Why so many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual assault now

Daily Brew
Photos from Slut Walk in New York, Saturday, October 1, 2011 (David Shankbone/Flickr)

For over a week now, Twitter feeds and Facebook walls have been flooded with the latest in the ongoing saga of Jian Ghomeshi and the women he allegedly assaulted. Since the Toronto Star published a story on Oct. 26 with accusations from three women that Ghomeshi had assaulted them, several more, both named and anonymously, have stepped forwards with their own allegations. That in turn has been followed by a deluge of women who have shared their own, unrelated stories of assault.

In the wake of the scandal, hashtags like #BeenRapedNeverReported have appeared online, with thousands of women sharing their own, often heartbreaking accounts of sexual assault that have never been taken to the police.

But why now? Why did it take the firing and ostracizing of Jian Ghomeshi to prompt so many women to come forward with their own stories?

The question is understandably a complex one, and in reality, the Ghomeshi scandal came at a time when the sexual assault of women is a particularly charged issue, in light of several high-profile stories currently in the media.

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You could say it started back in September, when Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz got international media coverage for her performance art project, in which she carries a mattress around with her on campus until her accused rapist is expelled from the school.

Or you could say the story started back in August, with the rise of GamerGate, a convoluted series of events rooted in the gaming community, but what has ultimately amounted to the online harassment of women involved with gaming and technology, including actress Felicia Day.

Or maybe it started in April 2013, with the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, who took her own life after months of online harassment when photos of her sexual assault were circulated amongst her peers. Maybe it was as far back as the Steubenville High School rape case in the U.S., the high profile sexual assault of a teen by four football players while the victim was unconscious.

Regardless of when it started, it seems that the Ghomeshi scandal was the crack in the dam that finally gave way, and saw the flood of women (and men) with their own stories of sexual assault gush forth.

For women like Bex vanKoot, a Canadian freelance lifestyle writer who shared her own story of sexual assault using the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag, it was a framing of the issue of sexual assault that resonated with her own experiences.

“It was the events of the past week or so that led me to accept the fact that I have been assaulted more times than I can count,” vanKoot told Yahoo Canada News in an email exchange.

“I always felt hesitant to call myself a survivor, because I thought it would somehow diminish the experiences of the women I know who have experienced greater violence and trauma. Admitting my experiences to myself opened something up in me and I knew that I needed to share that in solidarity and for my own healing.”

And like vanKoot, the allegations against Ghomeshi changed for a lot of people not only their understanding of what a sexual predator is, but also what sexual assault looks like.

Fitting the myth

According to Dr. Janice Du Mont, a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto and expert on gender-based violence research, there’s a stigma that exists about what a sexual assault is, and who the assailant may be. If women don’t think their experience fits into they're preconceived notion of what sexual assault is, they’re less likely to come forward.

“There’s still a lot of skepticism about women who report sexual assault,” Du Mont said in a phone interview. “It’s related to those entrenched negative stereotypes about women who are sexually assaulted. This notion that the rape victim should be this virginal young girl and the rapist is an attacker with a knife in the bushes.”

She says that women who don’t fit that myth often start identifying ways that they put themselves in the situation, blaming themselves for wearing the wrong thing, drinking too much, or acting a certain way. And if they don’t think those things, others are often quick to lay the blame for them.

vanKoot says she was braced for that kind of backlash when she shared her experience online.

“The morning after the initial postings, there were reports from other women that men’s rights activists and other apologist trolls were harassing on the thread, but I only received one response from a man who insisted that I hadn’t identified my experiences as assault because ‘it probably wasn’t rape.’”

Safety in numbers

One of the greatest strengths of the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag and the general climate of encouragement and support that has blossomed online is the sheer number of people who are now participating. For many women, seeing so many others coming forward with their stories is what motivated them to come forward.

Nicole Pietsch, Coordinator at the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, says that so often, women don’t seek help because they’re afraid of not being taken seriously.

“The Ghomeshi case is awful, but it’s created a safer space and [these women are] being validated,” Pietsch said to Yahoo Canada News.

She says that she has often seen women inspired to share their own sexual assault experiences once one or two people have shared theirs first.

“It happens all the time. At Take Back the Night events, if one survivor shares her story, other women come forward and share their experience, too. Same thing happens with group counseling.”

Dr. Du Mont says she has seen the same phenomenon.

“When one shares an experience and others recognize it’s common to their experience, people realize they’re not alone,” Du Mont said.

“Hearing others’ stories help you better understand your own.”

Why women choose not to speak up

When the Ghomeshi story in the Star broke, one of the earliest criticisms was that these women chose to come forward anonymously, with some commenters suggesting that it wasn’t fair these women could call out Ghomeshi by name if they weren’t willing to use their names, too.

There have since been two women, Lucy DeCoutere and Reva Seth, who have spoken out against Ghomeshi without anonymity, but that doesn’t diminish the experiences of the women who didn’t want to put their names to their stories.

The reality is there are still plenty of reasons why victims of sexual assault choose to stay silent.

“Women who won’t disclose shouldn’t be blamed, since reporting sexual assault is so often a negative experience," said Du Mont.

“If we want women to continue to come forward, we need to improve the experience, including with the criminal justice system.”

Du Mont cites a study she contributed to that studied sexual assault convictions in Canada, and she found that less than half of all sexual assaults are reported to the police, and of those that were reported, only 25-30 per cent resulted in a guilty verdict for the accused. Even then, when there is a guilty verdict, it often isn’t for the sexual assault, and is instead for a lesser charge.

The formal processes and the reliance on the victim proving their story with physical evidence is also a stressful experience for those who choose to come forward. As with the accusations made in the Ghomeshi case, many of these incidents happen without anyone else around, putting the onus on the victim to defend their story.

“It’s common for women not to talk about it right after,” Pietsch said. “Sexual assault centres often get calls about assaults that happened days, weeks or even months after it happened. Women want to get up the next morning, and often go on with their lives, not think about it.”

For those who do want to seek confidential and free help following a sexual assault, they can connect with resources by visiting sexualassaultsupport.ca.

And for those who are not yet ready to share their stories, there are still allies out there. vanKoot said that the most rewarding part about participating the hashtag campaign was the outpouring of support from those who shared her experience, but weren't yet prepared to share theirs.

“It was so encouraging that the vast majority of responses were from others who perhaps weren’t able to share openly about their own experiences, but who felt I had somehow given a voice to their own struggles by speaking openly about my own.”

Warning: These stories honestly depict a variety of sexual assaults, and may be disturbing.