allied themselves with white men*, they helped put down women of colour as well. It’s not like women of colour aren’t aware of that.”
* White women also allied with white men against black men. Historically, white men carried out a lynching when a white woman claimed to be sexually assaulted by a black man. When lynching was common, consensual interracial sex was also common, but white women often feared social isolation for having sex with black men.
*Name has been changed.
This story is Part 2 of a three-part series originally by the Halifax Media Co-op.
Hilary Beaumont is a freelance journalist and editor in Halifax, and a contributing member of the Halifax Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.