Monday, March 28, 2016

A Reasonable Doubt?

A post wherein I get a little grumpy and swear-y about it all.

What does reasonable doubt look like? Is there really, REALLY, a reasonable doubt that Jian attacked the women who had their lives scrutinized on the stand? With sexual abuse cases, it all hinges on the credibility of the victims. But the problem with our system today is that the standards necessary to determine credibility are far too high. In far too many minds, credibility is questioned in a sexual abuse case if a woman continues to hang out with, have sex with, be attracted to, or even love their assailant. The legal system must acknowledge and contend with this insidious nature of abuse that places wounded women back in the arms of their abusers. It just is. There's no easy way to prevent that very human behaviour, so it must not be seen as an admission of prior deceit.

They had inconsistencies in a story about an even that happened over a decade ago, and they can't remember how long his hands were around their necks or the colour of a car. Our memory for details are sketchy over time, but our memory for a major event - not so much. Withholding e-mails can be understood, so plainly, as either forgetting about a note sent so long ago or, if intent to withhold can be proven, then a clear acknowledgement that in our fucked-up system, sex after an attack appears to nullify any claims of damage. That has to change. Immediately.

In a famous experiment, dogs were put in a compartment and trained to jump a barrier when given an electric shock. After one or two tries, the dogs jumped the barrier immediately after being put in the compartment even when no shock was given. BUT some dogs were restrained the first time and not able to jump the barrier. They had to tolerate the shock without being able to escape. When they were unharnessed, they still didn't jump the barrier, but just stayed there, tolerating the pain.

"Seligman found that it took many experiences (up to 200) of being forcibly dragged across from the shock compartment to the safe compartment for them to rediscover that responding could bring relief and thus to break out of the learned helplessness syndrome." 
Up to 200 times after just one inescapable experience! We are hard-wired to stay put, to hunker down and tolerate abuse after just one bad experience. That's how we survive. When dogs are beaten, they often follow their abuser around even if there are kinder family members to hang out with. We align ourselves with the strongest in the pack, and an abuser can fit the bill. These are basic animal behaviours that are difficult to overcome despite our big brains, even for the best and brightest among us.

It's clearly not entirely a matter of victims being too polite, but of a built-in animal nature to cope with pain rather than act on it if there's no clear escape. And there IS no clear escape if calling the cops ruins your own life and reputation and offers little hope for a conviction.

The parliament site, Hill Notes discusses rates of "unfounding":
"Among seven Ontario police forces, 2% to 34% of complaints of sexual assault were considered unfounded. No matter what the percentage, the rates were significantly higher for sexual assaults than for other crimes in the six forces for which comparative data were available. Studies have shown that victims may be seen as less credible in situations that do not reflect the stereotypical image of sexual assault as a violent act perpetrated by a stranger on a “virtuous” woman who vigorously resisted. . . . In some investigative manuals, for example, the criteria to be considered in detecting a false report include a request to speak to a female officer. . . . 
There are various factors at play [in the low conviction rate], including reliance on myths and stereotypes to discourage the complainant from testifying in court and to attack the credibility of the complainant. Such testimony is generally crucial for the prosecution of a sexual assault case, as there may be no witnesses and little other evidence."
Check that out again: just the act of asking to see a female officer is enough for your claims to be discredited in Ontario. That standard is ridiculously high. This is why people are posting signs saying "I believe survivors." I'm bracing myself for slippery slope arguments to the contrary now - that if we lower it a smidge, then women can get men convicted on bogus charges because maybe he didn't call back right away, and women will TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

Hold the phone. We can lower the standards to a REASONABLE place wherein women feel free to admit to a relationship after an assault without fear that it will not be believed WITHOUT lowering credibility standards to a point that women can charge men willy nilly. It is possible, but it will take some work to change the way we understand one another.

What should determine credibility?

Well, it shouldn't include victim's later behaviour, how they dress, or where they live or work (i.e. a prostitute must be believed as much as a nurse), or minor inconsistencies. If you're telling a story of an assault from years ago, and you sometimes say 'slapped' and other times 'hit', it shouldn't follow that you're lying about the entire thing. The standard I'd like to see is: "Did they say 'yes' to the behaviour and to every escalation of the behaviour?" It will always be complicated to convict, but in a case with many women testifying against one man, it seems clear that they're not jilted, spiteful girlfriends out to get a guy for ditching them. That might happen out there somewhere. I admit it's possible for a woman to be so angry that, twelve years later she's still willing to put her own life on trial to falsely accuse a man of a horrific assault, but it's highly unlikely. When there are numbers of women expressing similar fates, then the likelihood of them all fabricating the same story becomes astronomical, and they Must. Be. Believed.

 In a Facebook comment, Antonia Zerbisias had this to say about these women:
"With sexual assault -- and I don't mean a punch but full on penetration -- victims should know not to shower, brush their teeth, even though the compulsion to do so must be overwhelming. If they don't know that, then there should be posters in schools and universities and workplaces, and PSAs on all the channels. There was no DNA in this case. . . . 
As for strangulation marks or bruises, if there were any, I am amazed that nobody photographed them. But let's just say that the complainants were too traumatized to do so, or there were none, why would they have not shared their stories with their girlfriends or sisters? Or, right. Trauma, shame and I am victim-blaming. . . . . 
Now here we have three youngish women, who would have been in their 20s when these events happened and, for whatever reason had stars in their eyes with JG. . . . but, seriously, who could buy one of the stories: One of them claims he committed a violent act one day and then next day, she invites him over for a friendly handjob? . . . . Women must take some responsibility for their safety. . . . . If you have a creepy feeling, say you have a headache and Uber it home. . . .  
I often wondered why he never asked [my friends] out but now I know. They didn't need him or act like they needed him. Sure, they were starstruck but they had resources and spidey-senses and would have walked if he tried anything. Predators always go for the weak, the ones at the back of the herd. Frankly, I don't think these complainants were too bright. I know that's brutal but a smart woman would have shut up and not written things like we'll get the prick." 

