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Empowerment, community keys to fighting sexual assault

Eight per cent.

That’s the number of sexual assaults that, according to the General Social Survey by Juristat Canada, get reported each year.

If this number is correct, then the actual number of sexual assaults is eighteen times the number that are reported. In real terms, that means that since 765 sexual offenses were reported to the police in 2007 in Nova Scotia, the actual number of sexual assaults in a year in this fine province looks a lot more like 9,563.

Hence, I put on my wooly black pea coat, drew a sign and spent my Friday night marching down the street to reclaim my right to live a life free of sexual violence.

With hundreds of other fabulous women surrounding me, I got ready to repossess the city that, according to Maclean’s magazine, has the third highest per capita rate of sexual assault in the country.

As women and allies all walked together, refusing to accept violence against women, I began to ponder: how can women best work to prevent violence against women in their communities? How can we band together in the face of such hopeless statistics and refuse to be victimized?

Posters, pamphlets and other propaganda pieces constantly reinforce reminders to women to do things that they usually knew about before. Watch your drink. Don’t go down certain streets late at night. Ask a boy to walk you home. Don’t ask a boy to walk you home. Go in groups. Wear jeans. (Actually, don’t, because if you do get raped in jeans, it might take from 1999 until 2008 for an Italian court to recognize that your denim does not make sexual assault an impossibility.)

Obviously, this safety advice can be helpful and is worth paying attention to. But there’s a point when these tips become more than common sense suggestions. Rather, they become implicit rules for where you live, how you get to work and how you live your life.

Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism, describes this system of rules as a daily, lifelong “rape schedule,” that’s when the safety suggestions become victim-blaming.

“It’s essentially like living in a prison – all the time. We can’t assume that we’re safe anywhere. Not on the streets. Not in our homes,” Valenti writes in her book. “And we’re so used to feeling unsafe that we don’t see that there’s something seriously fucked up about it.”

The most frustrating thing about living your life on this clock is that it doesn’t even work. In 2005, according to the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the status of women, 68 per cent of sexual assaults were committed by individuals actually known to the victim.

So what the hell do we do about these numbers? How do we empower women in the fight against violence without being paternalistic or placing onus on the victim?

One volunteer at the march who wished not to be named argued that the quandary I have is stupid.

“If I suggest you wash your hands after you eat, is that blaming the victim?” she asked, wittily.

The difference between being supportive and paternalistic, she explained, lies in the desire to create a space where women have choices.

The best way to support women in the long term, we agreed, is to resist the black and white framework that suggests that women must consistently choose between assault or living their lives freely.

On a practical note, how about having more sexual assault centres? Right now, Nova Scotia has two. Two! One is in Halifax and one is in Truro.

Maybe we could write to our police officers. In 2006, the proportion of sexual assaults in Nova Scotia that actually resulted in the laying of a charge was lower than in all the other provinces and territories. That’s not a competition I want to win.

Geneva McCall and Kathleen Hamm, two other women present at the march, also emphasized the importance of community building outside of the traditional justice and government frameworks.

McCall underlined the importance of trying to help women around you to feel empowered, while Hamm spoke of building a sense of community.

“Be mindful,” Hamm said, “to not … feed into negativity, (but rather) look out for other women and be aware.”

So carry your pepper spray, get a ride home, demand a cab chit from your place of employment and watch your drink. But remember that these behaviours are not solutions to the problem of violence against women, but reminders of it.

When you’re seated on your comfy living room couch with all your doors locked to prevent the Sleep Watcher and you’ve made a hot cocoa, take a moment to think about how you want to create lasting, long term change that makes sexual and gendered violence unthinkable. And then tell me how the hell we should do that, because the more I think about it, the more I find myself at a loss.

Katie Toth
Katie Toth
Katie was the Opinions Editor of the Gazette for Volume 143.
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