Speaking out against blaming the victim

Barb Sweet
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A radio station's poll question sparks flurry of debate about sexual assault

Several years after being the teenage victim of sexual assaults, Laura Ivany is speaking out publicly because she's tired of the blame and responsibility being shifted to victims.

"For years I kept everything very hush-hush, and finally that VOCM (poll question) just snapped me," said Ivany, who has a letter to the editor in today's paper about the radio station's recent controversial poll question which it posted, then withdrew and apologized for, after it caused a furor on social media.

The poll question asked: "Do you believe that women and young girls do enough to ensure that they don't become victims of the date rate drugs?"

The question was prompted by police reports of four separate sexual assaults in downtown St. John's that may have involved the drugging of women's drinks. In each of the cases the victims knew their attacker, police say.

The question, and some of the public advice that followed - such as telling women not to drink alcohol or to never be alone - rankled Ivany, who describes herself as not much of a drinker.

"I try a lot not to be out alone, but I take a night class at MUN, so you can't avoid it sometimes. I can't have a chaperone all the time," she said. "I don't think that's a solution to anything."

The 24-year-old St. John's resident, notes in the letter that she was a victim of a mugging this year and that incident was included in a recent Telegram story about crime.

The sexual assaults - by boys she knew - occurred several years ago. Like many sexual assault victims, Ivany never reported them.

At the time of the first incident, Ivany said she'd never been kissed. The boy was a longtime friend.

"I thought it was just a regular hangout. He had completely different intentions," she recalled.

"But I wasn't sure what the role was I had played in it, at that point. I understood so little about everything. I just remember going home that evening and locking myself in the bathroom thinking, 'Am I dying?'"

The second attack - by a different boy on a different occasion - was more violent than sexual, but she was molested.

Ivany said his family was upstairs at the time and when she made a fuss he finally stopped. She ran from the house.

"In my head I was trying to figure out, this happened twice now. What does this mean? Is this something I am doing? That's just a terrible way of thinking," she said.

After the first attack, it took a month for her to tell anyone - then she shared it with her mother's best friend, who helped her break the news to her mom.

By that time all the DNA evidence was gone and Ivany figured people might not believe her over the boy, an honour student.

Ivany said some people she eventually told would ask, "Are you sure you were clear?"

"If someone gets stabbed or shot at, you don't think, did you try hard enough to avoid the bullet coming at you?" Ivany said.

She changed high schools and when she found herself in the same faculty with the boy at Memorial University, she quit school for more than a year to work.

"When I was much older, I understood very clearly what had happened," Ivany said.

"I had no role to play and no part in what happened, so I was more angry than I was at the time. And seeing him would just send me into panic attacks."

She said he graduated on schedule, while she is still trying to complete her undergraduate degree, seven years after she started it.

Barbie Wadman, co-ordinator of the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, said research indicates that fewer than 10 per cent of victims actually report sexual violence.

Most victims know their attacker.

Gathering of the data by Statistics Canada includes generalized surveys sent to households and surveys that centres like hers complete each year, she said.

"We'll never know what the true data is," Wadman said.

The centre operates a confidential support line, and while some callers report current assaults, many people who call seek support in connection to incidents that happened in the past.

"We let people know there's no statute of limitations and it can be reported any time," she said.

Some people who choose not to report sexual assault view it as a privacy issue.

Some feel so ashamed by what happened that they don't want anyone to know about it, or are worried about how people will react.

Others fear for their safety.

Wadman said blaming the victim continues to be a concern, and even the slightest hint of a negative response can deter a victim from coming forward.

But Wadman says she was heartened by the backlash to the poll question, which she doesn't believe was written with ill intentions.

It did prompt some victim-blaming, however.

"People weren't afraid to talk about it," she said.

" Social networks were ablaze. Our followship went up on Twitter. We had more volunteer inquiries, and our calls increased as well."

The fact that people stood up to challenge the misconception that women must bear the responsibility for preventing sexual assault is a positive thing, she said.

"The only surefire way to protect against sexual assault is for no people to be out there committing sexual assault. We could go around with snowsuits, hopped up on caffeine, vigilant, waiting for someone to pop out of the bushes and it's not going to stop rape," Wadman said.

"The community needs to be responsible as well as critical."

As for the drugged drink/sexual assault investigation, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary says it has people of interest in the cases.

An RNC spokesman told The Telegram this week investigators are waiting on toxicology results.


Organizations: Statistics Canada, The Telegram

Geographic location: St. John's

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Recent comments

  • It is disturbing
    November 11, 2012 - 16:44

    It is disturbing that most of these crimes go unreported. If that is so, then these predators are free to attack anyone at any time. Evidence of sexual activity is not in itself, proof of an attack. However, to say that the perpetrator was known to his victim is NOT proof of consent. As soon as people become aware that a sexual assault has been committed, it is of vital importance to try and convince the woman that the right thing to do is to report it without hesitation. Let the people in the justice system investigate the charges. That’s their job – not hers. Let him defend himself. That’s his problem – not hers. Hopefully we have people in law enforcement and in the justice department with experience, knowledge and temperament required to get the convictions these criminals so justly deserve. And hopefully the victims will get all the special help they need to overcome these brutal crimes.

