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Of course rape and sexual violence are epidemic. They touch most families

The Globe and Mail by Elaine Craig 16 December 2014

In recent months there has been an animated public conversation around issues of sexual violence. Many people feel that the increased media attention on sexual violence is a positive thing, because it creates a much-needed focus on a crucial problem. Others have expressed concern that, in fact, this public attention reflects a kind of “rape hysteria” – a “moral panic” which is misrepresenting rape as an epidemic.

When I read these types of claims I am reminded of an interview I recently conducted with a well-respected criminal defence lawyer in Toronto – as part of a continuing research project examining the role of criminal defence lawyers in sexual assault cases. By his own account, he is a lawyer who represents individuals accused of sexual offences and is committed to providing them with representation aimed at obtaining an acquittal irrespective of innocence or guilt. I asked him whether he thought stereotypes about sexual violence continue to persist in the criminal justice system, and if so what he considered to be the most common of them.

His answer?

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there’s an epidemic of sexual violence against women and children that the world is largely silent to. For those people who are inherently skeptical about these claims, I’m not sure that they get how pervasive sexual violence is, and how trying and difficult it would be, assuming the allegation was true, to come forward.”

From the perspective of this criminal defence lawyer, the most common rape myth today is the disbelief that sexual violence is an epidemic.

Epidemic means prevalent, widespread, and affecting many people. Sexual violence affects many people. Consider the inter-generational harm that occurs as a consequence of sexual abuse within a family or a community. Think of the legacy of trauma imposed on First Nations by the abuses within the residential school system. Consider the impact on children whose mothers suffer ongoing mental health issues or addictions as a consequence of historical sexual abuse, or a student whose educational path is derailed following an incident of sexual violation suffered while in high school. Perhaps think about the countless parents who do not sleep for months or years, and expend precious resources hiring a lawyer for a son who, in his first month of his first year of university, makes a life altering, bad choice about sex while drunk. Think about the daughters who become the victims of those bad choices.

It is notoriously difficult to measure rates of sexual victimization. The most detailed statistical information available was gathered in 1993. At that time,39 per cent of women in Canada reported having experienced at least one incident of sexual assault since age 16. In 2009 more than 3 per cent of women reported having experienced a sexual assault in the previous year. That means hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults in Canada in one 12-month period. We know that 47 per cent of all violent crimes against girlsunder 12 reported to police involve sexual offences and that every year about 5 per cent of young Canadian women report having experienced sexual violence. For Aboriginal women and women with disabilities sexual victimization rates are even higher.

It matters how we talk about sexual violence. It matters what myths we perpetuate. Approximately 90 per cent of sexual assaults in Canada go unreported. Sexual assault victims continue to speak of feelings of shame and embarrassment, lack of faith in the justice system, and a fear that they will not be believed as key reasons why they decide not to report the offences. Would it not be less trying and difficult for individuals to come forward, obtain access to services, or obtain support if there was broader social acceptance of how truly common this social problem is in Canada? Would it be less stigmatizing and destructive to the lives of those who are accused of, or convicted of, violating another’s sexual integrity if we recognized that the problem of sexual harm is one that, in some way, touches most lives?

It is hard to imagine an individual or family in Canada that has not been negatively affected by the consequences of nonconsensual sex – as well as the mythical narratives that are told about this harmful social problem. Of course sexual violence is an epidemic.

Elaine Craig is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. She teaches and researches in the areas of constitutional law and criminal law.