Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault.
“Cassandra among the Creeps” is the title Rebecca Solnit, writer and contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine, gives her 2014 piece about silencing in cases of sexual violence. The title alludes to the Trojan princess Cassandra, to whom Apollo gave the power of prophecy in an attempt to seduce her. Upon her refusal of his advances, Apollo cursed her so that no one would believe her prophecies. The tale of Cassandra serves as an apt parallel to the reality that many sexual assault survivors face. Often, testaments of sexual assault are disregarded, citing the teller’s lack of credibility. This pattern exists within public purview and its repercussions echo throughout: on March 24, when Jian Ghomeshi was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking, the 90-minute verdict cited the complainants’ “inconsistencies” and “deception” as the basis for Ghomeshi’s acquittal.
An ongoing Toronto Star investigation has detailed allegations against Ghomeshi from 15 women, but only three came forward to the police. During the trial, which began on February 1, the three women testified to instances of Ghomeshi’s violence, which they claimed had come without warning or consent. One woman testified that Ghomeshi had yanked her hair forcefully and punched her in the head multiple times. Another stated that he had choked her, pushed her up against the wall, and slapped her three times. The third woman said that he had choked her. With Ontario Court Justice William Horkins claiming that “it is impossible for the Court to have sufficient faith in the reliability or sincerity of these complainants,” it’s hard not to see reflections of Cassandra, the ‘liar.’
The Ghomeshi case is hardly an isolated incident. Its verdict speaks to a broader cultural pattern of not recognizing or respecting the testaments of those who have experienced sexual assault. When the voices of survivors are discredited, their experiences become erased. As advocates who work with sexual assault survivors have said, the trial could deter and discourage survivors from reporting. Lenore Lukasik-Foss, head of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, reports that responses to the unfolding of the case include comments like, “Wow, I’m so glad I didn’t report,” and, “I don’t know that I could ever report because of this. I don’t want to be treated like this.”
The aftermath of the trial has sparked public outcry and an outpouring of sympathy, as well as outrage at the failure of the criminal justice system to treat survivors fairly. The case resonated with women across Canada. Its ripples were felt on a national level, they were felt here at McGill – where a demonstration in support of survivors was held last Thursday – and I felt them in my own personal life. As this widespread rippling effect makes clear, the ramifications of our culture of silence extend beyond highly publicized cases. Upon reflection, I found that they were also echoed in both my friends’ and my own experiences.
Layers of silence
As it stands, sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in Canada, with only 5 per cent of survivors contacting police. From that already dismal pool of reported cases, sexual assault cases in Canada have a conviction rate of 45 per cent – the lowest for violent crime exempting attempted murder. Several lawyers who specialize in sex crimes state that fear and mistrust of the courts are major reasons why survivors don’t report their assault.
Legal proceedings are an inherently harrowing experience for survivors of sexual assault. Testifying means inviting an anonymous crowd to dissect and scrutinize intensely personal events. In that way, survivors are made to constantly re-live their assault when most would prefer to repress those memories. Their credibility is also questioned, and they place their experiences in the public eye with no guarantee of results. Understandably, survivors think twice about seeking legal justice.
In her essay, Solnit describes the multiple factors that push survivors to keep quiet as concentric circles of silence. The innermost circle consists of internal inhibitions, like shame, repression, self-doubt, and confusion. These inner conflicts make it difficult for a person to speak out. However, in the rare instance when someone does voice their experience, there still exists a surrounding circle of forces that attempt to silence them. For instance, family and friends may try to dissuade the person from speaking out in order to preserve a specific reputation. If this barrier is overcome and the story is voiced, the person still risks facing the final circle of silencing: the outermost ring in which both the testimony and the speaker are completely discredited by society at large.
These are the obstacles that survivors face when they choose to speak out. Doing so already requires immense courage and strength, and it’s reprehensible that survivors of sexual assault are subject to multilevel silencing forces. I feel outrage at this system, especially after witnessing first hand how the consequences have affected those close to me.
