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Negotiating rape

Rape is far too common in Canada, and judges don't take the crime seriously enough, say Yukon women's groups. A new sexual assault prevention campaign aims to bolster women's resistance to the crime and highlight the court's failure to recognize that resistance.

Rape is far too common in Canada, and judges don’t take the crime seriously enough, say Yukon women’s groups.

A new sexual assault prevention campaign aims to bolster women’s resistance to the crime and highlight the court’s failure to recognize that resistance.

“The justice system is not working,” said Julianna Scramstad, of the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre. “Is rape a crime with consequences? Because (the judicial system) is not preserving women’s dignity.”

According to Statistics Canada, 23,303 sexual assaults were reported across Canada in 2005.

The number in the Yukon is far worse - double the national rate. And at least nine per cent of Yukoners are reporting abuse by their spouses.

The judicial system tends to ignore the efforts women take to resist abuse, said Scramstad, Ketsia Houde of Les Essentielles, and Barbara McInerney of Kaushee’s Place.

This is obvious in the language lawyers and judges use, said McInerney.

For example, many times the act in question gets referred to as “sexual relations” or “sexual relationship.” Relationship implies mutual action and ignores the woman’s resistance.

“It starts looking at it as ‘sex gone wrong,’ instead of an intentionally violent crime,” said McInerney.

“The language used, like talking about ‘oral sex’ when it’s the penis shoved in her mouth - it changes the way that people will understand the situation,” said Houde.

“It’s like if somebody got mugged and you called it an economic relationship,” said Scramstad. “If a guy was standing on the corner at night and he got mugged, we wouldn’t say, ‘Why were you standing in that neighbourhood? And what were you wearing? And why did you have that money in the first place?’

“It’s an inequality issue because of the way we talk about women in court. If you’re in court and you’re treated differently than someone else may be treated because of your gender, that is not OK.”

As well, there is case law that Yukon courts ignore, said all three women.

For example, sexual assault cases in the territory continue to question the woman’s sexual past and consider “implied consent,” they said.

Implied consent can be anything from scandalous clothing, to flirtation or a kiss.

“There’s been precedence set, but repeatedly it’s still being done,” said Houde. “They don’t respect the rules.”

And these are just the challenges women face within the courtroom - what about the social factors outside, said McInerney, listing consequences of assault victims that come forward in small communities, like being ostracized, losing their jobs or homes for themselves and their children.

More work needs to be done within the communities, but it’s a challenge, said Scramstad, Houde and McInerney.

It is a matter of funding, capacity and contacts, they said.

As well, community women need to initiate it, said Scramstad.

“Historically, well-intentioned white people have showed up and tried to do great things a lot of times and I feel like I need to be careful of that,” she said.

No posters for this campaign were put up outside of Whitehorse, but there was a panel discussion on CHON FM.

And the campaign features radio and newspaper ads, said the women.

The ads are graphic.

“I work as many night shifts as I can hoping he’ll be asleep when I get home.”

“I get drunk hoping I’ll pass out.”

“I screamed for help. I crossed my legs. Then I went limp to avoid the pain.”

“Rape is often the cost of a roof over my head.”

The three ads tell all-too-common stories of how women attempt to stop, or deal with consistent sexual abuse.

“We’re acknowledging that women do resist and there are whole stories that don’t come out about the actions that women take in order to resist violence in their lives,” said Scramstad. “We hear her side of the story, so it’s really clear that she did not consent.”

“When you see those actions, she didn’t mean, ‘Yes.’ She said ‘No,’ like, 15 times during the assault,” said Houde.

“It’s how women preserve their dignity,” said McInerney. “How women preserve the dignity of themselves and their children.”

All three ads finish with the same two sentences: “Do you really question my resistance? The judge decided I consented.”

Women are negotiating their safety every day, said Scramstad.

“They are looking around their own community and figuring out what they can and cannot say and what they can and cannot do and how to keep themselves save in those super complicated communities,” she said.

More safe housing is needed in rural Yukon.

But the real goal would be to start teaching men how to not rape, not to continue teaching women how not to get raped, they said.

The month-long campaign will conclude with a public debate at 7 p.m. tonight, at 302 Strickland Street.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at