by Michele Landsberg, Sunday Star, November 1, 1998
Let’s admit it: sometimes we in the media practice hit-and-run journalism, swooping down on an unguarded comment or a provocative quote and using it to label and lambaste the unwary one who uttered. Sometimes, we’re justified —and sometimes, we’re downright cross-grained, uncomprehending and wrong.
Last week offered a prime example. Jane Doe, the woman who so recently and triumphantly won her 12 year lawsuit against the Metro Police for failing to warn her about a serial rapist in her neighbourhood, was pilloried for remarks made in the course of a speech she gave during the YWCA’s Week Without Violence campaign.
Jane Doe, ironically, suffered considerable verbal violence in the wake of that speech. She was accurately quoted in The Star the next day as saying that “the legal system is not a safe place for a woman who has been raped, and women who choose to enter the system should know what tremendous pain they will be forced to endure.”
Within hours, the Metro Police had called a press conference to denounce her. Detective Wendy Leaver of the sexual assault squad declared herself “surprised, shocked and hurt” by Jane Does’s remarks. Mayor Mel Lastman weighed in with a typically garbled aphorism: “How do you catch somebody if you don’t know they’ve been raped?” Toronto Sun columnist Heather Bird accused Jane Doe of “advocating an active boycott”. A Toronto rant-radio station devoted three separate programs attacking her. Diane Cunningham, the Tory Minister Not Responsible for Women’s Issues, was “horrified”. And Toronto Detective Sergeant Jim Crowley called Doe’s remarks “disgusting” and accused her of endangering other women by “encouraging rape”.
You’d think that Jane Doe, all by her lonesome, was about to topple an entire system of wonderful police and legal services that protect women from rape.
Well, turn that inside out: the chorus of rage and blame is precisely because Jane Doe spoke the truth.
According to Statistics Canada, only one in ten sexually assaulted women report to the police. Fewer than one per cent of self reported rapes will lead to a jail term. Along the way to that chilling moment when the Crown drops the case, or the accused rapist struts out of court a free man, the rape victim will be subjected to physical humiliations and emotional torment as the defense tries to probe her entire personal history to prove she is “damaged goods” and a vindictive liar.
It was this dreadful reality that Jane Doe tried to confront. Ever since she was raped at knife point 13 years ago, in her own bed, Jane Doe has worked to educate police. Judging by their aggressive and hostile behaviour last week, they have learned nothing. Just three months ago, after the judge in the Jane Doe case wrote a scathing indictment of the way the police force’s ” rape myths and sexist stereotypes” harm assaulted women, Chief David Boothby boasted that the Toronto police are “an open organization, and if looking closely at how we conduct our business brings about positive change, then that is good…
But last week, instead of answering Jane Does’ telephoned request for a meeting, he allowed his officers to lash out at a hastily summoned press conference. and he forbade Toronto police to appear on any platform or television show where Jane Doe was present. Open mind — or closed ranks?
Perhaps the most despicable sentiment uttered by the police last week was that “sexual predators such as Paul Bernardo would welcome Jane Doe’s advice not to report sexual assault”. First of all, Jane Doe did not tell women not to report; she warned them to go into a dangerous process with eyes wide open, and she offered several powerful suggestions for how the system could be strengthened. But second, that Bernardo comment is a flat-out lie. The police did not catch Bernardo because women reported rape. On the contrary, and as the Campbell report made perfectly clear two years ago, the police were clumsy, inept, biased and incompetent. They repeatedly ignored the precise descriptions of Bernardo given them by raped women; they ignored for two years his DNA sample taken from one of the Scarborough victims; they ignored urgent reports by women who were being stalked by Bernardo.
How dare they now invoke the name of Bernardo to defend their indefensible practices!
If anything, Jane Doe deserves the Order of Canada for her calm persistent feminist work both on behalf of assaulted women and also for her patient efforts to improve the legal mechanisms. The howls of denunciation that greeted her truth saying are a measure of, lamently, how far we haven’t come.
Michael Coren, a right-wing radio ranter, snarled that “Jane Doe has had 12 years; she should shut up and go away.”
No, she won’t be silenced, though the attack has seriously frightened this vulnerable but remarkably brave woman. “When my own mayor and government come down on me like a sledgehammer, it hurts!” she said in an interview. “I made a mistake: I rejoiced too much, I let my guard down, I was redeemed. Or so I thought. I thought there was a place for me to talk about my lived experience, to tell harsh truths and encourage a dialogue. Women aren’t reporting rape. That’s the problem I was trying to address.” In fact her speeches never fail to move, inspire and inform her listeners. This concerted attempt to make her “shut up” should encourage women’s groups all over the country to request her luminous presence.