Sep. 12, 2012 - Issue #882: Down On The Farm
Just saying no to sexual violence
Sexual Assault Awareness Week a chance to challenge the stigma of sexual assault
What are the stats on sexual assault? Hard to say because many who have experienced it feel too ashamed to speak up. But most sexual assault centres in Canada agree that one in three girls and one in six boys will have been victims of sexual assault by the age of 18, and StatsCan states victimization rates are five to six times higher for women than for men.
The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton wants people to be more vocal about this issue because if it hasn't affected you personally, then you know someone it has. SACE will host Sexual Assault Awareness Week in Edmonton from September 17 – 21.
Karen Dushinski, a registered psychologist at SACE, says a major catalyst for unreported sexual assaults and feelings of shame among victims is that we live in a society that blames victims. She says comments that come up in the news from police, judges and even Republicans in the States who make problematic responses to what constitutes a "real" rape, don't help.
"I would challenge anybody to look at any other crime the same way as we do sexual violence. Blaming the survivor is extremely damaging to their psyche and their belief in what's right and wrong in the world," Dushinski adds.
The result of not having this crime validated by society is that victims begin to think they must have done something wrong to provoke their attacker. The non-validation of sexual crime begins at street level with street harassment—most often of women or those in the LGBTQ community. Lauren Alston is the co-director of Hollaback Alberta, an international organization that is fighting back against street harassment and gender-based violence. She says that accepting harassment as something that '"guys just do" (and it's not always men) blurs the line of what is acceptable.
"Once one thing becomes OK, when do we stop it? As soon as you start making excuses—like he was drunk—and not addressing it from the start, somebody who thinks it's OK to sexually harass somebody on the street verbally—what stops them from groping somebody or raping somebody?" she notes.
Alston says women also don't like to report harassment because they automatically feel victimized by those who should be protecting them.
"When a woman is harassed on the street, often the first questions are what were you wearing and where were you? What were you doing? So it shifts the focus right to the person who was harassed ... It really shouldn't matter what you're wearing, or where you are, or who you're with. Because then people think, 'If I was wearing a skirt that would be deemed inappropriate by the general population, then I don't have the right to report any kind of harassment?'" Alston continues.
As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Week, SACE will host a Take Back the Night march on September 21. The first TBTN started in Philadelphia in 1975 when women became fed up with feeling unsafe walking in their communities at night and rallied together against gender-based violence and street harassment. The march in Edmonton is a way for women and self-identified women to reclaim space in the city and show that violence against women is unacceptable. The rest of the week's events reach out to various demographics in the city with an official proclamation at city hall on Monday, an open mic spoken word poetry event and auction at Rouge Lounge on Tuesday, an open-house at SACE on Wednesday and a screening of Easy A at Grant MacEwan University on Thursday.
Getting people talking about sexual assault on campus is important for SACE as higher rates of sexual assault were reported to the General Social Survey by students who are frequently engaged in evening activities. Those who go out every night had a victimization rate 4.5 times higher than those who go out 10 times or less a month. And for all instances of sexual assault in Canada—not just among students—85 percent are committed by someone the victim knows (StatsCan 2005). That number rises to 95 percent for children.
SACE is unique in that it has a program specifically designed to help minorities feel safe to report sexual assault. Maddi Genovese heads up the Diversity Outreach Program. She says SACE realized in the mid 90s that they were mostly reaching white, middle-class women and that other groups of people in Edmonton were not aware of the centre. Five groups of people were identified as not being reached: seniors, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, cultural minorities and newcomers, and sexual minorities and gender-variant individuals.
"What makes a difference for individuals that fall into a minority—what we would call a marginalized or oppressed group—is those layers of oppression because it makes it just that much harder sometimes to even ask for help," Genovese says.
Since the program began in 2004, Genovese says they have made connections with these diverse communities and seen an increase in minorities coming for counselling and attending workshops. She says for many newcomers to Canada, sex is a taboo subject, so conversations are tailored to discuss what a healthy relationship looks like. Another obstacle newcomers encounter is that often what constitutes violence in Canada is not so in their home country.
"When I work with newcomers here, they're new generations, younger generations, and what seems to create confusion is the difference in customs. 'Well this is what was OK in my country. Now I know that this is not OK, but my whole family is still attached to those values. What can I do? Because if I say something, there's going to be big repercussions,'" Genovese adds.
Another group the program reaches is seniors—some who have recently experienced sexual assault, and others who experienced it as a child or younger adult and never felt safe to talk about it before.
"Some seniors bring a history of child sexual abuse and sometimes we're the first ones to say, this is not OK. What was done to you is wrong," Genovese says. "Sexual violence and trauma impacts everything. It impacts your relationships. It impacts your mind. It impacts your heart and your body."
The centre believes that public education is key to making sure sexual assault doesn't remain a closet issue and will continue to host the awareness week every other year until it's no longer necessary.
"It really does take a paradigm shift in our society to look at this issue and why this violence is happening. Because it is a form of violence. It's not about sex. It's not about sexual gratification, so I think that when we talk about this as a sexual act, then all of a sudden it changes. But this is an act of violence. There's no black and white," Dushinski says.
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