March 4, 2011

Manitoba Judge fails at Sexual Assault Prevention

Posted in Current Events, Myths, Rape Culture at 6:14 pm by sacetalks

Whenever I speak to people about sexual assault, I usually cite two main ways to prevent it from happening. The first, really the only logical solution, would be for everyone to stop sexually assaulting people. Simple. Make sure every sexual partner you have consents for each sexual activity you engage in and if that person has a change of heart, respect this and stop. Simple. Know the consent laws. Simple.

However, for many people this suggestion does not seem so simple. It seems laughable, making a second prevention strategy necessary: changing our attitudes that make the first strategy so laughable.
Asking people to stop sexually assaulting others seems laughable to some because it holds offenders of sexual assault accountable for their behavior (you did something wrong, don’t do it), which is against the normative way of understanding sexual assaults: the victim is to blame. In that line of thinking, offenders are not responsible for their behavior, maybe because they “just lost control in the moment,” so there is no reason to ask them to stop. Thus, making a second strategy necessary, one that demands personal accountability and recognizes that offenders of sexual assault are always responsible for their behavior. It’s one that isn’t so simple. It is an attempt to change some people’s behaviors through a shift in everyone’s shared knowledge.

Recently, Justice Robert Dewar failed to hold an offender of sexual assault fully responsible for his behavior and therefore, worked against the prevention of sexual assaults in our communities. In a sexual assault case from 2006, Justice Robert Dewar recently convicted Kenneth Rhodes of sexual assault. However, in his sentencing he ruled that Rhodes was not completely responsible, his behavior wasn’t entirely wrong, and instead of the recommended three years in jail, Judge Dewar sentenced him to a two year conditional sentence without jail time. Why did he not hold Kenneth Rhodes completely responsible?

Because “sex was in the air” that night. According to Justice Dewar, Kenneth Rhodes, being as he was a “clumsy Don Juan,” was confused when the person he sexually assaulted said no. Because she was wearing heavy make-up and a tube top with no bra, she obviously “wanted to party,” and as she had hinted at swimming in a near-by lake naked, she created such “inviting circumstances” that such a “no” had no bearing in his “clumsy” efforts at seduction. You see, this is a unique circumstance, an entirely “different case” from other sexual assaults, a “case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior.”
Each of his statements during his sentencing placed more and more responsibility on the survivor of the sexual assault, citing her dress and behaviors as more relevant reasons why it happened than Rhodes’ “inconsiderate” dismissal of her communicating no. Thank the stars and moons I have a brain, as do many other Canadians, who can and have seen how absolutely wrong his words and behavior were. There was a protest at the Law Courts in Manitoba last Friday, complaints have been made to the Canadian Judicial Review and we are all waiting to see if the Crown’s office will file an appeal.
Since so many others are taking action against his behavior, I would simply like to address two main issues with his statements.

I find it most noteworthy that Justice Dewar contradicted himself in his own statements about the assault. He notes that “this is a case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior.” Inconsiderate: selfish; thoughtless; insensitive; careless – words to describe a person’s beliefs or actions that do not take into account the personhood, desires, beliefs, and/or choice of others. Using inconsiderate to describe a person’s behavior surely recognizes that they did something that ignored another person’s perspective. How would it be possible in that situation that he also simply misunderstood signals? “I thought she wanted it.” If a person truly thought this, how could one then make a judgment that they were also acting inconsiderately? An inconsiderate act is either not “asking” that other person what they want, or seeing that they want something other than you, but ignoring this and carrying on anyway. In acting inconsiderately, miscommunication isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s that selfish person’s decision not to acknowledge and respond to their victim’s signs of discomfort and non-consent. It is not that Kenneth Rhodes misunderstood what his victim wanted; he ignored want she wanted and forced sex anyway. Judge Dewar knows this, otherwise he wouldn’t have convicted the man of sexual assault or recognized his “inconsiderate” behavior, yet apparently he believes it is not as important as how the person who was sexually assaulted dressed and behaved that night.

Another thing I’d like to draw attention to is how Justice Dewar attempted to justify his sentencing by claiming that this was “a different case” than other sexual assault trials. It is my understanding that a great deal of sexual assault cases involve an accused offender who claims that he or she just didn’t realize that the other person wasn’t consenting. Further, my job at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton as a Public Educator depends on the reality that many people, including apparently Justice Dewar, believe that what a woman wears, her level of intoxication and her implied sexual promiscuity are all reasons for a man to force his penis into her vagina without her consent. This is not an extraordinary case of an offender misunderstanding the intentions of his victim, but a common excuse used by offenders to get away with their crimes.