The mental haze and the aftermath
“It’s funny,” my friend Anna* begins, “how people aren’t aware of what they’re doing.”
She tells her story. “My sexual assault – everyone has their own story – but mine was that I hooked up with this guy who I had never met before. I didn’t want anything personal, so I was fine not knowing him. Anyway, we did it. After we finished, people immediately knocked on his door. I thought he was going to tell them to go, but instead he leaves and his friend comes in. I was so vulnerable – I was in bed, I didn’t have anything on me. I opened my eyes and he started to kiss me. I said, ‘Let’s not do that.’ We struggled and circled around the room for about 15 minutes. He would touch my body. I said, ‘No, don’t.’ I made it clear that I didn’t want him to touch me. He left the room and a different guy came in. I was scared. This time, I had nothing in me to fight back. All right, okay. He puts on a condom and rapes me.
I didn’t think things could happen to me like that. It was almost like you’re watching a movie. You’re in the middle of everything, but you’re not in control of it. You’re just not given the right to any action. You feel, but you don’t contribute to the plot. The third guy left and the second guy came in. He said, ‘How come he got to fuck you?’ Fine. I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t even know these people. We had sex.
I was in bed after. They all came in. One of them said, ‘Which one of us was the best?’
I was new to sex. It was very novel to my life – I had never done that before, go over to someone’s place like that. I realized what happened only later. After, the three of them asked me if I was hungry and gave me some chips. They were casually speaking. It’s like… they just don’t know what they’ve done. I think they regarded me as someone who provided the service. The first guy said, ‘I’m going to get up early tomorrow so you better leave.’ It was like a business transaction. The second guy texted me later asking if I wanted to chill. I said, ‘Do you even know what you did?’ Then he said, ‘We thought you were having fun.’ That was the last that I’ve heard from any of them.
I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t report to the police. But at the same time, it felt like it wasn’t right. It was personal, you’re the only witness. There’s no one who can speak for you. Especially when you were in it, you don’t remember everything that happens – it’s hard to recall everything. You’re suppressing that part of your memory, and when it happens, you’re in the film.
I waited a long time. I felt that I needed to think it through. After it happened I went to the clinic to do some tests and make sure I was physically okay. There was a social worker there, she was nice. They were all nice. I feel numb. I bear the burden of this piece of memory.”
Four months after the incident and one month after reporting, the police denied Anna’s case.
When “nothing happened”
The Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) defines sexual assault as “any unwanted act of a sexual nature.” This deliberately general wording leaves room for people to define their own experiences – a consideration that becomes important when thinking about infringements that don’t include physical violation.
I incidentally heard about an instance like this while some friends were over for dinner. We were joking about how one of us, Enya*, always lands herself in abnormal situations. Somebody offhandedly mentioned Café Campus. My curiosity was piqued – I hadn’t heard that story before.
“What happened at Café Campus?” I ask.
“Oh, it was a while ago,” she says with a laugh and a dismissing wave of the hand. “There was a creepy guy.”
We smile, anticipating something funny. “How so?”
“I don’t know,” she starts. “He was so weird. I mean, he bought me a drink and then left right away. After, I was just sitting down on the floor and I couldn’t stand.”
Smiles drop and eyebrows furrow. “Wait, what?”
After a prolonged silence, someone asks, “What happened?”
Enya laughs uneasily. “Well, he just approaches me and says, ‘Hey, you want a drink?’ and I say, ‘Sure.’ So he goes away for five minutes and comes back with two shots of tequila. We drink it then he just leaves. Doesn’t say anything and walks back to the bar. I remember thinking that it was so strange, how he was just watching me. By that time everyone’s saying, ‘Oh, let’s go,’ so we leave for some air. We’re at coat check and I just – I sit down. Everyone’s telling me to stand and I’m like, ‘I can’t.’ They all laugh at me because they think I’m drunk, but then they realize that I can’t get up. My roommate took me home after that, so it’s okay. You guys don’t have to be so weird… I mean, nothing happened.”
