An Open Secret: #MeToo and the Prevalence of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault in Canada

It is utterly disgusting that in 2017 we still need to have conversations about the unacceptability of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Though our laws guarantee equality of the sexes and freedom from discrimination, the fact that so many Canadians shared the hashtag #MeToo indicates that sexual harassment and assault are still very much a problem.

For those unfamiliar with the #MeToo movement, it started with reports that movie producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted the women he worked with. The hashtag was used to show the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault, the idea being that if every victim shared it on their social media feed, society would finally understand how vast the problem is.

This article is a primer on sexual harassment and assault in Canada.

Sexual harassment is a form of harassment based on the person’s sex. According to the Quebec Institut National de Santé Publique, legally a victim must prove three things in order to prove sexual harassment:

  1. “Unwanted sexual behaviour
  2. That manifests itself repeatedly, and
  3. That has adverse effects on its victims.”

The behavior can be anything from words to actions to posters, but for the victim it has to feel “targeted and unwelcome” with adverse effects. In Quebec the behavior has to be repetitive and harassment can manifest itself in being denied raises or promotions in retaliation for refusing sexual advances, or sexual behavior in the workplace that creates a hostile environment for the victim(s).

Legal recourse for victims of sexual harassment can consist of filing a complaint against your employer with the Commission des Normes de Travail (CNT), filing a civil liability suit against their harasser, or lodging a criminal harassment complaint which could get the offender up to ten years in jail. The employee could also, where applicable, file a complaint for psychological harassment with the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité au travail (CSST) and request compensation if the harassment is so severe he or she can no longer work.

Now let’s talk about sexual assault and consent.

Sexual assault is any application of force to another person that is sexual and without the other person’s consent.

Consent is the voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It can be withdrawn at any time, and there is no consent where the victim was coerced, incapable of agreeing to the sexual activity due to their age or, for example, because they’re unconscious, or if someone agreed to the activity on their behalf.

There is also no consent if you abuse a position of power or trust, or of course, if the person expresses lack of consent. Passivity does not constitute consent.

Without consent, there is sexual assault. The penalty for sexual assault in Canada is a maximum penalty of five years, or if a weapon was used causing bodily harm, a maximum of ten years.

Myths

That said, we need to debunk a few myths:

  • MYTH: A woman’s behaviour or style of dress provokes sexual assault

The argument goes like this:

“If she’d been more modest (in dress or behavior) this never would have happened.”

No behavior or manner of dress excuses sexual assault.

Arguments about behavior and dress shift the blame from the assaulter to the victim, and reinforce toxic gender stereotypes against men and women by claiming that sexual assault is a woman’s problem, and that the reason assaults happen is because men are horny aggressive beasts who can’t control themselves and women provoke them.

Here’s a wakeup call: conservatively dressed people get assaulted, as do less conservatively dressed people. Quiet, modest people get assaulted, as do the bombastic and loud. Men get assaulted, as do women. To quote the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centers:

“Offenders are solely responsible for their own behaviour.”

  • MYTH: Sexual Assault is over reported

Less than ten percent of all sexual assaults are reported.

There is a huge stigma associated with reporting assaults, making harder on the victim than on the offender. This is likely because our culture still lacks a proper grasp of what constitutes consent. As a result victims are often interrogated and dragged through the mud about their behavior before and after the assault, rather than their attackers.

  • MYTH: It’s not Sexual Harassment if the victim does not complain about it

The unequal relationship that often exists between employees and their harasser will often lead to silence for fear of causing conflict that could jeopardize their job.

  • MYTH: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault are Women’s Problems

Men are often the victims of sexual harassment and assault, though it is likely that the available numbers about it are a modest estimate due to under-reporting.

The stigma associated with males reporting their victimization is likely because our society still adheres to notions of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity pushes a narrow and repressive notion of what it means to a man, specifically that any display of stereotypically feminine traits, such as emotional vulnerability or even being victimized makes you less of a man. According to a 2015 article in Psychology Today, the men most likely to be victims of sexual harassment were those who deviated from stereotypical notions of masculinity by being members of a sexual minority or being involved in feminist causes. Men who challenged traditional gender roles were also more likely to be victimized.

It should be said that even if sexual harassment and assault were strictly women’s problems, it does not lessen importance of fixing the problem. If we as a society recognize that women are fully human, a problem that affects only them must be recognized as a problem that hurts us all.

It should also be said that gender segregation is not a solution because it puts the onus of avoiding harassment and assault on the people who are victimized. This encourages and exacerbates a culture of victim blaming.

So what is the solution?

We need to teach people about consent as early as possible, that means teaching kids about the importance of personal physical boundaries and evils of sexism and unwanted touching. The lessons should be taught to all genders and not just to girls as they generally are now.

Schools should have a zero-tolerance policy about sexual harassment and assault and even something we used to think of as a common joke – snapping bra straps – should be recognized as a form of assault and punished accordingly. Our education ministries would be wise to consult experts on sexual harassment and assault to better develop these policies and education programs.

The rules in Quebec about sexual harassment need to change.

Under our current rules, isolated incidents of sexual harassment are not considered as such, and they should be, particularly if the actions or words of the offender are significant enough to make a work environment hostile for the victim. A boss who tells a female employee “fuck me or you’re fired” and does not pursue it further should be seen as just as much of a harasser as one who regularly makes sexist jokes around his or her coworkers.

Last but not least, we need to better screen judicial appointees and law enforcement to ensure that, for example, people like former superior court judge Robin Camp are NEVER allowed to decide a rape case.

Law enforcement needs to be better trained to treat the victims like victims so they’re not so scared to come forward. Anyone lacking proper knowledge and empathy to deal with issues of sexual violence should be made to undergo sensitivity training and pass an exam to secure their position. Those who fail should be denied employment.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are problems that affect us all. There’s no avoiding it, and there’s no denying it.

It’s time we fight it.

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