Speaking up

Last summer, Regina mental health advocate Jim Demeray faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment from his days managing an Earls restaurant in the city. Soon after, dozens more stories about sexual assault and harassment throughout the Regina community surfaced on an Instagram page called Survivors Stories Regina, dedicated to “sharing stories from survivors of sexual assault and harassment.” Most of the posts were anonymous, many were very detailed, and some identified the alleged perpetrator.

The account quickly had more than 8,000 followers. Less than a month after the account was set up, a man identified in one of the posts filed a $1 million lawsuit against the account’s authors as well as Facebook, which hosts Instagram. Shortly after that, the account was deleted and a new page called Victims Voices Regina was created. It shares the goal of the original account, but does not list the names of alleged perpetrators.

The importance of speaking up

Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes in the country. According to Ashley Kilback, with Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan, the umbrella organization for the province’s community-based sexual assault centres, only about five percent of survivors in that province report sexual assaults to the police.

There is no doubt that the criminal system has failed and continues to fail survivors of sexual violence. Survivors need spaces that are safe and supportive where they can talk about what has happened to them. Sometimes, this can be done without identifying the person who has caused them harm. But, sometimes, naming that person is an important part of the survivor’s process to claim back their power. Other times, the survivor names the person to warn potential victims or to connect directly with others who have survived sexual violence at the same person’s hands.

What is to be done, then, when the person telling the story is anonymous but the alleged perpetrator is named? What if someone with a grievance takes advantage of a platform like Survivors Stories Regina, which has a legitimate and laudable purpose, to post untrue stories about another, named, individual?

As Dauna Ditson wrote in prairie dog last summer:

“At least a dozen men are reported to have sought legal avenues to shut down [the Instagram account]. They may say their intentions are noble – standing up for due process; silencing liars – but the issues at play are much broader than the details of what specific individuals are alleged to have done. The real issue is about power, patriarchy and whose pain we care about. It’s also about whether we believe the multitudes of survivors when they show us their wounds.”

Ditson goes on to ask whether these men, guilty or not, matter more than women who have been sexually assaulted, and this is where I part company with her analysis.

It’s complicated

We cannot frame this issue as a dichotomy: the rights of survivors vs the rights of the possibly falsely accused. I say possibly because it’s not uncommon for someone named as a sexual assaulter to deny the allegation, even when it is true. Just think about how many of the high-profile sexual assault/harassment stories we have heard in recent years began with an outright denial by the perpetrator and ended with an admission of responsibility or, in cases where criminal charges were laid, a finding of guilt.

Survivors deserve to be heard, and there are very few places where they are. It’s more than clear that the criminal system is not that place.

Too often, survivors are seen as not credible when they tell their true stories, because that is less painful than acknowledging the extent of gender-based sexual violence in our communities.

As Globe and Mail journalist Robyn Doolittle, whose Unfounded series investigated how police departments across the country handled sexual assault cases, says:

“Many people will automatically reach for doubt when they hear a [sexual assault] story. Rape culture is this system of being that is so woven into every aspect of our lives; a system where we place doubt on victims and make excuses for perpetrators.”

At the same time as survivors need safe spaces to be heard, it is — without question — wrong for someone to be falsely and publicly identified as having committed a wrong, especially when the accuser’s identity remains unknown.

Where does this leave us?

For all of the challenges posed by Survivors Stories Regina, the Instagram account has done some good. The Regina Sexual Assault Centre says it has seen a significant increase in requests from businesses asking how they can identify sexual harassment and do something about it.

Rebellion Brewing Company CEO Mark Heise took action as a result of what he learned, partnering with the Canadian Craft Brewers Association to form an anti-discrimination committee and bringing in facilitators to host staff sessions on sexual harassment and discrimination:

“Silence equals violence. We really believe in Rebellion, that we want to be part of the solution and we are willing to stick our necks out and speak out about what we think is right and just.”

Survivors Stories Regina did good. It may also have done harm. If survivors of sexual violence were provided with a range of safe spaces to talk about what has been done to them – spaces that could include a better criminal system, a responsive civil law system, affordable and accessible therapy and support services — all within an intersectional feminist understanding of sexual violence that acknowledges the rarity of false allegations and the commonness of false denials, it might not be needed in the future.

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