A situation like this is difficult to orient in the general discussion of sexual assault, as the term “assault” innately implies a point of contact. Not everyone would agree that an incident lacking the breach of physical boundaries, like slipping something into a person’s drink, counts as violation. A non-physical transgression occurs in a different, less tangible sphere. Experiences of emotional infractions do not transcend to a universal level of understanding, and speaking out can rouse comments like, “It could’ve been worse.”
This kind of dismissal is not always external, but can also be part of the internal dialogue of the person who experiences the transgression. Like Enya said – “It’s okay… nothing happened.” However, the lack of direct physical assault does not excuse the infraction or make it less severe. The “it could’ve been worse” mentality carries heavy implications: it insinuates that the situation doesn’t warrant any reaction, and thus minimizes the gravity of the event. Such erasure of serious experiences contributes to inaction and the broader cultural act of silencing.
After a few personal experiences on the Montreal metro, I started to weigh in on the question of how severe a violation of personal space has to be before it can be obviously defined as sexual assault. In the first case, an older man had asked me for the time, pointing to my watch. Before I could respond, he took my wrist and twisted it in his direction. On his way out, he patted me on the knee with a smile and a “merci, chérie.” I felt a nagging agitation that I dismissed, after reasoning that I wasn’t harmed. I had gone to the clinic with Anna – this was nothing in comparison.
A few weeks later I was on my way home, cutting through the post-rush hour emptiness of the Lionel-Groulx station. A man’s arm reached out as if to grab the edge of the door, yet ended up winding around my chest. I froze in shock, not realizing what had happened. There was a lag between my mental processing and the physical contact. By the time I processed what had occurred, he had already disappeared down the escalator. I laughed – an absurd reaction, in retrospect. It struck me as bizarre how he was merely on his way, going through the rest of his day.
When I got to my room afterward, I stared at the ceiling for half an hour to sort through the disorientation that trailed behind me on my way home. The state of not knowing what to feel echoed the previous instance, with the watch and the knee. I realized that both experiences left me in the same place emotionally, despite the fact that one was clearly more severe than the other. However, I tried to dismiss this incident too, because I couldn’t justify the indignation that I felt: the situation just didn’t seem grave enough.
The concentric circles of silence are such that we question our most innate reactions. Am I overreacting? Is it appropriate to feel violated? Are my feelings valid? The confusion that follows can lead to a pattern of dismissal. If it seems like certain experiences aren’t enough to deserve a strong reaction, then the obvious conclusion is to brush them aside. However, dismissal becomes a form of self-silencing.
Repression never fully works: lingering effects still manage to surface. It’s as if the confinement that begins from the enclosed setting of assault gradually evolves into the confinement of the mind. Pushing these things down means indirectly allowing them to keep happening, since perpetrators continue to get away scot-free.
Confronting our culture of silence
The total impunity enjoyed by perpetrators serves as the common denominator in all these cases.
It’s abhorrent that in only our first year of university, my friends and I, along with countless others whose stories remain unvoiced, have already accumulated these experiences. There’s no denying the culture of silence when we live in a world of its consequences.
However, just because this culture is so deeply ingrained does not necessarily mean that it’s impossible to overcome. The world is shifting in response to the sheer exasperation of those affected by sexual assault and their supporters. The nationwide outrage in the wake of the Ghomeshi verdict shows how people are discussing sexual assault and drawing attention to the issues at hand, despite society’s insistence on cloaking these experiences. Last week was SACOMSS Sexual Assault Awareness week.
Addressing and dissolving the silencing cloud surrounding sexual assault means unmuting the experiences of survivors. By raising the subject into an audible, visible sphere, the voices of survivors gain the weight and traction that they deserve. This is a necessary step toward believing survivors and treating their accounts with respect and sympathy.
At the demonstration held by McGill students in support of survivors last Thursday, speakers emphasized the dire need to support survivors and change the structures that allow for acts of sexual assault to continue in silence. Regarding these structures, speaker Sadie McInnes stated at the demonstration, “We are angry and we are sad.” Most importantly, we are not quiet.
*Names have been changed.