In one of her early law school classes, a professor asked Sandy Hudson her thoughts on punishment. Hudson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, said she didn’t really think it was an effective deterrent.
“Ah, you’re an abolitionist,” she remembers her professor responding. “Let’s see if you still are when we get to sexual assault.”
It isn’t the first time Hudson’s fielded such a response — nor is it likely to be the last. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to reach for sexual assault cases as a counter to the movement to defund police expanding over North America, an A-ha! You didn’t think this through!
“Honestly, it’s only ever used as an excuse,” Hudson says. “Sexual violence is not a priority in our society.”
As violent crime goes down in Canada, sexual assault remains the lone outlier, staying relatively stable for more than two decades. And while men are also sexually assaulted, women are disproportionately the victims. A woman’s risk of being sexually assaulted goes up if she is single, has a disability, is unemployed or low income or Black or Indigenous.
For trans and non-binary people in Canada, the risk is high but the data scarce. Statistics Canada’s hate crime report does not track offences specifically against trans or non-binary people, although select cases are captured in an “other sex” file. Still, that’s just “the tip of the iceberg,” Elizabeth Saewyc, a University of British Columbia professor who heads the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey, told Global News last year.
So what exactly would defunding police mean for the many people who do experience sexual violence?
First, people need to recognize the failings of the Canadian criminal justice system, says Rosel Kim, a staff lawyer with the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).
“The criminal justice system, as it is set up, has failed sexual survivors because of its adversarial nature, which pits the accused against a survivor,” Kim says. “That poses limits in addressing the needs of survivors or in recognizing the harm that they’ve experienced.”
Those failings can be gleaned from statistics. An Ipsos survey conducted for Global News back in 2015 showed that fewer than one in five people who reported being sexually assaulted told the police. While the reasons varied — some reported feeling helpless or blamed themselves — many told Ipsos they didn’t think reporting their assault to police would do much good. And of those people that did report to police? More than 70 per cent said their experience was negative.
“We know that sexual assault cases are severely under-reported to the police. The large majority… because of the re-victimization that occurs by police,” says Farheen Khan, a woman’s rights advocate.
This isn’t just about individual police officers, Khan says. “For a woman who has experienced an assault, which is a violation, a sexual attack, it is difficult to then experience an authoritarian figure or multiple figures questioning them after this traumatic experience.”
And while progress spurred by movements like #MeToo has changed some of the conversation around sexual assault and how trauma impacts people differently, Kim says part of the problem remains the cops.
“Police were created as a way to exercise power and maintain the status quo, not necessarily as a body to enact justice,” she says.
“If we understand the role of police this way and their origins then it makes sense not to have the police as the default response for sexual assault.”
If people want better care — that better world — for survivors of sexual violence, policing isn’t it, says Hudson.
“It’s not as though (police) are roundly rejecting dealing with sexual assault, they just do it consistently poorly,” she says. “Part of it has to do with toxic masculinity, part of it has to do with rampant sexism and misogyny that is part of police departments.”
There are many examples: the B.C. Mountie who was publicly slammed after asking an Indigenous teen who had been sexually assaulted if she was “turned on,” the first sexual harassment class action against the RCMP and the second, the Toronto cops who sued their own force over sexual harassment and the various cops who’ve been charged with sexually assaulting people.
Even if one person felt amazingly supported when they reported to a police officer, Hudson says, “the reality is that they’re not set up for most people to have a good experience, so we need to create a service where it’s not just that one person in 10 per cent of people who can say, ‘I really got help today.’”
If a person does report to the police, the odds their case goes to trial and ends in a conviction are low. Most people accused of sexual violence go free; less than one per cent of cases are estimated to end in a conviction.
“The status quo has a problem,” Kim says.
The movement to defund the police is, in some ways, “a generational crisis,” Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, recently told Global News’ daily podcast Wait There’s More.
“(There’s) a generation of young people who feel that they have no future and that there’s no political avenue for solving these kinds of existential crises of the environment, the economy, racism,” Vitale said. “So they’re really trying to imagine a better world, and defund the police kind of links to both of these points of view.”
If the defund movement offers an opportunity to reimagine support systems for sexual assault survivors, Kim says it must not replicate the damage of the existing one.
“It’s important that any alternative we imagine has to be centred on survivors and the communities that are impacted.”
There is so much existing research about how to best support survivors of sexual violence, says Khan, which should serve as a blueprint for divvying up reclaimed police funds. Shelters, rape crisis centres, helplines, family violence prevention programs — they’ve long struggled for more funding.
“Women are looking for safe supports,” Hudson says. “Let’s use that money to give it to them.”
While some people support fully defunding the police, others think their budgets should be cut, the money divvied up and a new conversation initiated about what more limited involvement cops should have in sexual violence cases.
There are no simple solutions, says Barb MacQuarrie, community director at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University.
“I would hate to see a survivor denied the possibility to report to police if they believe that is a part of how they want to address their situation,” MacQuarrie says, but “a police response should not ever be the only option for a survivor, and when there is a police response, a survivor has every right to expect an informed and sensitive handling of that situation.”
What’s needed is a culture of accountability, says Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa whose thesis is on sexual violence against Black women in Quebec — and that’s about much more than just the criminal justice system.
“Because of rape culture, most survivors when they try to come forward — even outside of the police and the justice system — they’re not believed, they’re not being taken seriously, we’re minimizing what they’re going through,” Souffrant says.
“Education is key. By educating people, we can realize that sexual violence is a widespread issue, it’s a global issue, it’s a pandemic.”