“Well, hi there,” Jian Ghomeshi addressed his faithful Q audience with his trademark opening line at 10:00a.m. on Oct. 23, 2014. Ghomeshi and fans alike could not have known that this would be the last “hello” that they’d hear from Ghomeshi’s voice.
Ghomeshi’s trial commenced yesterday—more than a year since the radio star’s sexual assault scandal broke in Canadian media. His story exemplified the misogynistic values entrenched in society that teach people not to listen to women. It illuminated the grey zone of sexualized violence and the inevitable questioning and shaming of survivors that accompanies sexual assault cases. Ghomeshi’s case sparked a national conversation about the realities of sexual assault and rape, encouraging thousands of women to come forward and share their stories. One year later, it is clear that the conversation must be revived—short of a total attitude change, discussion is the only way to empower survivors and decrease the stigma surrounding sexual assault. Given the attention to his case, it is imperative that focus remains on the broader issue at stake.
The Ghomeshi case underscores the tendency of society to question allegations of sexualized violence, perpetuating stereotypical norms of victim shaming. Following the announcement that the CBC was cutting ties with Ghomeshi, the radio host made a post on his personal Facebook page where he claimed that the CBC wrongfully dismissed him because of “the risk of [his] private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer.” Once the Toronto Star published an article detailing the accusations of three women who alleged that Ghomeshi had sexually assaulted them, it was clear that Ghomeshi’s portrayal of a “jilted ex-girlfriend” was far from the truth. Within a week, nine women, two who were willing to be named, came forward with personal testimonies accusing Ghomeshi of sexual assault and violence.
A wave of activism followed the testimonies of these women, embodied by Twitter hashtag #RapedButNeverReported. Journalists Sue Montgomery and Antonia Zerbisias began the campaign to encourage rape survivors to break their silence. The hashtag received tens of millions of responses, creating an online community of voices for those who had previously not had the opportunity to be heard. “He pushed me on the couch and said: ‘You can’t say no, you’re my girlfriend.’ – I cried all that night. Many after. #BeenRapedNeverReported,” read one sobering tweet from @daphnesimone. In the midst of tragic controversy, survivors found unity and support. This conversation must not be diminished when it is no longer ‘trending.’ The momentum generated by this movement must carry into the national conversation today.
A crisis of underreporting perpetuates a general lack of understanding about the prevalence of sexual assault. It is estimated that 460,000 women are sexually assaulted in Canada each year. Only 15,200 of those cases are reported to the police. It is no wonder why women are so reluctant to report: Sexual assault trials have a reputation for being invasive—often, survivors are asked to provide a detailed account of their sexual history, psychiatric and medical records, and to divulge other personal information. The act of sharing one’s story, whether in a courtroom or not, has emotional consequences, causing feelings of guilt, shame, and fear to resurface within the survivor. A mere 0.3 per cent of cases prosecuted in court end in conviction, meaning that 99.7 per cent of sexual assault perpetrators are never held accountable for their crimes.
There is a stark contrast between estimates that one in five women have been survivors of some kind of sexualized violence on campus and the reporting of that violence. A recent CBC survey revealed a lack of awareness and credible information surrounding sexualized violence on Canadian university campuses. Overall, the number of alleged cases of sexual assault reported to campus authorities in 2014 was 1.85 per 10,000. These numbers suggest severe undercounting. Evidently, university campuses lack sufficient resources and support to encourage survivors of sexual assault to come forward. While the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) exists here—an organization dedicated to the advocacy and support of survivors of sexual assault—more must be done to increase public awareness about the issue of underreporting so as to afford sexual assault survivors the respect and sympathy they deserve.
Hopefully, Ghomeshi’s trial will bring justice and peace of mind to those affected; however, Ghomeshi is not the only one on trial. Canada, as a nation, is on trial. Canadians must spark a discussion about how to encourage survivors of sexual assault to speak openly about their experiences, and foster a country where women are respected, trusted, and supported. The conversation about sexual assault must continue.