The court of public opinion long ago ruled that former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi is guilty of sexual assault, and has long been a serial sexual assaulter. Today’s dissenting opinion from the criminal court—in the form of Ontario Court judge William Horkins—does little for Ghomeshi save keeping him out of prison, but it has people across the country wondering how the justice system could get it so wrong.
23 alleged victims stepped forward. All were discredited by a system that values but one thing .... Male privilege. #Ghomeshi— BrianWilde (@BWildeCTV) March 24, 2016
Fuck Jian Ghomeshi FUCK Justice William B. Horkins fuck the Canadian judicial system and fuck all the rape apologists who think...— Official Goblin Lord (@halfemptybones) March 24, 2016
“What this case has demonstrated is how sexualized violence and abuse is viewed as crime is different from other crimes,” says Jackie Stevens, executive director of Halifax’s Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. “And how victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse are treated within the criminal justice process and in the public is different from other victims of crime.
“In sexual assault cases for the most part, victims are the ones who are on trial. Their actions and their behaviours are questioned in ways that other victims aren't questioned. And that certainly came out in the judge's comments.”
It’s already profoundly intimidating for victims of sexual violence to seek justice. Statistics from Avalon say 97 percent of sexual assaults in Canada aren’t reported to police, and only .3 percent of attackers are ever found guilty in court. A fear of Ghomeshi’s crimes going unpunished in such a high-profile way is that victims will be further discouraged, and perpetrators will only be emboldened. But that’s not what Stevens has seen so far.
“What this has done is that it has brought people together at a national level to stand in solidarity with victims and survivors,” she says, “and to challenge societal views around the issue and to call for changes in laws and how laws are applied. I think that has been really important.”
One of the women who testified against Ghomeshi in court started Coming Forward, a website of resources and stories to help sexual assault victims through the justice process. “Given my experience, I felt I needed to speak out,” she writes on the site. “It is my mission to have other victims of sexual assault join me in being that voice for change.” And the Avalon Centre launched Start By Believing yesterday, “a space to remind ourselves and others impacted by sexualized violence/abuse that we believe, support, and love survivors” as the webpage puts it. One way to show support is by using hashtags #StartByBelieving, #IBelieveSurvivors and #WeBelieveSurvivors.
Of course, to any progressive movement there is the inevitable backlash.
“When there's resistance, that's usually because it’s scary to acknowledge your own responsibility in creating that change,” says Stevens. The Ghomeshi trial, the Rehtaeh Parsons case, the SMU rape chant and every other horrible episode that has been exposed to light lately have pushed Canadians to publicly discuss the need for changes in social and judicial attitudes. That’s a big deal, for the country in general and victims in particular.
Those of you scanning the #Ghomeshi hashtag just to tell survivors that you don't believe them - something has gone very wrong in your life.— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) March 24, 2016
“For some people who haven't been able to see that before, the fact that it is in the forefront now validates for them that what happened to them didn't need to happen,” says Stevens. “They are believed and they are having their experience validated. That's really important. It hasn't happened on a full-scale like this until in recent years.
“It’s been slow to happen but it is happening. And we need to keep going forward because it's really important for people to recognize that sexual assault and sexual abuse is not OK. It is a crime. And we need to start treating it like a crime.”