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Suffering in Silence

The Ottawa Citizen by Constance Backhouse 11 August 2010

I opened my newspaper last week to full-page spreads of dramatic news on the Robert Pickton serial murders. The Supreme Court had upheld the findings of guilt in the murders of six women. The Crown Attorney had stayed all charges on 20 others. Now that the interminable appeals had lumbered to completion, the press was free to divulge the details withheld earlier under the trial judge’s gag order.

I hesitated. Could I bear to read about these horrific crimes — the chainsaws, the slaughterhouse, the blood, the hair, the fragments of jawbones, the pieces of teeth, the freezer bags?

Some days it feels like the world is too much filled with the sexualized images of tortured women. Pornography assaults us from the Internet. Nightly TV features naked women, some duct-taped, others rigged out in sadistic fetish equipment or stretched flat on coroners’ slabs, all packaged up as crime-show entertainment.
I took a deep breath and read on. Some newspapers were more discreet, some more salacious, but the coverage was still unbearably grisly.

In the end, what leaped out at me were the voices silenced in this frenzy of attention. The 26 dead women. The up to 23 others the police admit they believe Pickton killed. And these are only the ones we know about. What of the many other women who must have crossed Robert Pickton’s path in his 60-year lifetime? Do we suppose he was a model of decorum in his dealings with the others? How many more were sexually abused, exploited, and assaulted?
Fifty-one per cent of Canadian women have experienced at least one act of sexual or physical violence. This shocking finding comes from Statistics Canada data. Do we suppose the government will ever allow the unfairly-maligned agency to update the survey?

We live in a culture where the imagery of sexual violence flourishes on every corner, but the gritty reality of it is almost never described. Fewer than 10 per cent of the women who are sexually assaulted ever report the crime. Treasury Board president Stockwell Day muses about unreported crime, but his solution of longer sentences and more prisons is laughable. It will do nothing to facilitate disclosure.

Perhaps what we need to do is to reframe this as a “free-speech” issue.
Maybe that would redirect attention to the real problem. The uproar that greeted Ann Coulter’s purported silencing recently at the University of Ottawa was insistent in its message: Even hateful speakers must be given a platform, a room in a publicly-funded educational institution, and an audience. I thought at the time how unfair it was that some people’s free speech gets protected and others’ goes overwhelmingly silenced.

Look around you at school, the workplace, the grocery store, the street where you live. Half of the women you see have been abused. Why don’t they talk about it? Why have we created a society in which the shame falls on the victimized? It makes no sense that people are embarrassed to speak about their sexual assault, child abuse, sexual harassment, and battering. The humiliation should fall squarely on the abusers. Why is it seemingly impossible to name names of the men who perpetrate this violence?