Police don’t release details about sex crimes – but does the public need to know to stay safe?
“If there is someone loose in my neighborhood sexually assaulting women, I would really feel better knowing whether it was a slap on the ass or a violent rape,” said Meaghan Willis, 28, a global health research professional in downtown Toronto.
Willis answered a question posed by The Ryersonian last week about whether it is in the public’s interest for police to reveal the specifics of reported sexual assaults. Her desire to know more is reflected by several other women who want to know the worst-case scenario when their safety is threatened.
Connie Guberman, a senior lecturer in the department of women’s and gender studies at the University of Toronto, agrees with Willis.
“I just want to know the nature of the assault for my own needs, my own anxiety, my own self-protection,” Guberman said.
Guberman lives in the Annex neighbourhood where 10 sexual assaults have been reported since July. Although an arrest has not yet been made, police believe a single perpetrator is responsible for all 10 assaults. The Toronto Police Service has provided details of circumstances that led up to the attacks – typically, women have been approached from behind while walking alone late at night, they were sexually assaulted and when they screamed or fought back, the perpetrator fled.
But there is no information on what happened during the assault. A sexual assault is defined by Toronto police as any unwanted contact with sexual overtones, and it is not necessary for physical contact to have taken place. So women have no way of knowing if the assaults involved gestural threats, threats with a weapon, grabbing, fondling, biting, choking, or penetration.
Toronto police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said police use the language in the Criminal Code, which was modified in 1983 to repeal the rape charge. While a person in Canada cannot be charged with rape, police can charge individuals with sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, or sexual assault with a weapon, as well as threats to a third party or causing bodily harm.
“The general public may attribute a level of seriousness to these assaults, and some assaults may be seen as less serious than others,” Gray said. “That is not the message we want to put out there. Every sexual assault is serious for us.”
At Ryerson, six assaults have occurred on or near campus since the beginning of the school year. Alerts released by Ryerson’s security and emergency services have detailed how women were assaulted, but because specific alerts are not emailed out, students have to visit Ryerson.ca’s Security Watches page regularly to receive the information or read through the administration’s frequent “Ryerson Today” emails. In one case, a woman’s skirt was lifted and her buttock was grabbed. There were at least two other cases in which women’s backsides were grabbed.
Ryerson University spokesman Bruce Piercey explained that the university tries to be as transparent as possible without jeopardizing the investigation.
“It’s important for people to understand the context of the assaults in order to better protect themselves. The more information that’s provided, the better the understanding in the community of what’s going on,” he said.
But Guberman said it should not be up to authorities to decide what information women want to hear. She said she does not make judgment calls on the seriousness of a sexual assault and that she has the right to be armed with as much knowledge as possible.
Jane Doe, whose real name is under a court-ordered publication ban, successfully sued Toronto police in 1986 for not releasing information about a known serial rapist in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood. Madam Justice Jean MacFarland ruled that had police warned the public about the rapes, Doe could have taken steps to prevent the rapist from breaking into her home, threatening her with a knife and sexually assaulting her. She was awarded $220,000.
Surprisingly, Doe’s feelings on sexual assault reporting are in line with the Toronto police policy.
“Whether they’re grabbing my ass or beating me down and penetrating me, they’re still crimes against a woman’s autonomy, her personhood and her dignity,” she said.
Kasia Mychajlowycz, a recent Ryerson graduate and one of the organizers of Ryerson’s Take Back the Block party to reclaim a safe space for women on campus last Saturday, respectfully disagrees with Doe.
“Putting this crime in a special secret category doesn’t make sense to me because we’re trying to bring things more into the open and have more of a conversation around sexual assaults,” she said. “We’ve tried the whole keeping-it-in-the-family, not-talking-about-it thing for the last 10,000 years, and where has that gotten us?”
She argues that publicizing the details of sexual assaults helps women with similar experiences know they are not alone. “I don’t see how not being specific … is how we’re going to go about reducing the stigma of reporting,” she said.
Doe is incensed and troubled by what she perceives as pressure on women to report sexual assaults, saying that it is an individual woman’s decision to make while considering a legal system that often blames and disbelieves sexual assault victims, and almost never convicts.
“What I’m seeing more and more is this pressure being put on women,” she said. “Do it for the team. If you would just report, the crime rate would go down. It’s outrageous. Why is it our responsibility to stop the crime?”
Doe said the national conviction rate for sexual assaults is dismally low – hovering between one and five per cent – and charges are often dropped before the case even goes to trial.
Nicole Pietsch, co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, has doubts about whether knowing the specifics of a sexual assault will actually be beneficial to women. She feels women are already getting the information they need from police.
“I’m just not really sure if this is a public want for some sort of graphic information so they can make a judgment on whether that sexual assault was important or relevant and rank them,” Pietsch said.
Both Pietsch and Doe identified the media’s desire to publish sensational and graphic reports as unhelpful. Pietsch said she heard all the details in the high-profile rape of eight-year-old Tori Stafford and the rapes perpetrated by former Canadian Forces colonel Russell Williams, but they only made her feel powerless, depressed, horrified and afraid. She doesn’t believe parents can protect their children any more than they already do by knowing the specifics of what Tori had to endure.
“No one’s done a study on this, but I think if police say, ‘There’s been a sexual assault in blah-blah area. If you’ve been affected, please come forward,’ I think that would be just as effective as saying, ‘Woman had her butt grabbed in the blah-blah-blah area,’” Pietsch said.
Despite compelling, but contradictory, arguments, there was one thing all interviewees agreed on: women are already aware of their surroundings, and are already looking over their shoulders while walking home alone. Police and media need to stop sending messages that blame victims or urge them to take precautions – instead, these agencies should be sending a firm message that sexual assaults are unacceptable.
“What they (police) should be saying and what would be absolutely effective is: ‘Look buddy, we know you’re out there. We’re on to you and we’re going to get you. Someone knows who you are and they’re going to call us. Stay the fuck off the street,’” Doe said.
“Don’t tell me to stay off the streets,” she added. “I want to walk home by myself. Alone. That’s my choice.”
Published in the Ryersonian on September 26, 2012.