If we are to prevent sexual assaults from happening, we all need to change our attitudes. We need to put full responsibly on offenders of sexual assault and validate the traumatic experiences of survivors. Even though this is a shared imperative for us all, it is especially true for those of us who hold positions of status and authority in our society because they are the ones who have the most power to instigate change. A Judge has a certain responsibility: communicate to offenders of sexual assault that what they did was wrong, so stop doing it, and communicate to everyone that the only people to blame for sexual assaults are those whose behaviors we deem reprehensible, the offenders.

by Meagan Simon


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  1. TSowell Fan said,

    The difficulty you’re having in squaring the judge’s decision to convict for rape and the justification for his sentencing decision arises from the fact that he mistakenly convicted the alleged rapist. On appeal, Mr. Rhodes will be acquitted because the alleged victim willingly participated in sexual intercourse with him. The sentence only makes sense when it is recognized that the threshold for conviction, namely guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, cannot be met.

    The alleged victim appears to regret her actions after-the-fact and is doing her best to transfer equally-shared responsibility to Mr. Rhodes alone.

    • Meagan said,

      As Pragya has alluded to, there are many myths about sexual assault. One of them is that women often lie about sexual assault after they regret their own actions in engaging in sexual activity with someone. While I cannot say it is impossible for people to lie about sexual assault, I will cite what I do know:

      Sexual assault trials are exhausting and re-victimizing for survivors of sexual assault. They take years. In the case that I wrote about, the trial ended five years after the sexual assault took place. They require the complainant to be in a vulnerable and harsh position by re-telling their story as a witness on the stand. People who come forward as survivors of sexual assault are often stigmatize, moreso during a sexual assault trial where defence lawyers employ every means possible to question and discredit their credibility.

      Only 2-3% of sexual assaults reported to police are false reports. This is comparable to other crimes, such as robery and breaking and entering. This suggests that people do not lie more about sexual assaults to police than other crimes.

      Only 8% of sexual assaults are reported to police. This suggests that people are actually more likely to lie about not being sexually assaulted, by not telling authorities and potentially others about what happened to them.

      About 85% of survivors know the person who sexually assaulted them. Because of this, it is likely that the first person they tell about what happened to them also will know the offender. It is not surprising that a person would rather believe their friend or family member is lying than to believe that their friend, uncle, coworker, parent, sibling etc. is capable of sexual assault.

      Finally, in my opinion, it is not very believable that someone who regretted a sexual act would risk stigmatization in his or her community, the embarassment and shame that often accompanies that stigmatization, and the costs and hardships of a sexual assault trial where your credibility as a person is called into question, to lie about it being sexual assaulted. The cons seem to far outnumber the presumed benefit of… I don’t even know what.

    • Umm, no, TSowell Fan. She is not to blame. Consent is everything and she did not consent. The fact that she was wearing a tube top has nothing to do with consent. Either she said yes (and did so willingly, rather than under duress, coercion or out of fear) or she was subjected to something ugly and soul-shattering. There is a word for that. What is that word again????

      Wait for it…
      Wait for it…
      Wait for it…

      Oh yeah, its called rape.

      Enthusiastic consent is everything. She did not grant her consent. However, even if she had consented in the beginning and then withdrew her consent in the end while he refused to end the sexual contact, guess what that would be called?

      Oh yeah. That is called rape too.

      This is not brain surgery.

  2. Pragya said,

    This isn’t a post about whether or not the offender is guilty – this is a post about the judge’s explanation of his sentencing. Through his post-sentencing comments, Dewar perpetuated many sexual assault myths: that sexual assault is about sex and desire rather than power and control; that sexual assault is the result of miscommunication; and that the people to blame for sexual assaults aren’t the offenders, but the women who dare walk around, bra free (heaven forbid), donning heavy make-up.

    Meagan’s critiques – as well as similar ones across the country – are bang-on. Fortunately, they’re being taken seriously as Dewar is no longer handling sexual assault cases and is being reviewed by the Canadian Judicial Council.

  3. Dee Dee said,

    TSowell Fan is why we have sexual assault. We as a society and individuals blame survivors for the decisions of perpetrators; we assume victims are lying (including those who have made it through the hellish process of a court case); we try everything in our power to excuse perpetrators and minimize this awful crime.

    The points in response to TSowell Fan have been eloquently debated above by the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, so I will add only this:

    TSowell Fan is a rape apologist, which makes him/her guilty of condoning, minimizing and perpetrating this awful crime.


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