Justice looks different for each victim of sexual assault, experts say

Victims of sexual assault at post-secondary institutions shouldn't be told they have to go to the police because obtaining justice means something different to each person, according to experts at a conference in Kingston, Ont.

'Justice for some people is writing a letter to your abuser ... Justice can also look like going to police'

According to sexual assault support workers at a conference in Kingston, Ont., justice looks different to each victim, and they should get to decide what makes the most sense for them without being stigmatized. (Supplied)

Victims of sexual assault at post-secondary institutions shouldn't be told they have to go to the police because obtaining justice means something different to each person, according to experts at a conference in Kingston, Ont.

More than 200 university administrators, policy makers and campus advocates for victims of sexual violence are gathered for a two-day conference organized by a Queen's University group called Ontario Universities Taking Action Against Sexual Violence. 

The speakers, many who run offices for victims on university campuses, say one of the biggest obstacles helping those in crisis is the prevalent myth that the victim is to blame, and that coming forward to report only stigmatizes someone who has been attacked.  

A University of Windsor report on the problem states between 20 and 25 per cent of women students experience sexual assault or attempted assault during their post-secondary education in North America (including the University of Windsor). According to the Ontario government, one in three women in Canada will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime.

But according to most experts in the field, the number of reported sexual assaults is vastly underreported.  

'Survivors ... know what they need'

Experts at the conference don't believe the rate of sexual assaults is higher at universities and colleges but feel more must be done on campuses to prevent attacks from occurring and to help survivors deal with what happened.    

Farrah Khan, one of the panelists, heads Ryerson University's sexual violence support and education program.  

Her office uses an innovative approach to get victims to open up and talk about what happened to them: a colouring book called We Believe You and You Are Not Alone. Ryerson made the book available to the general public. 

"It's about meeting survivors's where they're at," says Khan, adding it's important to reach out and give women the emotional support they need because sexual assault can isolate victims. 

But Khan says staff will never pressure a woman to report their attack to the police. 

"Survivors are the best knowledge holders to know what they need," says Khan.

Farrah Khan, who heads Ryerson University's sexual violence support and education program, says survivors know what they need more than anyone else. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

'Justice is not one way'

"One of the most powerful things that a survivor said to me was justice is not one way. So justice for some people is writing a letter to your abuser and saying you raped me, it wasn't OK, and I want you to know you're on watch.  Justice can also look like going to police and telling your story or going to the media."

"Supporting a diversity of justice for survivors and holding space for that and not saying one is better than the other is a change we want to see."

Charlene Senn, a professor in women and gender studies at the University of Windsor who researches sexual assault, agrees. 

"So few women report to the authorities and we should not expect that they will or suggest that they should under circumstances where there still is no justice," she says.

Senn and others at the conference say recent high-profile sexual assault trials have left female victims skeptical or even afraid to go through the ordeal of a trial because they simply don't trust Canada's criminal justice system. 

Charlene Senn, a professor in women and gender studies at the University of Windsor who researches sexual assault, says some victims are skeptical of the criminal justice system. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

U of Windsor students trained to speak out

Senn is one of the leaders at her school involved in a program to prevent and mitigate the consequences of sexual assault. It's called Bringing in the Bystander and it encourages students to intervene in a situation that could lead to a sexual assault. It was developed at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Windsor implemented it in 2010. 

Senior students are trained to speak out against degrading sexual conversations or safely interrupt situations that could lead to sexual coercion or sexual assault. Senn argues the intervention is about changing attitudes and how students communicate with each other and realizing the words they use.

"That exam raped me, or making rape jokes, are things people see as not being serious," says Senn. "It's all a part of a continuum of sexual violence that creates a culture that thinks it's a trivial matter and not a serious one.

"We can intervene there because it's low risk. A student can say, 'Don't say those things in front of me,' and that can be very powerful in peer groups."

The students trained in the bystander workshop then pass it on to first year students in place of a class lecture. 

"You go to class one night and that's what you get. We want to normalize it," Senn says, adding that he workshop has been given to more than 900 first-year business students every year.

Yamikani Msosa, a public education co-ordinator and a support worker at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa, says it's wrong to assume all victims want to go to police. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Sexual assault plans needed by Jan. 1

In Ottawa, Yamikani Msosa gives sexual assault prevention and support workshops on post-secondary campuses, especially during frosh week. She's the public education co-ordinator and a support worker at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa.

Msosa says it's wrong to assume all victims of sexual assault immediately want to report their attack to police. She says many woman don't have the emotional strength and the time involved to see a complaint make its way through the criminal justice system. 

"They may not want to go to police with what happened to them," says Msosa. "They may also want to hold the perpetrator accountable that doesn't involve state intervention because that poses problematic factors, especially for students of racialized backgrounds."

She says universities must move away from a one size fits all model to support sexual assault victims because the make-up of schools is so diverse. No means no or consent comes first education campaigns are good, she says, but universities need to target specific groups. 

Msosa says transgender men and women, and other gender non-conformists, have told her they don't feel comfortable going into a support centre at a university because "they don't have the staff with the training to recognize how [they] experience sexual violence."

In March of this year the Ontario government passed the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, which requires universities to have a sexual assault policy in place by Jan. 1, 2017, and review it every three years. The act also gets rid of the limitation period for civil proceedings based on sexual assault. 

In late June the province announced a pilot project for residents in Ottawa, Toronto and Thunder Bay to pay for up to four hours of confidential legal advice. It will run until March of 2018 and if successful, could be expanded to other cities.