Recently, the gang-rape of a woman on a public bus in New Delhi on December 16 elicited protests and campaigns around the world about violence against women. As a result of her injuries, the woman passed away shortly after being hospitalized. Her attackers are being charged for their crimes, but justice is never truly achieved in cases such as this.
There has been a lot of talk about the amount of rape and violence that women experience in India, and there has been a lot of finger pointing at Indian society. While I think that this is appropriate, I cannot help but be a bit surprised at the lack of awareness about the amount of sexual assault that occurs in Canada.
Various statistical reports conclude that more than half of Canada’s female population have experienced sexual assault or violence at some point. That’s one in two Canadian women. That’s the woman next to you on the bus, the woman ringing in your groceries, the woman sitting next to you in class—it’s half of the women you know.
Other alarming statistics are that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman knows and that 97% of reported sexual assault cases are committed by men. While we may not have to worry about being gang-raped on a bus in Canada, we do have to worry about the guy we’re dating, the co-worker who keeps making inappropriate comments, and the authority figures we’re supposed to trust.
I have two friends who were raped by policemen. When both of them tried to bring their cases to court, the policemen had the backing of their coworkers and my friends were basically laughed at. With so many unreported sexual assault cases, the actual percentage of women who are sexually assaulted is much higher than what is currently on record.
I’ve been questioning why the gang-rape in India received so much attention when many rape cases in Canada slip quietly under the radar. Maybe it’s because we haven’t had a case as violent as the one that happened three years ago in Toronto when eight- year-old Victoria was abducted, raped, and murdered on her way home from school. It seems like we tend to forget how brutal our own society can be.
I discovered the hard way that Canadian society, and especially our legal system, is particularly brutal when it comes to “non- violent” rape cases. I was date-raped by a boyfriend when I was eighteen. After I said “no,” and after he pushed me so hard that I fell, I decided not to fight back.
Actually, let’s back that up a bit. “Deciding” is not really the correct word here. When someone you think you can trust suddenly starts acting in a violent manner, your instinct is shock and fear. I was too numb to decide whether or not to fight back. Instead, there was a sinking feeling in my stomach that I no longer knew what this man was capable of. I did continue to ask for him to stop, but by that point my mind was far away and as out of my body as it could possibly get.
When you’ve experienced any sort of trauma, you are not able to keep functioning as a rational human being. You enter a state of shock in which you feel numb and cannot think straight. I didn’t even realize I had been raped until the next day. It’s like my mind had put up a wall protecting me from the truth.
When the truth hit twenty-four hours later, I tried to do the right things. I went to the hospital, but there were no signs of violence: no cuts or bruises or anything that could be considered “rape evidence.” A week later, I went to the police. They said I had no case. Then I went to a judge. She told me the same thing. My word against his was not sufficient evidence.
No one in my life recommended counselling or offered any resources, even though I had spoken with the police, nurses, a doctor, and a judge. No one even really wanted to talk about what had happened to me. Instead it was, “Well, it wasn’t like it was violent or anything.” I also had many people tell me, “You should have fought back.” There’s that blame the victim mentality.
I’m really thankful that my rape wasn’t as violent as the one that happened to the New Delhi woman. What if I had fought back? Would that had stopped the rape, or would he have killed me? I also wonder, if the rape had been more violent, would I have had more support?
My friend, Rupa Marya, recently organized a march in San Francisco to raise awareness about violence against women after someone in her neighbourhood was attacked. Rupa is a full-time doctor and a touring musician (don’t ask me how she does it—I think she has superpowers). She said something to me that rang truer than anything I could come up with myself:
“Our inability to grapple with the horrors in front of us will ensure that they will continue. When I first trained in how to respond to trauma, my first impulse was to run the other direction. It was horrible. And hard. I had to train myself to run towards the death, the illness, the dismemberment, the disease in order to be an agent of alleviating the suffering that was there. We need to do this, as a culture, with regards to violence against women.”
Rupa’s words go directly to the heart of the problem: people don’t want to look at sexual assault. It’s not until it’s so violent and public that they have no choice but to look, that people are willing to recognize the problem. Unfortunately, we’re left with a society full of people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, who are afraid to talk about their assaults, who feel abandoned and isolated from their peers. We have an epidemic and it’s not being quarantined.
One of the reasons for this is because women are trained to not recognize an assault as rape unless it is explicitly violent. A woman I know recently shared her experience with me. She said, “The night it happened I gave him my body at first willingly but, as always, without interest. He came quickly. I felt relief. I did not know it wasn’t over. He said he wasn’t done. I said no. I said I needed to sleep. He tried to convince me with his hands. I laughed. I thought he was kidding. It wasn’t until he pinned me against our bed that I knew he wasn’t.
I didn’t cry. If I cried and he didn’t stop, I thought, then it would be rape—excuses. It would be rape if I didn’t enjoy it—so I tried to. I lay still. I tried to fake some moaning so it would be over sooner. It was not over soon enough. He told me later how he hates when I say no. He made me feel bad for saying no to him pinning me. I felt guilt for making my rapist feel bad and I tried to give him sex more often because of it.
There is a stigma that exists in my culture that says that this wasn’t rape. He pinned me down and I said no, but there would be no way to prove this to anyone. Not just because I waited too long to tell, but because we maintained a relationship for years afterward. Marital rape is nearly impossible to prove so I have to be careful with whom I trust this information.”
It has only been thirty years since marital rape became illegal. Before then, it was a husband’s legal right to rape his wife, regardless of her reasons for not wanting to have sex. While that right no longer exists, our society has not taught the next generation why they no longer have that right. Instead, many men continue to exercise control over women’s bodies.
My friend is fortunate to have started the healing process. She explains, “Slowly I have regained my sense of self and slowly I begin to see the recourse of the sexual abuse. I have a few close friends I trust, with them I am starting to enjoy hugging again. I love my body more than ever now. I am treating it well because it has been neglected for so long. I have felt numb and lost but I have found solace in others who I know will understand. I am lucky.”
Where do we go from here? How do we go about changing our society so that we can start recognizing rape for what it is?
Rupa suggests working with your local community, to stop accepting sexual assault as a type of wallpaper that hangs in the background of our societies, to codify a language around sexism and gender violence, and to educate men—especially young men—about violence against women. I couldn’t agree more.
Awareness and education tend to be aimed towards women, but when 97% of cases are committed by men, it’s clear that we need to broaden our audience.