How We Talk About Sexual Assault

In Winnipeg last weekend, a woman was sexually assaulted by a cab driver in the middle of the night. She had been at a club and after stumbling on the sidewalk, a cab driver helped the woman into his cab, drove to the area near the address she provided, and then he sexually assaulted her.

The day after this incident, women started sharing their own scary experiences of cab drivers on social media. This story is not a new one. This is not the first time a woman has been sexually assaulted in a cab. This is not the first time a woman has been sexually assaulted after leaving a club. The lack of news reports about these types of occurrences creates a false sense of the actual rates of these incidents. I read this story and thought, “Why are they reporting on this assault and not all the others that have occurred?”

Nevertheless, it is important that these stories reach the general public, even if it is only some of the time.  We know that only about 10-15% of sexual assaults are ever reported to the authorities, so that means for every story we hear about sexual assault, we can assume that there are probably upwards of 8 other stories that we are not hearing.

That being said, just reporting on these incidents is not enough. We need to be careful with how they are reported. There are several concerns that stand out in the way this story was reported in the Winnipeg Free Press and on the CBC website.

Victim Blaming

The victim of this sexual assault had been drinking and every news report made that clear multiple times. It was reported in a matter-of-fact and non-judgmental way but the repeating of it communicates that this was a very important part of the story. If the victim’s alcohol consumption is communicated as a key factor in this story, then the message behind this repetition is “If the victim had not been drinking, none of this would have happened.”

Far too often, the victim is blamed for an assault if it happens when she/he is intoxicated. Victim-blaming messages are way too prevalent in our society. No matter how much someone has had to drink, it is always the perpetrator that is responsible for sexual assault.  Do we think that this woman’s intoxication is what gave the cab driver the idea to sexually assault her? His desire to take advantage of a vulnerable person has nothing to do with her clothes, her actions, or her alcohol consumption. It is all on him. (The “safety tips” in this sketch from The Daily Show are a joke because they won’t keep anyone safe.)

Highlighting the habits of victims when we report on sexual assault does absolutely nothing to address the root causes of why some people want to take advantage of others and engage in non-consensual sexual acts. Yes, there are social forces that encourage men to view women as objects to which they can help themselves, but we still need to hold individuals accountable for their actions while we try to change those harmful social forces.

Misplaced Concern

Despite the “seriousness” of this sexual assault (more on that later), the news reports still spent a significant amount of time addressing concerns that are peripheral to the crime that took place. Winnipeg Councillor Harvey Smith found it necessary to emphasize the good relationship between the Winnipeg Police Service and the taxi companies. He also talked about how few sexual misconduct cases come to the Manitoba Taxicab Board, of which he is a member. He also speculated about whether or not the victim made up these allegations and said it “does not look good” for the cab driver right now.

All of that is incredibly dismissive. Is the relationship between police and taxi drivers the most important concern in this story? Should we really be worried about the job security of the perpetrator of this crime? Raising these political and outlying concerns seems very disrespectful to this particular victim of a violent crime and to all victims of sexual assault. If this incident creates an opportunity to discuss any political issues, it ought to be the issue of women’s safety. Winnipeg was among the first “developed” cities to sign up with the UN Safe Cities Initiative because street harassment of women is a major concern and this story is an example of that first and foremost.

Serious vs. Not So Serious

The sexual assault in this incident has been reported as a serious sexual assault, which begs the question, “Which sexual assaults are not serious?”

If we look at conviction rates for the answer to that question, we would see that sexual assaults are deemed among the least serious of all the violent crimes as they have the second lowest conviction rate. A study of reports to police forces in Ontario found that sexual assault reports had the highest rate of being considered “unfounded” and only a third of reports across Canada lead to charges compared to half of all other violent crime reports.

The criminal code does not distinguish between serious and not serious sexual assault. There is, however, a difference between sexual assault (any unwanted sexual contact) and aggravated sexual assault (any unwanted sexual contact that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering the life of the victim). It sounds like this story is about aggravated sexual assault because the victim was reported to have been injured during the sexual assault.

Calling this a serious sexual assault is someone’s subjective take on the situation, not the legal description of what happened. Of course this is a story about serious sexual assault, but only because every sexual assault is serious. As long as we call some serious and others not, we will keep sending the message to victims that there is no guarantee that what they went through was serious enough to deserve any kind of a response. This also implies to perpetrators of sexual assault that sometimes what they do is not serious and therefore allowed. What we permit, we promote, and if we permit sexual assault of any kind, we are promoting it.

There have been a number of disappointing media stories about sexual assaults over the last few months. The very existence of sexual assault is bad enough; we don’t need to make it worse with the way we talk about it in the media. We can do so much better than this! We owe it to victims of sexual assault to honour their experiences when we report on them by making their concerns the central feature of the story.

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