Volume 93, Issue 45

Thursday, November 18, 1999


Empowerment for victims

Do you feel safe on campus?

Empowerment for victims

By Clare Elias
Gazette Staff

In recent months, fear has plagued the streets of Toronto and its surrounding areas due to a wave of sexual assaults.

The "bedroom rapist" attacks and four other sex-related attacks have caused much dispute between the rape crisis centres and the police, as both groups try to determine the best possible course of action for potential victims – if threatened, should the victim fight back? The overwhelming response is to do what ever it takes to survive.

However, considering the amount of publicity these cases have garnered, a statistical question remains – is there a rise in the number of sexual assaults or has the stigma attached to sexual assaults lessened, thereby opening the door for victims to come forward?

Anne Finigan, co-ordinator for sexual assault and battered victims at St. Joseph's Health Centre, said during her 10 years at the centre she has noticed an annual 20 per cent increase in reported sexual assault cases. Finigan attributed the rise to an increased awareness from such sources as schools and the media. However, there is still cause for concern.

"I still think there's a small percentage [of victims] who are not reporting these attacks," she said. "There was a report done earlier this year where 40 per cent of people interviewed experienced violence, but waited months and years after the assault to report it."

At the centre, Finigan handles cases of sexually abused children and adults, beginning at age 12. Ninety-five per cent of the female patients, between the ages of 16-24, were assaulted by an acquaintance, she said.

Finigan added while she does not want to blame the victims, people must be conscious of their surroundings. "People can be aware of who they're with and if their assailant has been drinking. But you have to also try and think about the risks and minimize them."

While acknowledging the assaults in the Toronto area, Finigan said she feels safe in the smaller community of London. However, she acknowledged this could be foolish thinking on her part.

Tracy Frizell, media relations officer for the London Police, said she too feels secure within the London community, yet she would not tempt fate. "You have to practice safety and apply common sense," Frizell said. "When I go out jogging, I don't know what's around the corner, but at the same time I won't go running at night."

London is no longer a small town city, especially with Toronto and Detroit two hours away, Frizell said. "We've had three homicides this year already, but considering the size and the fact that we have a university and college campuses, I'd say it's a safe city."

Frizell also said there has not been an increase in sexual assaults in this year – instead, the numbers have dropped. "There was an increase in the past five or six years in the number of reported cases and this was around the time of those campaigns about what constitutes sexual assault," she said.

The victim's ability to finally say, "Yes, this did happen to me," was also aided by changes made to the Criminal Code in 1982, said Diane MacInnis, a former police officer with Metropolitan Toronto and a public speaker for sexual assault.

"Before the Criminal Code changes, a woman needed corroboration to her story and she believed that if she didn't come forward right away then it [implied to the prosecution that] it didn't happen. But now, under the new law, you don't need corroboration," MacInnis explained.

"Also, before, the lawyer would rip [the victim] to shreds, but now the lawyers are not on some fishing expedition and do not go through previous background information. They need to be very careful about what they say, or the judge will over-rule them."

As a public speaker MacInnis addresses high school audiences and describes the correct responses to an attacker, she said. These, she said, include non-aggressive, passive-aggressive and aggressive reactions. "If you can't do anything then you're paralyzed and you therefore have to put your mind in use and keep saying to yourself, 'I am not going to be powerless.'"

MacInnis said in these circumstances, the best thing to do is to put your five senses to work. It also may be possible to talk the attacker down, by saying you have a disease. "In this case you have to be a better [con-artist] than he is, because the slightest hesitation and you're in trouble. You might also want to [induce vomiting] and be very vocal and close about it. Most men can take blood, guts and gore, but they can't take the smell of vomit."

However, if the victim decides aggressive behaviour is their best defence, MacInnis warned the person being attacked could also get hurt. If this is the best course of action, she said it is ideal to strike the attacker in the knees or the throat.

MacInnis also dispelled the myth that attackers only seek those with revealing clothing. She said victims are not targeted because of their attire, but rather because of their body language. "If you have little self-worth or self-love, then you will be a victim. You have to look at yourself and be positive."

However, it was not a false body image which prompted the boyfriend of a Western student to attack. The female student, who wished to be kept anonymous, said she was attacked four years ago by her boyfriend at the time. They had been dating for eight months when she was sexually assaulted in her parent's living room.

"I didn't seek counselling right away. I thought if I didn't acknowledge it, then it didn't happen to me. It took a year before I could come forward and until then, I cried every night before going to sleep."

The student said she felt the only way to get over the incident was to forgive him. "But I've learned that I don't have to do that and now I hate him with all my heart."

The student said she also wished to discuss her experience and to help others by speaking at her high school in Peterborough. However, her ex-boyfriend's younger brother attended the school and she was advised by the school's staff to avoid the situation.

The student, who eventually told her parents and her priest, said she did not press charges. She explained it would only bring back memories she would rather forget. "The defence lawyers make you feel like it's your fault and they make you feel like there's more you could have done, when all there is to do is say 'no.'"

Natalie DesRosiers, associate professor of law at Western, said the changes to the Criminal Code have made it easier to prosecute accused attackers. Even though corroboration is no longer necessary, it does not make the procedure any easier.

"The defence will still ask the victim how many times she has slept with other men. Then it is a dispute between the defence saying it is relevant and the prosecution saying it isn't. And just because a person did consent five months ago does not mean they consented [to the same person]that night."

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Copyright The Gazette 1999