Why the expectation of the “ideal victim” deters sexual assault victims from coming forward

Jian Ghomeshi arrives for his first day of court in Toronto, February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Jian Ghomeshi arrives for his first day of court in Toronto, February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Most Canadian women — and men — will never report the sexual assaults that happen to them.

In 2015, Statistics Canada reported that an estimated 88 per cent of sexual assaults go unreported.

The Statistics Canada General Social Survey shows there were approximately 472,000 female sexual assault victims and about 204,000 male sexual assault victims in 2009. However, for that same time period, police-reported crime for selected offences showed only about 21,000 cases of sexual assault cases were reported — a huge disparity between the sexual assaults that happened and those reported.

With so few victims of sexual assault willing to report the crimes, why then would the women who accused Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault come forward?

His defence team claims, for instance, that actress Lucy DeCoutere only came forward because she was pursuing “fame and fortune.” However, do a few minutes of fame really warrant having one’s life and actions dissected and criticized during the trial and in the media?

The real question is why are alleged sexual assault victim’s lives and actions being put on trial?

During the Ghomeshi trial, DeCoutere actions after the alleged assaults were heavily criticized. In a “fawning” e-mail the defence presented as evidence, DeCoutere was seen to have written that she regrets not having sex with Ghomeshi only hours after he allegedly slapped and choked her.

The question raised by many after this was revealed was: would a victim really act like that?

In a paper entitled “Sexual Assault Law, Credibility, and ‘Ideal Victims’: Consent, Resistance and Victim Blaming,” published in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law in 2010, Western University law professor Melanie Randall, wrote: “The diversity of women’s typical and ‘normal’ trauma and coping responses, including women’s resistance, remain shrouded by the persistence of the idea that there is an ‘ideal’ and predictable way that a ‘real’ victim of sexual assault should react.”

This idea of the perfect victim fails to take into account that women have been socially conditioned to be nice and pleasing, even after her sexual partner has been abusive, something the legal system fails to recognize.

As Toronto clinical psychologist Lori Haskell explained to the Huffington Post, many women worry about displeasing their male partner, on which they put “a higher psychological priority than acknowledging their own sense of discomfort and anger and violation.”

University of Windsor social psychologist Charlene Senn adds that these social and psychological factors often play a large role in how women react in conflict situations. They will be “nice . . . often putting the other person’s feelings first and valuing and prioritizing the relationship over their own safety.”

When complainants finally do come forward to police, the police interview alone is often quite traumatic. After those, the complainant has to face a trial where the chances are good that her behaviour and credibility will be raked over the coals by a defence lawyer in a bid to disprove her story and label her a “bad” victim.

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