Column: Breaking the code of silence on sexual assault

Sexual assaults are far less likely to be reported than other forms of physical abuse.

The Jian Ghomeshi scandal has blown open a nation-wide debate on sexual assault and the appalling number of women who suffer in silence, tormented with self-blame, shame and fear.

In October, Jian Ghomeshi, past host of the highly popular CBC radio show Q, was fired. Based on graphic evidence viewed by CBC executives, it was alleged he had caused physical harm to a woman and that his conduct was a fundamental breach of the corporation’s standard of conduct. Since the explosive news of his firing broke, the entire issue of non-consensual sex and what constitutes sexual assault has got everyone talking.

In the weeks since Ghomeshi was let go, nine women have said they experienced sexual non-consensual violence or intimidation by Ghomeshi and two – actress Lucy DeCoutere and lawyer Reva Seth – have publicly come forward with information. The police have begun a criminal investigation but he has not been charged with any crime.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2009 472,000 women self-reported being sexually assaulted and 945,000 self-reported physical assault. The most likely victims are teenagers and young women between the ages 15 and 24. One in four women will be sexually assaulted at some point in her lifetime.

Women of sexual assault invariably suffer in silence. There is a stigma that cloaks this whole malevolent experience. In decades past, I can remember an entrenched attitude that, if a woman was assaulted, the automatic question was “What did she do to deserve it?”

Answer: Nothing.

But once abused, women endure many debilitating emotions. They are fearful for their safety. They suffer from guilt, shame, depression, and low self-esteem. They trust no one and often live in fear of losing their jobs should the encounter become public. Some fear retribution from family or scorn from friends with accusations of behaviour they were not guilty of. And then there is the fear that they may have contracted a sexually-transmitted disease.

It’s no surprise, then, that less than 10 per cent of sex assaults are reported to the police and of those, a pathetic mere one or two per cent actually go forward to a conviction.

The frequent belief among victims is that the incident is not that important, it’s a personal matter, they won’t be believed, or that their entire private sex life will be put on public display. Less than 50 per cent seek help from a family member but two-thirds (62 per cent) may seek help from a trusted friend or neighbour. Needless to say, sexual assaults are far less likely to be reported than other forms of physical abuse.

According to Canada’s Criminal Code, sexual assault spans the range from penetrative rape to any form of unwanted sexual contact. That invasion of highly personal, physical space can do complex emotional scarring leading to many debilitating emotions.

And sexual assault doesn’t stop at women. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, men (49 per cent) and women (51 per cent) in Canada are equally at risk of violence. One in ten men is sexually assaulted and 60 per cent of males in secondary schools are sexually harassed. But men may be more likely to be assaulted by a stranger while women are likely to be assaulted by someone they know. Men, though, can have a more difficult time identifying that what happened to them was actually a sexual assault and know how to act on it, especially in a culture that denies this happens to men in the first place.

Maybe the Ghomeshi scandal has a silver lining in that it will help to finally break the code of silence and provide a pathway forward for sexually abused women.

The sooner the better.