Sheila Macdonald, provincial co-ordinator of the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care and Treatment Centres, works with 35 hospital-based treatment programs across Ontario.
Many more women are coming forward now about sexual assault. Twenty or 30 years ago it never would have been talked about. I think somebody has opened the floodgate. The police and the justice system have also changed for the better since I started doing this work in 1990, and evidence has certainly gotten better because of DNA. But progress is slow. It’s not nearly where we want it to be.
There are lots of things that need to change. The myths that blame the victims of sexual assault need to be confronted. Secondly, I think we need a different approach to how sexual assault is investigated. The reality is that most victims, 80 per cent, know the person who assaulted them—it wasn’t a random stranger. There was some reason that they trusted this person. Typically the justice system sees that the issue comes down to consent—one person’s word against one other person’s word. But we know the people who perpetrate these crimes do them over and over again. That’s why when one victim steps forward, all of the sudden others do. It’s not “he said, she said.” It’s “he said, they said.” And the perpetrators are not held accountable. Our legal process sees one case at a time, one assault at a time. If there are 10 victims, we need to have a different process. Often, lots of people know lots of things that never get considered.
We spend a lot of time system-wide on singular incidents of date rape when we should be looking at these guys as serial offenders. There has been research showing that many date rapists, just like other rapists, have committed numerous assaults—not just sexual assault against adult women but also domestic violence and child abuse. They’re violent people. When we think about date rape, most of the time we think, “Oh, it was a circumstance gone bad, it went too far, you know, it was a consent thing.” That’s not the way it is.
We also need strong Crown prosecutors and judges to stand up for the victim. Cross-examination can be like a second assault. Victims can be treated badly on the stand, and it shouldn’t be allowed. We also see the delay of court proceedings as a strategy to wear the victim out. That has nothing to do with protecting the rights of the accused. This stuff is tactics. It can be addressed and it hasn’t.
— As told to Genna Buck. This interview has been condensed and edited.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.