Hamilton

"We're not doing a very good job of preventing or responding to sexual assault": expert

In an interview with CBC Hamilton, Johnson says there are things police could do better, and explains how nurses play an important role in helping survivors of sexual assault.

Holly Johnson spoke at the Nursing Network On Violence Against Women yesterday at Niagara Falls.

Holly Johnson, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who specializes in violence against women, said the justice system could be doing things better for survivors of sexual assault. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

The Nursing Network On Violence Against Women will meet at Niagara Falls this week for its 2018 conference. The gathering is an opportunity to talk about what is being done to have a "violence-free world," says their website.

Holly Johnson is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who specializes in violence against women and has done extensive research on how the justice system responds to crimes of violence against women.

In an interview with CBC Hamilton, Ms. Johnson says there are things police could do better, and explains how nurses play an important role in helping survivors of sexual assault.     

What is the justice system getting wrong when it comes to responding to crimes of sexual violence against women?

First of all, we have only 5 percent of sexual assaults reported to the police in Canada and that's at an all time low.

We know that from large random samples of the population that were interviewed about their experiences with crime. We also know that sexual assault is the one crime measured that way that has not declined. So, we're not doing a very good job of preventing it nor of responding to it.

This is about negative stereotypes and rape myths- Holly Johnson, Criminologist

So, why are some women reluctant to report crimes of sexual violence?

Very often women may feel blamed by their social entourage.

They're ashamed, they're humiliated, they may be threatened or intimidated by the perpetrator or the perpetrator's friends. Also, I think now with social media it's not surprising to me that the reporting rate has dropped to 5%. Women who report male violence or dare to talk about male violence are often threatened, even with death threats, on social media.

So, this really serves to keep women from reporting the crimes.

What happens when women do report crimes of sexual violence to police?

Across the country the rate of cases dismissed by police and classified as unfounded is about 1 in 5. Now, unfounded code means that they did a preliminary investigation and they believe that a crime did not occur.

What we know from interviews with women who have reported crimes of sexual violence to the police is that, very often, the police don't believe them. Women are blamed or were somehow deemed to be deserving of whatever happened to them.

So, police drop the cases, they don't report them, they don't record them and they certainly don't investigate them. I'm certainly not implying that all police respond negatively, but certainly a substantial proportion.

I think that they make decisions based on what they assume to be an ideal victim. Somebody who's attacked by a stranger, has been seriously injured and who reports at the first opportunity. They make decisions to go forward with cases and investigate them based, sometimes, on legal requirements and sometimes on other presumptions.

So what are we dealing with here? Why does this happen?

This is about negative stereotypes and rape myths. Those are alive and well in our society, so I'm not surprised that police carry them as well to certain extent.

These myths say that women who are out somewhere, drinking or behaving a certain way, dressed a certain way or make certain decisions are somehow fair game and somehow they're responsible for whatever befalls them.

The justice system can't always be counted on to provide a professional, compassionate response- Holly Johnson, Criminologist

Has the #MeeToo movement had a significant impact in the protection of women against crimes of violence?

I think it's too early to tell whether there's better protection, but what we do know is that Statistics Canada released their police recorded statistics on sexual violence and it shows a small uptick in 2017, particularly towards the end of the year when the #MeeToo movement really took hold.

So, there are early indications that women might be coming forward in larger numbers, but certainly these women are still being subjected to some pretty nasty treatment. We see the situation in Washington yesterday where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford received death threats for daring to come forward to report a sexual crime against Brett Kavanaugh.

How do nurses come into the picture?

Well, we have specialist sexual assault nurse examiners in our hospitals who take forensic evidence from rape victims that might be used in court, for example. We have other medical situations where a woman might go for support, or medical attention.

Women use all kinds of services. A police officer might take her to the hospital for treatment, or a nurse examiner might support a woman when she reports to the police. There's a real cross over in the types of services that women will use, so we need to learn from each other. Criminologists learn about the healthcare system, and nurses learn about the justice system.

It's not a simple matter to report a sexual assault. So, if a woman makes a decision to report to the police she should be supported. Nurses can do that. If a nurse notifies the police of a sexual assault on behalf of a woman, she should know that the woman is going to need support because the justice system can't always be counted on to provide a professional, compassionate response.

So how can nurses provide that support?

It's emotional support for one thing. It's just knowing that this could be a traumatic experience. It could be positive or it could be negative, but the woman is going to need support either from nurses themselves or to call in somebody from the local crisis centre who is well experienced in going to the police with survivors and going through the court system.

It's about systems working together, knowing who to call and who to bring in and how to support survivors because disclosing a sexual attack is a really tough thing.

About the Author

Samuel Guevara is a reporter with CBC Hamilton. He's passionate about local news and digital journalism. You can contact him at samuel.guevara@cbc.ca.