Rape, politics and policy

Last week, the Ontario Legislature Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment issued their final report. It is a comprehensive, well-written document, an absorbing hours read (if you find policy absorbing) and makes some solid recommendations. You can read it – with all 67 recommendations – here.

Select Committee pic

I presented at this committee last May in my capacity as a peer counsellor and advocate. It was an exhilarating and daunting experience. It was made up of representatives from all sides of government, and unexpectedly for a select committee, each ‘witness’ had 15 minutes to present, with 10 minutes for questions. In my experience of presenting at select committees, I’ve never talked to a committee who were so engaged, compassionate, curious and respectful as this one.

In this post, I outline the recommendations I like the most, and why. The last two recommendations I reference my submission. Heavy reading! But (and?) I feel hopeful.

The recommendations I’m excited about are:

That the Ontario Government…

  • Develop and share best practices in how to effectively support survivors of sexual violence

YES. Across Ontario are hundreds of different groups doing great things to support survivors – immediate crisis intervention, victim support, counselling and groups, advocacy, legal help, housing and employment – yet most are unconnected. I feel it would be incredibly beneficial to share and duplicate organizations’ “best practice” models in reaching out and supporting survivors, particularly amongst community based organizations.

  • Media outlets acknowledge their responsibility in shaping perceptions surrounding sexual violence

I love, love, love Femifesto’s #UseTheRightWords campaign for media reporting sexual violence in Canada. It’s all here, and a highlight for me is removing loaded words like “alleged” or “claimed” when reporting on sexual assault and harassment. So good. So necessary.

  • Expand the availability of alternative forms of justice, such as restorative justice systems or survivor-centered sexual violence courts

I have a huge thing for restorative justice. Having been a witness in a Family Group Conference as a teenager – a world renowned restorative justice initiative championed and adopted in New Zealand – I really believe in the healing and transformative effects of this process.

The thing that really interests me are perpetrators who don’t know that what they are doing is rape. Or, they might have an inkling, but they would never call themselves a rapist. This is insidious and worrying, and I see it all the time as a peer counsellor. Date rape, intimate partner violence, acquaintance rape, drug facilitated sexual assault…these are all very common types of sexual violence where the perpetrators assume they have the right to someone’s body, without procuring ongoing, enthusiastic consent, without upholding that person’s body autonomy, without respecting that person’s boundaries. These are the people who feel entitled to sex, who feel like “no” is an invitation to keep pushing, and who don’t think what they’re doing is wrong.

There are certainly times when a jail sentence, restraining order and a life record are the right response, but considering these sentences rarely happen, we need to look beyond this institutionalized form of punishment. It is too punitive for such a crime of such magnitude, and I feel like it continues the cycle of violence without healing, learning or changing the rape culture we live in.

So, what DO I want from a justice process? I want perpetrators to understand WHY what they do is wrong. I want them to understand that they are a product of a wider culture  – a “rape culture” – that makes it possible for them to assume they have the right and entitlement to sex, to someone else’s body. I want them to be held accountable to their behaviour from their family, friends, their community. I want them to recognize the hurt and trauma they cause, and then to put their energy into doing what they can to ensure positive change in their community. I want apology.

Restorative justice is certainly confronting, and isn’t right or appropriate for every situation, but overall, I would like to see a legal system where alternative forms of justice are survivor centred, community based and look to change culture, as well as hold a perpetrator accountable. Absolutely.

  • Increase training and awareness of sexual harassment for vulnerable populations, especially hospitality, precarious, migrant and in-home workers

I’m sick of working serving/waitressing/hospo jobs where sexual harassment “just comes with the job”. I’m so done with that. Kitchen Bitches are a Toronto collective who are “smashing the patriarchy one plate at a time” and being very vocal about hospitality sexual harassment. So good! Women also get hit with a double/triple/quadruple whammy: female migrants to Canada are more likely to be in precarious work (any work that isn’t permanent), are more likely to work in-home (as a nanny, cleaner, gardener) and are more likely to not report sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs/losing their residency status than males. In an added blow, women who have experienced domestic violence are also more likely to be employed precariously.

