We’ve Only Just Begun: A Reflection on Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente says that our attitudes towards sexual harassment have already changed (Globe & Mail, Friday November 22, 2014). She argues in a recent column that attitudes towards sexual violence and harassment are very different and much better now than when she was younger – in the workplace, on the street, and in the general culture.

I am extremely pleased about the recent attention that some remarkable journalism has brought to sexual predators in the entertainment industry and on university campuses. A conversation has started to take place about sexual violence, consent and rape culture – in the press, on-line, around the water cooler at work, in our homes – that is more open, acknowledging and based on facts (such as the 2-4% false allegation rate reported by law enforcement agencies in North America and the UK) than ever before. For this, I am profoundly grateful.

But I have to say to Ms Wente – you are significantly overstating the change in our culture. We are moving forward, yes, but we still have an awfully long way to go before we can begin to talk about real change – before the experiences of individuals who report and seek redress for rape, sexual assault and harassment become different in a meaningful way.

Faking it before we are making it is not going to help. In fact, it risks labelling those who like me will continue to advocate and speak out until we have real change as “strident” and “shrill” and “never satisfied” – in other words, all the same epithets that have been always been thrown at us.

A reality check. Many people at the CBC suspected or knew what Jian Ghomeshi was up to. It took years for the allegations made against him to be accepted in all their ugliness, and for something to be done. In fact, it took the press outing him. The same – over an even longer period – goes for Bill Cosby. And Cosby’s lawyers today continue to describe the 15 and still counting women who have come forward with almost identical stories of drugging and rape as “defamatory liars”.

Change? If this is change, it is clearly not enough.

As a survivor of sexual violence – raped as a child, sexually assaulted by a church minister for a year, and raped again at university – I think I am able to distinguish between (as one on-line commentator on Margaret Wente’s article put it) “innocent flirtation and sexual abuse.” My experiences all took place more than 30 years ago. I did not tell anyone – I knew full well that I would not be believed, there were no processes (aside from going to the police, which was unimaginable), and I did not even have a name (“date-rape”) for what happened to me at university.

The awful truth is that 30 years on, the institutional torpor, victim-blaming, and barriers to women reporting with any degree of confidence that anything will result (aside from the excoriation of their reputation) is almost exactly the same now, as then. I have lived this reality over the past 12 months working with women at my own university who have been the target of a sexual predator on campus in our efforts to get the institution to – please – do something.

I am by nature a very optimistic person. I do believe that we can change how our culture understands and responds to sexual violence. I believe that through a combination of consciousness-raising, shaming, and sheer determination on the part of survivors and their advocates, we can expect our institutions to begin to do much, much better.

But it is going to take a lot more concerted effort, education, openness, humility, and pressure from many quarters, including but not limited to the press, to get us there. Sorry Ms Wente, but we have barely just begun.

– Julie Macfarlane


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