Lift the Veil of Secrecy Surrounding Sexual Assault

"But what if there was no social stigma attached to being the victim of sexual assault or harassment" - femisfesto


Temerra Dixon came out publicly in the Star as a victim of sexual abuse by Dr. Javad Peirovy.  (TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR) 

Since 1985 a publication ban has existed in the Criminal Code that prevents the identification of an alleged victim of a sexual assault unless the complainant obtains a court order to overturn the ban. It was something feminists fought for to encourage victims to come forward by protecting them from the social stigma of assault, and it has since been extended to other disciplinary proceedings outside of the courts.

But what if there were no social stigma attached to being the victim of a sexual assault or harassment? What if sex crimes were taken out of the closet and dealt with collectively, as Barbara MacQuarrie, community director of Western University’s centre for research and education on violence against women and children, has advocated.

That was certainly Temerra Dixon’s goal last week when she shed the veil of anonymity as “Ms. X” and came out publicly in the Star as a victim of sexual abuse by Dr. Javad Peirovy. “There needs to be more people to come forward and scream this as loud as they can, because the only way this is going to change is if people come forward,” she argued.

Indeed, while identity bans are in place to protect victims, they can actually reinforce the notion that there is something to be ashamed of, when there is not. And the secrecy surrounding sexual assault cases protects alleged abusers, too.

That issue came up at Queen’s Park last week. As Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledged on Tuesday, she has had to deal with allegations of sexual harassment against at least two of her own MPPs. But because the victims did not want a public process, Wynne refused for several days to name the members involved or describe what actions she took to deal with the complaints. Finally, on Friday afternoon, she said former Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor was one of those involved and was forced to resign in 2013. (Craitor said the allegations against him were “unfounded and unsubstantiated.)

A lack of transparency in this area doesn’t serve the public good. Voters need to know how their representatives in the legislature are behaving and potential abusers need to know there are strong penalties meted out for harassment or assault. And there may be other alleged victims who would come forward if both MPPs were named.

Fortunately, more and more victims are stepping forward to say they are not ashamed. And if a new poll taken in the wake of the trial of Jian Ghomeshi is any indication, their actions go a long way to overcoming the stigma associated with sexual assault and harassment cases. Two thirds of the Canadians surveyed believed the majority of sexual assault claims are true. And when it comes to assigning blame, 73 per cent blamed the perpetrator while only 2 per cent blamed the victim.

In other words, the days of victim blaming and shaming are coming to an end.

That is what complainants who come forward and identify themselves are fighting for. Consider Lucy DeCoutere and Linda Christina Redgrave, who identified themselves during and after the Ghomeshi trial.

Or consider the 35 women who went public with their photographs on the cover of New Yorkmagazine to allege they were sexually assaulted by comedian Bill Cosby. As one of the alleged victims, Tamara Green, said: “We can’t be disappeared.” That is powerful.

Sadly, though understandably, alleged victims don’t always have the courage to come forward. In 2014 when then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau heard of sexual assault allegations against two of his MPs from two female NDP MPs he suspended Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews from caucus. While the Star supported that move, we also argued that the female MPs should not have hesitated to set a bold, empowered example for other women by going public with their stories at a time when society is taking the issue of violence against women more seriously than ever before.

Our opinion hasn’t changed. As more and more victims of sexual assault step into the spotlight, it will become harder for perpetrators to hide behind a veil of secrecy. There is still time for those who allege they were sexually harassed by the two Liberal MPPs to step out from the shadows and open up a discussion in the legislature that is long overdue.