The language game of sexual assault

It seems that, in the context of sexual assault, the word “unfounded” means very different things to different people. Robyn Doolittle’s unprecedented series in The Globe and Mail earlier this year brought the word into the forefront of many people’s minds and demonstrated the differing uses to which the word is put.

Holly Johnson, of Ottawa University, says that when a sexual assault is classified as unfounded by the police, it can make the survivor feel as though she is being told she is lying.

It can also make other people assume she is lying.

The police take a different approach, saying that unfounded cases are those without enough evidence to proceed with charges or where the complainant (the person reporting the sexual assault) does not want to proceed. Some would say that files labelled unfounded represent false allegations of sexual assault.

As Doolittle notes, there are true unfounded cases where someone makes a false report, but these are rare – somewhere around 2 to 8% of sexual assault complaints.

One in five claims deemed “unfounded”

Her research found that, across Canada, police dismiss 1 in 5 (that’s 20%) of sexual assault claims as unfounded. This is more than double the rate of physical assault allegations that are deemed to be unfounded, and shows clearly that sexual assault claims dismissed on this basis go well beyond the small percentage that are truly unfounded.

Sexual assault activists say that police files closed with the label unfounded are the result of poor policing and demonstrate the persistence of rape myths as well as a lack of understanding of the impact of trauma on the survivor’s memory.

Research conducted in British Columbia in the early 2000s, with partial funding from the federal Department of Justice, looked at unfounded rates in sexual assault cases. Among other things, the researchers noted that cases were more likely to be classified as “real” if the victim reported that she had said no explicitly, if she appeared upset when being interviewed by the police, if she had physically resisted the assault, if the assailant was a stranger and if she did not have any mental health issues, which appeared to include use of alcohol or drugs. In other words, rape myths are alive and well.

Unfortunately, this research was never published because just as it was due for publication, Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, and the decision was made to shelve it. (You can now read highlights of the preliminary study.)

Game of chance

Doolittle concluded, based on her extensive 20-month investigation into how police handle sexual assault allegations in more than 870 communities across Canada, that survivors of sexual assault who report what has happened to the police are playing a “game of chance.”

She is absolutely right. Women who present as the police officer believes a victim of sexual assault should — women who are white, articulate, well-dressed, appear upset, have physical injuries caused by the assailant, who report soon after the assault, who know enough to be sexually assaulted by a stranger, who are sober – are more likely to be believed not just by the police officer, but by everyone in the criminal system.

Women who have the misfortune to be sexually assaulted by someone they know, who laugh while they are giving their statement to the police (a common trauma response, according to trauma expert, Dr. Lori Haskell), who wait weeks or months or years to go to the police, who are sex workers, or Indigenous, or met their assailant on a BDSM social media site, or stay in touch with their assailant after the sexual assault; these women are all less likely to be believed and their claims are more likely to be dismissed as unfounded.

The criminal response to a woman’s report also depends on where she lives, with unfounded rates in some communities much higher than in others, the level of awareness of the officer to whom she reports, the kind of day the officer is having, and lots of other factors that have nothing at all to do with the truthfulness of what the woman is reporting.

The numbers don’t lie

According to statistics published by YWCA Canada, there are approximately 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada each year.

For every 1,000:

  • 33 are reported to the police
  • 29 are recorded
  • 12 result in charges being laid
  • 6 are prosecuted
  • 3 end in a conviction and, of those, ½ result in jail time for the offender.

It’s a wonder any woman reports a sexual assault to the police. Given what we know, would you?

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