Commentary, Opinion

The limits of innocent until proven guilty

One in 10 female-identifying students at Canadian post-secondary institutions experienced sexual assault in 2019. According to a survey from 2014, only about five per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police. As sexual assault garnered more attention through the #MeToo movement, many used the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” to defend accused men, and this phrase is still repeated, even within the McGill community. In 2015, at McGill, over 50 per cent of students chosen for a survey said they had witnessed inappropriate sexist comments, unwelcome sexual advances, and requests for sexual favours. Presuming innocence until proven guilty is complicated when it comes to sexual assault cases, where evidence has an expiry date and the trauma that can result from coming forward is enough to deter many survivors from speaking up.

There is a false rhetoric surrounding the phrase “believe women” that implies an allegation should be enough to convict someone of sexual assault without other evidence. In reality, convictions based solely on allegations rarely, if ever, occur. This view only leads to the discreditation of those who experience sexual violence. Instead, believing women is about encouraging them to come forward by providing a safe space. This concept developed because of the double-standard survivors of sexual violence experience: For most other crimes, law enforcement officials and outsiders are quick to believe victims and launch investigations, whereas survivors of sexual violence are expected to provide all evidence for a conviction during the initial complaint or they are invalidated. Believing women is not to presume immediately that the accused is guilty, but rather to acknowledge the accuser’s complaint as legitimate.

The #MeToo movement also questioned the standards for proof when it comes to sexual assault cases and the traumatic nature of evidence collection. The idea of being prodded for hours after an assault for the administration of a rape kit is often too traumatic for survivors to consider. The process of reporting is both intrusive and traumatic in nature, which dissuades survivors from coming forward. The difficulties involved in reporting a case of sexual assault is important when considering why sexual assault cases often fail to reach a courtroom.  This includes the fear of lawyers whose job is to discredit and tear down victims and the line of police questioning that is often based in victim-blaming, questioning clothing or drink choices. Trauma experts have found that common reasons for not coming forward include hallmark symptoms of trauma following sexual assault, such as confusion and a foggy memory. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a well-publicized example of a survivor seeing her abuser in a position of power and feeling obligated to come forward , and speak up to protect others. Similarly, within the McGill community, the incoming Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice President Internal faced similar accusations, and the alleged survivor displayed a comparable way of thinking to Ford. Women need to feel comfortable coming forward, knowing their claims will be taken seriously, no matter the perpetrator’s identity or how clearly they recollect the incident.

There is no statute of limitations on sexual assault in Canada because there are recognized institutional and psychological factors that result in delayed reports. Reporting an assault is hard, and the process leading to a conviction may feel insurmountable. The culture around sexual assault is changing, but not fast enough. Being at McGill, a university in one of the safest cities in North America, does not change this. Assuming that believing survivors means calling for jail time is not conducive to change and works against the movement to empower women. When the processes in place to report crimes fail survivors, it is up to individuals to work to change the culture surrounding reporting sexual assault. Sensitivity, tact, and respect are the only things that will encourage women to speak up. 

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