  • Common Sense
    November 11, 2012 - 16:00

    Alexis, I think you missed the point of the first comment. The point was that people need to be careful in all circumstances. You do not blame the victim if they fail to take steps to prevent the crime. You still need to support the victim. The anger should be pointed at the criminal. Even though the criminal is at fault, you do not tell people to leave their doors unlocked, post their credit card and pin online, or leave their kids unattended. Likewise, you do not tell people to go around half naked, walk at night alone, or drink something with a unconfirmed source. There is a difference between putting the blame on a victim and educating the general population about personal safety. Alexis, you may long for a dream world where there are no criminals and people can do what they want without fear. But, you need to face reality. It is just common sense.

    • Alexis
      November 12, 2012 - 14:57

      I did not miss the point. The guy said " If you don't want to be on the receiving end of lewd comments, dress modestly. If you don't want to be gropped, act modestly." This is implying that by wearing or acting in a certain way, makes sexual assault inevitable. In this persons head, they believe that women dress and act in a way that invites sexual assault, hence he is blaming the victim. If a predator goes to the trouble to find and buy the date rape drug, they will most certainly find a victim in a crowd, and no they will not be hitting up a Nun's convention and yes they will find a victim they are attracted to. The point is not the inevitability of crime, it's about not blaming victims, as they play NO PART in being randomly targeted and assaulted. Yet clowns like the first to comment STILL are stupid enough to suggest that victims set themselves up.

  • mike
    November 11, 2012 - 15:54

    This is not a topic that should be attacked from the extreme left or right. It needs to be looked at with logic. Although we as a society do not accept sexually based offenses as appropriate behavior, we do recognize that such awful things do and will likely continue to happen. Therefore, we must attempt to understand them, take precautions against them, and issue penalties to those who commit them. Of course we can not blame the victim, nobody invites an attack or dresses to provoke one. Nor does someone deny themselves the right of consent due to alcohol or drug consumption. However, one must realize that predators exist who will willfully disobey the law and seek out victims. these predators will use drugs and alcohol to their advantage and may misinterpret certain behaviors and dress as weakness or invitation. Despite this being horrendously wrong, it still occurs. Women, and men for that matter, should be afforded the right to dress as they please, and drink in an licensed establishment or in the comfort of a private dwelling without fear. However, there currently are not sufficient safe guards in place to ensure safety. With that in mind, everyone, man or woman, should always be extra cautious in regards to personal safety. Never blame the victim, They are never at fault! However, do not leave your safety in the hands of the morals and ethics of others, as it is not their priority.

  • redrantingory
    November 11, 2012 - 14:33

    Personal security your own responsibility said: If you don't want your children abducted, watch them in public. If you don't want to be hacked, get good internet security. If you don't want someone to use your debit card, have a good pin number. Likewise.... If you don't want to be on the receiving end of lewd comments, dress modestly. If you don't want to be gropped, act modestly. Pretty good if you live in a perfect world. I ask why are all these dispicable acts still happening even with the best of precautions? Because there are people mean enough and sick enough to carry it out. So instead of blaming the victim how about blaming the people out there carrying out these crimes. Take off your blinders that cause your ignorance. A woman can wear what she likes and still get asaulted. Have as good of a internet security you want and someone is still going to hack you. Lock your car doors and that only stops an honest theif, other just break the window. So all your excuses are just that, excuses and blame. Pretty ignorant if you ask me. In a sense you are condoning what criminals do by excusing it via the actions of victims.

  • Willie Hunt
    November 11, 2012 - 13:47

    i always told my girls to be careful what they wore goin out the door to reduce tempters. there mother would always parade them infront of me before they went thru the door for my opproval. These days youngsters are goin' out half naked and nobody is not saying nothing to them. If you're goin' out dressed like a priest dont be surprised when someone asks you to say confessions. Willie Hunt Pouch Cove NL

  • Alexis
    November 11, 2012 - 13:42

    Wow, so the first commenter completely missed the point of the article. How a woman dresses is not an invitation to be sexually assaulted or groped. With that logic, I would not step into a gym shower or change room if I were you. By changing in front of others you are asking for it. If a woman wears a swimsuit to a beach, is that an open invitation to grope her? Apparently to you it is. It is people like YOU who victimize these women, making rash judgements based on what they are wearing, as to their character or how deserving they are of being sexually assaulted. It is people like YOU who discredit and silence victims and RE-victimize them by doing so. and it is people like YOU who raise sons and daughters who do not understand that under any circumstance, it is not okay to have non-consensual sex. Get educated. Stop using child's logic and look into the matter past your superficial uneducated conclusion. You are part of the problem, not the solution. I welcome your feedback.

  • Tim Jamison
    November 11, 2012 - 12:02

    We blame the victim every time someone defends themselves. Look at Stephen Neville. But it's okay to blame male victims, isn't it?

  • Personal Security Your Own Responsibilty
    November 11, 2012 - 08:48

    The question does not say the victim is responsible for the attack, but it does say the victim has some resonsibility for her/his own actions. No matter what, there are sickos out there, it is a fact of life and will never go away. So, people need to take some precautions in whatever they do and where ever they do it. Therefore.... If you don't want your car broke into, lock you doors. If you don't want your id stolen, shred personal papers. If you don't want your children abducted, watch them in public. If you don't want to be hacked, get good internet security. If you don't want someone to use your debit card, have a good pin number. Likewise.... If you don't want to be on the receiving end of lewd comments, dress modestly. If you don't want to be gropped, act modestly. If you don't want to be attacked, stay with a group. If you don't want to be date raped, watch your drink. However.... nothing is perfect, but we still need to do our part.