October 13, 2009

Roman Polanski and the Rights of Survivors

Posted in Child Sexual Abuse, Current Events, Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault (Rape Drugs), Popular Culture, Rape Culture, Victim Blaming at 6:02 pm by sacetalks

The Roman Polanski case has recently garnered a lot of media attention. Unfortunately, a number of celebrities have added to this media attention by signing a petition in support of him.

There are a lot of complex issues with this case, which I would like to share, but I would like to begin with what is not complicated:

  1. Polanski sexually assaulted a child. She could not consent because of her age. Furthermore, she was given drugs by Polanski and indicated “no”. Any of these aspects, even individually, constitute a sexual assault.
  2. What Polanski did was not only morally but legally wrong
  3. Celebrities who stand in support of Polanski are fueling a ‘rape culture’; that is, a society which condones sexualized violence.

What is complicated, however, is how we approach this as individuals, as legal systems and as local and global communities when it comes to the rights of the girl (now an adult woman) who was victimized by Polanski.

This woman has asked that the case be dropped. She has asked for this because the media attention and any further court involvement will be retraumatizing for her. And I believe her when she says this.

On the one hand, there have been very valid arguments that this is a crime against society that must be punished. That is, sex offenders must be held accountable for the crimes they commit and society must be kept safe from sexual predators.

The Canadian Justice System (which is not involved in the Polanski case) is based upon this premise; sexual assault/abuse crimes are not only crimes against individuals but also crimes against the state, and here in Canada, individuals who experience sexualized violence are not only seen as victims but also as witnesses to a crime, by the Justice System. (The term used is victim/witness).

And this is where it gets complicated.

How do we balance the rights of persons who experience sexual abuse/assault with the need to hold offenders accountable?

In sexual violence cases, the scene of the crime is the survivor’s body, and often, the strongest piece of evidence is their statement. Thus, the survivor is usually needed to prosecute allegations of sexual abuse/assault.

Because the majority of sexual offenses occur where the survivor knows their perpetrator, forensic evidence (e.g. “rape kits” and subsequent DNA evidence) may not, by itself, be enough to convict. This is because accused offenders often argue in their defense that the sexual contact was voluntary. And unless survivors are minors (and under the age of legal consent), they are often required to explain how and why voluntary consent was not granted.

As well, many sexual assaults occur without witnesses, with only the survivor and perpetrator present.

This can put people who have experienced sexualized violence in a terrible position. While many survivors feel empowered to speak their truth in a court of law and explain what really happened, for many others, the court process is incredibly scary and disempowering.

The process can be lengthy and occur long after the survivor feels some degree of healing and resolution; as well, survivors may be made to feel that they are the ones who need to defend themselves in court, even more so than the accused.

Which brings me back to why this whole Polanski business is complicated.

Should the person who experienced the sexual abuse/assault have the right to refuse to engage in the legal process, at any point? Does justice and holding sex offenders accountable outweigh the potential harm inflicted on the survivor?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I do believe that we must empower people who experience sexualized violence by allowing them to make choices about whether or not they will engage in legal processes.

In instances of child sexual abuse, this area is more grey because just as they cannot consent to sexual contact, it is perceived that children cannot really consent to participate or not participate in criminal proceedings.

In Edmonton (Alberta, Canada), victim’s rights advocates work hard to minimize the potential harm on children. We have a specialized agency called Zebra which interviews children in a child-friendly environment. Investigators are sensitized to interviewing children and their disclosures are video taped which means that they may not have to disclose explicit details, again, in court. Zebra also offers court accompaniment and support to child victims.

At the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), we offer counselling to people of all genders 3 years of age and older, at no cost to clients. This can help not only with the healing process as a whole, but to emotionally prepare clients of all ages for legal processes.

Unfortunately, not all communities (in Canada, and elsewhere) offer this to children who have experienced abuse. Smaller communities may not have access to the financial resources to create specialized agencies such as Zebra and SACE, and investigators may not necessarily have the training needed to interview a child.

But what about the instances of adult sexual assault or child sexual abuse where the survivor is now an adult? What rights should they be given to withdraw from criminal proceedings?

I believe people when they say that court processes may do more harm than good to themselves, and I wish that Justice Systems were set up in such a way that we could hold offenders accountable without potentially retraumatizing survivors.

I do believe that we, as individuals and communities, can lessen the impact of traumatization by believing people when they disclose sexualized violence. We can listen without judgment, by not asking “why” questions (e.g. “Why were you drinking?” “Why did you go home with this person?” Why didn’t you fight back?”)

Media can also help by presenting sexual abuse/assault cases in such a way that does not blame the survivor. What a survivor did or not do is not and should not be the issue. For instance, many people who are experiencing sexual assault/abuse “freeze” and may not be able to fight back, run away or even necessarily verbalize no. This is especially the case when the offender is known to the survivor (which is the majority of the time), and if the offender is someone the survivor trusts or loves. This is also more likely if the survivor has been sexually abused or assaulted in the past.

It is the responsibility of all of us to solicit voluntary consent when engaging in sexual contact (e.g. check in with our partner, pay attention to body cues, ensure our partner is not too intoxicated to consent, not use alcohol or other drugs to make our partner more likely to engage in sexual contact, ask our partner what they want to do and don’t want to do, etc.)

It is our responsibility to not use positions of trust, authority and power in order to engage in sexual contact. It is also the responsibility of adolescents and adults to not have any sexual contact with children, or expose them to pornography.

In the Polanski case, it is clear that he committed a very serious crime. I just wish that justice systems here in Canada and around the world were set up in such a way that the potential harm of survivors was minimized or eradicated all together.

As I sometimes tell individuals accessing services at SACE, I believe our legal system does not always work for sexual abuse/assault cases in that survivors often need to explicitly explain a traumatizing event. We need to revamp the systems, with the input of persons who have experienced sexualized violence, so that their needs and well-being are a priority.

-Monika, Child & Adolescent Counsellor at SACE

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