Disclaimer: Article may be triggering
Innocent until proven guilty is a saying that gets tossed around before any trial occurs. A perpetrator is no criminal until it is decided in a court of law that there is enough evidence for a conviction. By nature, in consensus crimes, such as murder, a trial is used to determine whether or not a specific individual is guilty of committing a crime, not determining whether the crime occurred. Families are given support and all cases are made and no one is unsure about whom victims of the crime are. Whether a criminal is charged or not, no one questions the victim about what they might have been wearing to ‘deserve’ to be murdered, nor are the family questioned beyond assuring that they are not the culprit or have pertinent information regarding the crime.
The institutional response to a crime of sexual violence is quite different. From how it is disciplined on college campuses to the few actual cases that make it to court, the standard “innocent until proven guilty” statement is heard less than “lying, until proven the victim”. Women who come forward with cases of sexual assault are treated almost as criminals by most responding officers, being questioned about unnecessary details of the assault like the revealing nature of the victim’s clothing. Many are convinced to go through an invasive two to six hour rape kit exam, which have recently made headlines in the US after evidence emerged of backlogged kits being destroyed before testing. Men are even less likely to come forward with assault cases of a sexual nature, possibly due to a patriarchal misbelief that if you are sexually assaulted as a man you are somehow weak, or have something to be ashamed of. In cases of all genders and gender-fluid victims, direction to proper support can be difficult to find as well as expensive.
The types of problems encountered reporting an assault are long documented in the public sphere, discouraging many people from reporting sexual violence. Previous generations have seemed to accept this as a necessity. Arguments have been made stating if the victim is to be automatically believed, an accused could be wrongly convicted, which would ruin their life. Putting aside the questionable belief that most victims want to accuse anyone not guilty of rape of actually raping them, this also discredits the judicial system by suggesting that in any case a woman has ever been “automatically believed”. This gross oversimplification of what a victim goes through while making accusations also serves to belittle the pain of the victim’s assault. To say that a person’s life could be ruined by a potential false accusation fails to recognize the detrimental effect a rape has on the life of a victim. In this case, the accused’s well being is placed above the well being of a victim who has been violated by them, and the potential safety of future persons he/she/they may abuse in the future.
This is not to say that every man should be automatically seen as guilty when a sexual assault is first reported. The fact most institutions meant for our protection have yet to understand is that a person does not have to be declared guilty for someone to be treated and supported as a victim. Giving victims direct access to support should be the first step in the situation of a sexual assault. A victim should never leave a police station or hospital after experiencing a sexual assault feeling as though they have nowhere to turn and no guidance as to what their next steps should be. A victim should not leave a police station feeling more violated than when they first came in. Even on college campuses, a student should have the rights and opportunities to make self-supporting decisions after an assault without having to lay charges with the police.
When in first year at a major Canadian university, I was involved in an abusive relationship with a man living in the same residence as myself. Following this experience, I decided to speak to a counsellor on campus. Despite assurances that physical and sexual assaults were a priority for counsellors, I was denied an emergency appointment and had to miss part of a class to later speak with a counsellor. Although the said worker had helped simply by listening, the response at the end of the session was infuriating. I was informed that I had an obligation to report what had happened to me to the police. I was guilted in my already fragile state into believing that were I not to report, I was responsible if another woman was to have the same experience as myself at my abusers’ hands. And, when asked, I was told I could not be moved by on campus housing authorities unless I submitted a police report. Following the first two meetings I was not given a clear idea of whether there were any support resources for myself on campus, and gently told that the school would not provide long term counselling services.
There was the inherent problem. I was expected to be a ‘strong’ survivor of abuse even though I was denied access to resources that might allow me to become such a person. Despite the fact that I was not ready to stand up to my abuser in a public manner, I was accused of responsibility for others because of crimes committed against myself. I was not even given the opportunity to even remove myself out of harm’s way. I was not asking to move someone out of residence that had not been proven guilty of a crime. I was asking to remove myself for my own well being. I lived in the same residence as my abuser for three months following my visit with the counsellor, dealing with temporary PTSD-like symptoms that included hallucinations, panic attacks every time I saw him and unintentional self harm based on the former two symptoms that have left scars to this day. I was afraid to leave my room and stopped eating for days to avoid seeing him in the cafeteria.
In this case I was a person with a record of the abuse, with witnesses to the assaults as well as phone records where the abuser admitted to these individual instances of harm. I was a young woman with no reason to lie, a clean record, was someone of considerable privilege and not even citing a sexual aspect of assault (as sexual assault is typically more difficult in trial as it is more based on testimonies than evidence). I was not even asking for a man to be deemed guilty. I checked all of the boxes. Yet, in every step of the journey I was made to feel like I had done something wrong.
I luckily had many friends to support me during this struggle. I had people who protected me, stayed with me so I wouldn’t be alone. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a psychologist who helped me come to terms with everything. I had family who had dealt with their own situations during university and helped me understand that I wasn’t a bad person for needing help. And I had that end goal: survive three more months and I could flee home for the summer.
I was the most privileged one could be in this situation. In my case, there was no sexual aspect to said assaults, I was supported and able to talk about my experience with friends and professionals. Yet even in my case, I was mistreated by every level of the justice system I encountered, as it seems in our public perception violence is not a crime without a body or a cut and dry admitted-guilt criminal.
Treating victims with respect should not be dependant on the circumstances around them. Many people, especially women, carry with them the feeling they have been violated despite the fact the violator cannot be considered guilty in a criminal sense. There seems to be a consensus, at least in most western societies, that this makes the victim somehow less of a victim. If such people see that victims with defined cases and evidence have been treated poorly and not given proper access to help until their accused is proven guilty, what are the chances they feel they have the right to seek help themselves? The perceived dismissal of such legitimate feelings and emotions can cause havoc on metal health and leave many people feeling isolated.
The real tragedy is that none of this is news. Brock Turner, the man who sexually assaulted an unconsciousness woman on Stanford’s university campus, was recently released early on an already light sentence for “good behaviour”, as if in congratulations for not assaulting anyone in the 3 months he was incarcerated. The belief that a victim’s suffering is somehow not worth justice is a difficult problem to dismantle as it is impossible for most to understand the judge’s mindset when he handed down that six month sentence for a cut and dry violent sexual assault case with witnesses and incontrovertible evidence. The only way I believe we can combat this is to have the different levels of institutions, college security, police and law to actively commit to changing the way sexual assault is treated. No longer can a victim be regarded as anything else unless definitively proven otherwise. This does not mean the accused must be considered guilty automatically. Until sexual assaults are regarded as a common crime not dissimilar to other acts of violence, where the victims are victims and the accused is innocent until proven otherwise, victims will continue to be mistreated or will not come forward.