Speaking out against blaming the victim

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

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on November 11, 2012

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.