By now, our collective denial, naiveté and sexism surrounding the realities of rape is well established and well critiqued. And while those critics – including bloggers – have taken the legal and justice systems to task for the pervasive slut shaming, it was journalism under the microscope yesterday at Ryerson University’s Atkinson Lecture.
Jane Doe (in keeping with a publication ban, her name cannot be published) spoke to journalism students and professors about reporting sexual assault. She is an author, teacher, activist, public speaker and survivor.
“Journalists are uniquely poised to affect social justice and change,” she said.
That change includes respectfully, responsibly, and independently covering assault victims’ stories and being wary of warnings and statements from police that do more to hurt women than help them. When Paul Carrow (better known as the Balcony Rapist) broke into the homes of four Toronto women and sexually assaulted them in 1986, Toronto police opted not to warn the public. They didn’t want to make women “hysterical”, and Jane Doe became the fifth reported woman attacked. She was able to secure her own legal representation and so became the first raped woman in Ontario to sit in on Carrow’s hearing, making her privy to details of the investigation.
A year later she sued the Metro Toronto Police for using her and other women as bait. The landmark suit was successful and she was awarded $220, 000 in 1998. In her ruling Madame Justice Jean MacFarland wrote:
“[They made the] very serious decision not to warn these women of the risk they faced. This they did in the face of the almost certain knowledge that the rapist would attack again and cause irreparable harm to his victim. In my view, their decision in this respect was irresponsible and grossly negligent.”
Though the Supreme Court ruled the police’s action unconstitutional, little (if anything) has changed. Rape culture and myths still dominate our coverage of sexual assault. Cases on television shows such as Criminal Minds, and the CSI and Law and Order franchises write out the beautiful, young, white victims after their opening scenes, glorifying police work instead. Police warnings tell women to be use “extra” caution and includes a litany of “don’ts” that they already know, Survivors of rape are subjected to invasive medical examinations, grilled on their sexual history, shunned, shamed and chastised for putting themselves in harm’s way. And yet they are still encouraged to come forward.
“Becoming Jane Doe was the only thing I didn’t have to fight the legal system for,” she said of the pseudonym she shares with too many other women. Though she encouraged the audience to use her real name when speaking to her, she is grateful for the alias and says she isn’t going to give it up any time soon.
Jane Doe urged journalists to seek out the voices of other survivors, women who work with them, or understand rape and sexual assault. But, with the media’s compliance with the “police rape-story narrative”, finding women willing to speak to the press is near impossible.
“Why would we choose to report, especially when we know of the low prosecution rate?”
Reporters who do speak to survivors cling to the standard victim story: she mustn’t be too loud, or confident, or happy, or strong. Anything other than a picture of passivity and helplessness is left out of the story. Jane Doe makes specific mention to the article featured on the cover of her book The Jane Doe Story. Published by the Toronto Sun, the headline read: “Balcony Rapist’s Victim Wins $220 G’s”.
“Even after I’d won, I was still a victim.”
The lecture was especially poignant this year. After a woman was abducted and gang-raped minutes away from Ryerson in January, many wondered why campus security took so long to notify students. Jane Doe has been asked about the story and says it’s not the first (and definitely won’t be the last) time a university cringes at the word “rape”. Similar allegations were made by York University last year after two women were raped in the dorm rooms. Sexual assaults are bad for business – and universities are businesses as much as they are pillars of education. We celebrate schools with small class sizes, famous alumni and innovative programs that lead to employment. Where, Jane Doe asked, are the mentions of women’s centres and sexual assault support programs? Considering 1 in 4 women in North America are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and (despite what current rape myths will have us believe) likely by someone they know, support for women on campus seems like an important thing to mention.
The institutions that turn out our country’s future lawyers, judges, doctors, nurses, politicians, police officers and journalists, do so while perpetuating skewed representations of crimes against women. Not only sexist, they are often misogynistic, racist, hetero-normative and fixated on the idea that rapists live in dark alleys and parks. Schools, journalism schools in particular, said Jane Doe, need to educate students on rape before the face tight deadlines and tightlipped sources.
“As future journalists, you’ve got to operate as windows to the world.”