Sexual assault case provokes questions on patriarchy in the courts

Last week's high-profile sexual assault case involving two RCMP officers has left some Yukoners confounded. RCMP Constables Shawn McLaughlin and Graham Belak defended themselves against the allegations they drugged and raped a woman.

Last week’s high-profile sexual assault case involving two RCMP officers has left some Yukoners confounded.

RCMP Constables Shawn McLaughlin and Graham Belak defended themselves against the allegations they drugged and raped a woman last March in Watson Lake by suggesting the sex was consensual.

The proof? Though it carried little weight in the judge’s final decision, the officers listed a litany of devious and seductive behaviour on her part leading up to the sexual encounter.

She gave them provocative glances. She rubbed their thighs. She said they had a “special” bond with a wink and a nudge. She straddled an exercise ball while staring at McLaughlin. Not only that, the ball was ribbed, said McLaughlin. And her legs were apart.

That defence left some women (and men) in the courtroom queasy. And following the acquittal of both officers on Tuesday, women’s advocacy groups are asking some serious questions about whether women are treated equally when it comes to sexual assault.

Can women trust the RCMP?

The woman’s testimony, though it wasn’t believed by the court, isn’t an isolated incident, said Charlotte Hrenchuk, the Yukon representative for the Status of Women council.

A number of women who have reported sexual assaults by RCMP officers in the Yukon have spoken to Hrenchuk since the woman came forward with her allegations.

“They admire (the woman’s courage) for coming forward,” she said.

“Some were assaulted by RCMP, in one form or another, and some were (assaulted) not necessarily by them,” she said.

Belak and McLaughlin are not shining examples of our national police force.

By McLaughin’s own account, their actions were highly inappropriate. He cheated on his spouse with a newcomer to Watson Lake who was also married. In a small town, off-duty cops taking drunk, married women to bed doesn’t really send a strong message that the police are there to serve and protect.

The trial brought an existing distrust with the RCMP to the surface, said Hrenchuk.

“The trust that was broken a year ago when the charges were laid has not been re-established with the RCMP,” she said.

The Mounties need to come forward with their own ideas on how to re-establish trust, said Hrenchuk, who sat through parts of the trial.

“What are they going to do to make overtures to women to make them feel safe?” she said. “And what are they going to do about their training of their officers?”

Right now, a woman wouldn’t feel safe about bringing forward a sexual assault charge, she said.

“Whatever version you believe in that trial, I don’t believe the police served and protected that woman,” she said.

The Yukon has three times the rate of sexual assault than the rest of Canada, she added.

“There was an element of predatory sexuality there.”

Can women trust the courtroom?

The officers’ notion of consent (thigh-rubbing and sexy glares) is a sign that society still tolerates the backward notion of the flirty temptress who was asking for it, said Julianna Scramstad, a director at the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre.

“We need education about deconstructing gender role expectations,” she said. “We need to make sure that people are recognizing power, privilege and entitlement so that we can actually live with mutual respect.”

The defence strategy relied on establishing that the woman was aggressively seeking a sexual encounter with the two officers.

In their closing arguments, the officers’ lawyers made a pitch that there was mistaken but honest belief that there was consent.

“It was just so backward, ” said Scramstad.

The judge didn’t make his decision for acquittal based on the officers’ notion of consent. It came down to credibility before he could consider consent.

Despite that, the fact that their story was more believable than the woman’s shows that there is some patriarchy in the system, said Scramstad.

“It was riding on this sense of masculine entitlement that was rampant in this case,” she said.

Outside the case, the fact that “mistaken but honest belief in consent” is legally tolerated demonstrates patriarchy, said Hrenchuk.

“If someone took my car and that was their defence, I don’t think that would stand up in court,” she said.

“The notion of consent needs to be legally revisited.”

Besides the consent issue, another example of the trial’s unfairness to women was the fact that the power dynamic between two RCMP officers versus one woman was barely addressed by the court.

“For one thing, they need to acknowledge that (the power dynamic) exists,” said Hrenchuk.

The implied fairness of the court should be called into question, said Scramstad.

“These are people who work together and they are all part of the same system,” she said.

“The people in the court system work with the cops and they have a vested interest in maintaining a happy relationship,” she said.

The fact that no date rape or trauma expert was brought in to offer some insight into the woman’s experience is an example of how little effort went into believing the alleged victim, she said.

“One tends to believe one’s colleagues; one tends to believe the best of one’s colleagues,” said Hrenchuk.

The eeriest segment of the trial was during the woman’s testimony.

Half a dozen RCMP officers were in the courtroom only for the women’s cross-examination. That’s when the defence lawyers put the heat on and asked about her flirty behaviour the night of the incident.

She spent most of that part of the trial looking the other way, towards the judge’s bench.

The fact that the power dynamic wasn’t addressed only exacerbated one of the central problems with reporting sexual assault – the revictimization of women at court time.

“Women, by many accounts, are revictimized by bringing forward these charges,” said Hrenchuk.

Women have their dignity stripped by not being believed, by having to recount every gruesome detail and by the effects on their family and community, she said.

But from another perspective, these are things that any alleged victim – male or female – have to go through when any serious crime is dealt with by a court.

The answers aren’t easy. Should defence lawyers be asked to refrain from being aggressive?

“If we could have a way that this could be done in dignity, then more women would come forward,” said Scramstad.

Should women take sexual assault cases to court?

No one can say if women should or shouldn’t take sexual assault cases to court, said Hrenchuk.

“There’s no shoulds – I cannot tell a woman what she should or should not do,” she said.

A woman must assess her own vulnerability and safety and if a woman does not feel safe coming forward with a charge then she shouldn’t, she said.

“It’s helpful when women come forward because we can compile cases,” she added.

“However, if it is not helpful for a woman in her personal life to go through what that young woman has gone through over the past year, then what does that say about the system?” she said.

Contact James Munson