In general, how do police officers view the victims of sexual assault? Are their attitudes towards gender roles and rape related to each other? Do these attitudes influence the investigation process? A safety information session at York University would force these questions back into the public discourse.
Since 2006, sexual violence on York University campus has been increasing at alarming rates. Most recently, in April 2010, a York University graduate student was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexual assault and sexual assault causing bodily harm stemming from attacks on two first year students in their campus dormitory during frosh week in 2007. A month later, a 20-year-old student was sexual assaulted by three strangers as she walked to her apartment just south of the campus where many students reside.
In the wake of this it is no surprise that the University’s students unions have been calling for improved campus safety. Readdressing these concerns for the safety of students, on January 24, 2011 Osgoode Hall Law School in conjunction with the Toronto Police Services (TPS) and York Security Services held an information session on safety for the students. Since then, York students and staff have been demanding a written apology and an explanation from the Toronto Police Service after one of the uniformed officers allegedly told the audience that one of safety tips he could offer was that women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like sluts.
Ronda Bessener, Assistant Dean at Osgoode who attended the session, told the Excalibur student newspaper “he said something like, I’ve been told I shouldn’t say this, and then he uttered the words.”
The Toronto Star is reporting that the police officer from the 31 Division has apologized, saying “he is embarrassed by the remarks and that assaulted women are not victims by choice.” Constable Michael Sanguinetti wrote on February 17 to Osgoode Hall Law School, “I made a comment which was poorly thought out and did not reflect the commitment of the Toronto Police Service to victims of sexual assault.” According to the Toronto Star, although unclear as to the extent, the officer has been “disciplined” by the professional standards unit of the TPS.
The Vice-President of the York Federation of Students noted that “linking provocative clothing to sexual assault is a huge myth and all it does is blame the survivor of a sexual assault while taking the onus away from the perpetrator”.
In light of rape law reforms, the TPS officer’s comments illustrate that, culturally, police officers have not completely adapted to these changes. The officer’s ‘safety tip’ and language used points to the pervasiveness of rape mythology and the deeper challenges to the sexist stereotypical reasoning of rape, and about women, and about who are raped. The existence of rape myths is not a new phenomenon and has even been judicially recognized in cases such as R. v. Ewanchuk. In her concurring opinion, Justice L’Heureux-Dube quoted from D. Archard, Sexual Consent (Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), at 131:
"Myths of rape include the view that women [fantasize] about being rape victims; that women mean 'yes' even when they say 'no'; that any woman could successfully resist a rapist if she really wished to; that the sexually experienced do not suffer harms when raped (or at least suffer lesser harms than the sexually 'innocent'); that women often deserve to be raped on account of their conduct, dress, and demeanour; that rape by a stranger is worse than one by an acquaintance. Stereotypes of sexuality include the view of women as passive, disposed submissively to surrender to the sexual advances of active men, the view that sexual love consists in the 'possession' by a man of a woman, and that heterosexual sexual activity is paradigmatically penetrative coitus."
Research in this area has also shown that the dominance of rape myths, include the view that the victim is lying, deserved the sexual assault, or asked for it because of how she was acting or what she was wearing, thereby downplaying the seriousness of the sexual assault that occurred by suggesting it was a trivial or even a natural event. Consequently, victims of sexual assault are more likely to think that the police will not believe their charge.
Other evidence suggests that sexual assault victims are more likely to complain that the police were too lenient or that they did not conduct enough of an investigation into their complaint. In general, fear of reprisals and feelings of intimidation are significant issues for victims of sexual assault when coming into contact with the police and, in turn, influences whether they file a police complaint concerning their case. The systemic problems in police investigation of sexual assault were brought to mainstream consciousness in 1998 with the landmark judgment of the Ontario Court in the Jane Doe case.
With sexual violence being a common occurrence on the University’s campus, Assistant Dean Bessner, underscores the on-going implications of the officer’s remarks, “such comments make it difficult for victims dealing with sexual assault because they make them feel uncomfortable going to the police for help. I think it’s really important that the police […] receive appropriate training on sexual assault, so that statements like this are never made and that they understand the dynamics of sexual assault. ”
Posted by Andrea Anderson (Windsor Law, 2009)