  • Work with First Nations communities to ensure that support services for survivors are culturally appropriate and sensitive to the history and needs of the community

The dirty and traumatic legacy of colonization – particularly the trauma and sexual violence in residential schools – has left a huge and devastating impact on First Nations people in Canada. The “one size fits all” approach to responding to sexual assault is already better than the reality – many isolated First Nations communities are hours drive from hospitals and reporting centres where people can receive emergency care for sexual assault, and counselling and support is often left out of the picture all together. But I feel like expanding this euro-centric model of support to “All Ontarians (incl. First Nations)” is half-assed at best. What can we – who have the legacy and benefit of colonization – do to create space for First Nation people to tell us what they need? How can we listen, and make it safer for people to talk? How can we assist and be strong allies, rather than trying to come in and ‘fix’ with only our knowledge and experience?

  • Ensure that funding provided to community sexual assault centres is stable and secure
  • Improve access to counselling and crisis peer-support programmes

For these last two recommendations here’s an excerpt from the submission I presented to the committee.

“I volunteer as a crisis line counsellor for the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape (TRCC/MWAR). I do three overnight shifts a month, from midnight until 8am, sleeping lightly and waking up to be there for women, men and trans folk in crisis.

I run workshops for youth who are newcomers to Canada on sex education and healthy relationships with Planned Parenthood Toronto (PPT). Tomorrow I’m speaking with 15 teenagers at a high school drop-­in program about communication and consent.

I volunteer as a peer educator at the University of Toronto Sexual Education Centre (UTSEC), talking to students about sexual identity, health and pleasure.

I spend my sunny weekends writing a submission for the Ontario Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment.

I don’t get paid to do any of this work, even though it is all front­line, even though it is highly skilled, even though it is absolutely critical and necessary.

All of these places I volunteer are anti­-oppressive, safer spaces. They do not require ID, they do not care about past criminal records, they offer support in many different languages, from people who have been there themselves, from people who look like you, from people who understand and get it and really care. The services these places offer are almost always free, and provide a safety net for all the women, men and trans people who would usually fall through the cracks.

However, they also run on tiny budgets, with severely limited resources, staff and volunteer burnout and no funding stability. TRCC/MWAR, the only independent rape crisis centre in Toronto and operating for over 40 years,­ has 5 paid staff. PPT,­ a huge, well respected, international organization has only a handful of paid educators. UTSEC has none.

The sad thing is, many of my fellow volunteers are survivors too. They are doing this work for free because we have first hand knowledge about what happens if no one is there. We have personally experienced the violence, trauma and shame of rape culture, and we absolutely have to do something about it, even though it is unpaid with long hours and largely unrecognized outside of our communities.

This is not okay.

To continue to allow so much of this work to happen on shoe­string budgets, only funding 1 or 2 year projects, with such a huge volunteer workforce is to seriously devalue it.

Community groups doing this work NEED to be better funded. This funding has to be consistent, ongoing and guaranteed. I believe that the places I volunteer at are creating positive change, but we could do it faster, wider, and more effectively if we have more money.”

After I spoke, one of the MPs said: “Bravo. Your testimony is the reason that we’re having this committee, and the recommendations that you’ve provided to us are exactly what we need to hear. On behalf of the committee, thanks for having the courage to say, “I’ve got to do something here.” It’s serendipitous.”

The committee’s response, and the final report make me feel a lot of things!

I feel….glad people are talking about sexual violence outside of feminist crisis centres and survivor groups.

I feel….hopeful that the recommendations will be adopted.

I feel wary….that this work will now fall off the radar, the legislature having ‘done their bit’.

I feel heard.

Sunrise at Tajumulco, Guatemala.