Jessica has lived with guilt and shame for years, ever since she was a student at McMaster University — that's when she says she was sexually assaulted after a party by a man she knew.

Going to police was never an option. For years, she couldn’t admit to herself what had happened. Once she came to terms with it, Jessica worried that people in the system wouldn’t believe her — or that she would effectively ruin someone’s life by speaking out.

But since allegations against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi have sparked a national conversation about sexual assault that has even included former deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, Jessica is going to police for the first time with her story.

And she’s not alone. Calls to the Hamilton and area Sexual Assault Centre have risen sharply since the allegations against Ghomeshi broke, as more and more people come forward to say they have been sexually assaulted and to condemn it. 

Ghomeshi has denied the allegations. He has not been charged with any criminal offence, and has stated that any acts of violence or rough sexual play he engaged in were consensual.

“People need to realize this is a very real issue,” Jessica said. She has asked that CBC Hamilton not use her real name. “I always thought if I went to police, then I could ruin this guy’s life.”

“But I’ve had to live with this for eight years. This guy took something from me.”

The 26-year-old teacher says she went to a party with someone she knew while she was a student at McMaster. After just one drink, she became sluggish, unable to walk or properly speak.

Later that night, she says, the man took her to his home and had sex with her even though she repeatedly told him no as she slipped in and out of consciousness. “I didn’t realize how easily it could happen,” she said. “Rape was what I saw in the movies. It happened to ‘bad people’ at ‘bad times’ — it couldn’t happen to someone like me. I was even a virgin at the time.”

Support and love to women

For years, she dealt with what happened both on her own and eventually through counselling. But it wasn’t until she heard George Stroumboulopoulos speak about Ghomeshi on his CBC Radio 2 show that she felt compelled to go to police about it.

“Support and love to women who stepped forward, support and love to women who feel like they can't,” Stroumboulopoulos said. “We support and love you.”

It was that message that pushed her to step forward, Jessica says. “It made me realize that I might not be the only person who has been victimized by him — and if that’s the case, then I’m making someone else stand alone,” she said.

“I feel like I should be advocating for women’s rights and ending violence. I shouldn’t be ashamed and I shouldn’t feel guilty anymore.”

The Hamilton and area Sexual Assault Centre has seen an influx of calls since the Ghomeshi story broke, says Lenore Lukasik-Foss, the centre’s director. “We don’t ask people ‘what caused you to call’ during the process, but we certainly have had more calls,” she said. “A number of rape survivors are bringing this up in counselling sessions and people on our crisis lines are bringing it up too.”

That’s not a normal occurrence, even when a major story on sexual assault hits the news, she says. Something about this particular incident has made it permeate public consciousness in a huge way — from everyday discussions to concerted social media campaigns like the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag on Twitter.

“People certainly want to talk about everything surrounding this issue,” Lukasik-Foss said. “This is a conversation many of us have been having for a long time — but it has been brought to a new level.”

Why did it take this long to start a mainstream conversation?

That said, Lukasik-Foss isn’t sure why the Ghomeshi allegations were the thing that finally pushed this conversation into the mainstream, when neither the Robert Pickton serial killer trial nor Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women has done the trick.

“This is something that is so prevalent and we haven’t been able to make that change,” she said. “But I hope it’s different this time. I hope the lid is off.”

But though an influx of people are reaching out to victim services in the city, the same can’t be said for police. Hamilton police have only had one reported sexual assault since the Ghomeshi story broke, and that was due to an unrelated news story, Const. Debbie McGreal Dinning told CBC Hamilton.

Lukasik-Foss says it can sometimes be a struggle for women to go to police. “Right now, the system is fundamentally broken,” she said. “Though there have been positive experiences with police, what we hear from survivors are a lot of experiences of being retraumatized.”

Jessica says her experience in dealing with police has been somewhat rocky. When she originally reached out, she emailed the first contact she could find — and that happened to be police chief Glenn De Caire. She was surprised when De Caire answered her within minutes to reassure her and to help her with the process.

“First and foremost, I am very sorry that this has happened to you and please do not blame yourself,” De Caire wrote. “We are here to help and we have support available.” He then went on to connect her with police victim services to start the reporting process.

While that was encouraging, her initial meeting with officers has been repeatedly cancelled or pushed back — something she calls “exhausting.”

“I get that it’s historical and perhaps not really ‘important,’ but I really just want to get it over with,” Jessica said. “An ongoing interview looming over my head is not something I want to walk around with day to day.”

McGreal-Dinning said that "all victims are a priority" and that police take all crime seriously, no matter what. "As investigators, we do have to prioritize investigations case by case and if an urgent and immediate pressing matter comes in, resources are allocated to support that investigation."

Even with the delays, Jessica says she plans to stick with the process and finish what she started. “I don’t want to carry the weight anymore,” she said. “And I want to stand with someone else if I’m needed.”

The Hamilton-area's Sexual Assault Centre has a 24-hour support line at 905-525-4162.