Women, children and men attended a Take Back the Night march in Penticton in September to push back against violence against women, holding a candle light vigil following the march to share their reasons for attending the event.                                Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Women, children and men attended a Take Back the Night march in Penticton in September to push back against violence against women, holding a candle light vigil following the march to share their reasons for attending the event. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Despite #MeToo campaign, sex assault isolating for victims

Stigmas remain for women speaking out on sex assault, harassment, as #MeToo highlights systemic issues

Local women who speak out about sexual assault and harassment often still find themselves in isolation, according to a Penticton women’s advocate, even as a slew of high-profile accusations rock the entertainment industry.

South Okanagan Women in Need Society executive director Debbie Scarborough said women may feel empowered by the torrent of accusations against a laundry list of actors, politicians and comedians recently, which sparked the #MeToo social media campaign to highlight how widespread the issue is.

“I know it’s right front and centre, and everyone’s talking about it, so I don’t know if something is more tabletop conversation, then people may feel more comfortable in coming forward,” Scarborough said. “We certainly haven’t had any less referrals.”

Related: #MeToo: Women tell stories of sexual assault and harassment on social media

Scarborough said roughly 80 to 100 women are referred to SOWINS each month to more than a dozen programs. But she said there has not been anyone who, when coming forward, has specifically cited the recent slew of accusations, which began with film producer Harvey Weinstein and ranges from comedian Louis C.K. to actor Kevin Spacey to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

“The more women and survivors that come out and say ‘I won’t be silenced anymore’ is good. It’s good for everyone that is suffering in silence and perhaps will come forward,” Scarborough said.

“I think there’s more access to supports, there’s definitely more education out there, and then we’ve also revised the Criminal Code of Canada. We now have criminal harassment, we now have stalking legislation.”

Related: Comedian Louis C.K. says allegations of sexual misconduct are true

Even with a wider array of supports for victims of sexual violence and harassment, and as the issue has emerged into the public dialogue, Scarborough said local women are often still ostracized when they come forward, and often don’t have access to the same services many of the actors coming forward about their experience have.

“The average (person), perhaps, that is coming out to speak out against a brother or a father or an uncle, when the whole family turns against them, and there’s no one else standing beside them,” Scarborough said.

“A woman coming forward today to disclose to us may not have all those resources and all those #MeToos behind them. They may stand in solitude, except for their support worker and their counsellors, against their family members.”

Related: ‘This isn’t a new problem’: Survivors, allies host #MeToo rally in Vancouver

Scarborough also pointed to the legal system, where a large number of sex assault claims do not even get investigated by police — one in five in Canada, and one in three in Penticton, according to a recent Globe and Mail investigation.

Even when claims do lead to investigations and charges, that particular crime leads to far fewer convictions than most others, as it often turns into a he-said-she-said debate, in which the victim becomes the focal point, making it a trial of the victim rather than the accused.

“What anyone does after a sexual assault, is irrelevant to the actual act of sexual assault,” Scarborough said.

Related: Michaels: The case for a little less #MeToo and a little more, ‘it’s them’

Defence lawyer Paul Varga said he has reservations about changes to the legal system that would alter the presumption of innocence.

“The defence doesn’t have to prove it didn’t happen, and that’s a hallmark of our legal tradition, and I’m not sure how you really square that with trying to ensure that complainants feel like they can come forward,” he said.

“The person who says a fact has to prove a fact, and so your allegations have to be held to the standard. Is that something that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt … that’s what a trial always is, a trial about that specific allegation.”

Weinstein appears to have marked a shift in the cultural attitude toward sex assault, Scarborough said, with him getting dropped by his publicist and cut from the credits of shows he formerly executive produced.

Related: Netflix fires Kevin Spacey after sexual harassment allegations

“Maybe 2017 is going to be the year where everyone said ‘enough is enough, this has got to stop,’” Scarborough said.

But she pointed to a side effect of so many sexual assault stories, being front and centre in the media for weeks.

“So many women have said it has triggered them,” Scarborough said. “So many people, because this is front page everywhere, and it’s on the news and it’s on Facebook, it’s on social media, we’re definitely hearing that.”

Scarborough said she doesn’t want to discourage anyone from coming forward, but offered a bit of advice for people who are feeling triggered by news story after news story of sexual assault.

“Please access your local resources, and it can be a women’s centre, it can be transition houses for violence against women, but contact your local organizations and seek support,” she said.

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