Heres's the thing: It makes us feel safer if we can believe that it won't happen to us since we're smart and resourceful. But that's bullshit. Even smart women are sexually assaulted. Even you. There's lots more to unpack in that comment, but there's one thing I'd like to point out. Having DNA evidence of sexual contact AND having pictures of bruises will not further a case if the accused insists it was consensual BDSM. He didn't claim he didn't have sex with them, but that it was all consensual. All the DNA evidence in the world won't help. And even filming it doesn't seem to make a difference as he willingly showed filmed footage of rough sex to his employers earlier on. All the prosecutor has is the victims' statements. It will always come down to a matter of who we believe, and we must believe more survivors.

Teaching girls how to behave after an attack does fuck-all if rapists aren't convicted because the girls' credibility came in to question because they did that one wrong thing.

Antonia praises the almighty Section 11 of the Charter, and I assume she's referring to part d): "to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal." Many are celebrating that the law was impartial because it actually ignored the media and protestors. But I content it wasn't impartial because it did not ignore a very warped, patriarchal idea of what it looks like to be abused. Our current legal system doesn't recognize what's necessary to actually stop this illegal activity, and, as a result, rape continues more openly than I've ever seen before. We can watch teens rape girls at parties in videos shared openly. Some guys are not remotely ashamed of this kind of behaviour, and now they have yet another hero to applaud for proving his innocence. Yes, he's technically "not guilty" rather than innocent, but that's not how it will be seen to some, and how it is seen is what will affect future behaviours.

The effect of this trial is terrifying to me because it means abusers everywhere think they can get a pass even with multiple victims. Too many men feel untouchable, and they are all too often correct.

I flagged about twelve different posts and articles I planned to discuss in this post. I just started with Antonia's with the intention of commenting on others, but this is all so frustrating and exhausting and terribly sad. When people argue dispassionately that we must stand behind our legal system, they don't seem to understand that they're praising a system that will allow my daughters and my students and my friends and myself to be attacked with impunity if we can't guarantee being perfect witnesses on the stand. That's. Just. Fucking. Wrong.

And really scary.

I'll leave you with MP Charlie Angus' concern here:

ETA - And these words, dammit:  
"[People celebrating the verdict] are so fucking far from understanding the collective fire engulfing women at the moment, that your point is a moon of pluto. My point is the sun. My point is that since those 21 brave women came forward, our insides have been burning, we swallow nails every day, we question our existence. . . . We’re having a mass breakdown under the weight of a system that so evidently hates us, and you have no fucking idea of the reality of our lives."

We must find our collective way back from this. But it has to be the other side that sees the light on this one. It just has to. We can't live together comfortably if some people believe justice was served.  

ETA also interesting is that Canadian news focused on the problems with the victims, but the rest of the world focused on the problems with the judge and judgment. Curious. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Terrifying Ramifications of the Verdict

I can just barely read about Jian's acquittal on all charges. The Guardian has a telling interview with Lucy DeCoutere today. And of course some people, like Aaron Harnett, see it all as a "win" for Canadians because it safeguards us from accusations from anyone who has a remotely shaky memory of a traumatic event.

It was only 1983 that it became possible to charge a spouse with rape. That change to the law 33 years ago marked the courts finally understanding that sex isn't a duty of marriage, but also that it's possible for someone who loves us to harm us - that it can be very complicated. That nuanced understanding seems to have been lost in recent years, so, for our own safety, there are things women must do to ensure a sexual assault is convicted. Here are the important take-away lessons from this trial.

If you've been sexually assaulted...

  • Recover quickly enough to not allow any defence mechanisms to downplay the seriousness of the assault; don't be in denial of the events for even a moment; just don't.
  • Don't apologize or think it's your fault in a moment of baffled confusion regardless societal conditioning to the contrary.
  • Do not write or say anything remotely positive to the attacker or about the attacker ever, even if your life depends on playing the game of "Everything's actually okay," or your mental health depends on briefly pretending "It wasn't really that bad, was it?".
  • Keep the possibility of charging the person in the front of your mind forever, even if it's someone you love or someone who could help or harm your career significantly. If you ever need to come forward, your every thought, deed, and action - from the day of the assault onwards - must be consistently frightened and upset. There must be a clearly marked difference in tone in all correspondence before and after the event. Don't recover.
  • Do not soldier on, but overtly crumble until the day of the trial.
  • The words you use to describe the event must be identical every single time you describe it. Any wavering in the description means you're obviously lying about the whole thing. This is true even if the even happened many years ago. Your memory must be flawless. 
  • Don't wait to call the police or your testimony will be in question - even if calling the police makes it all too real to manage; even if calling the police puts a loved one's life in upheaval, and if nothing sticks this could put you in much greater danger in future. 
  • If the event is filmed, make sure your grimaces can't be confused with smiles.
  • Don't ever have a normal conversation or correspondence with the accused at any time after the event because it proves the event wasn't traumatic. 
  • Don't ever say or write that you like or appreciate anything about the accused at any time after the event because it proves you loved the abuse. Generally, don't treat the accused as a three-dimensional person with horrible bits yet also some lovely bits worthy of admiration. It's not enough to provide evidence that the accused assaulted you; the accused must be consistently seen in your eyes as pure evil. 
  • And, for god's sake, photocopy and save any correspondence you send - just in case it comes back at you later to prove how much you love to be abused.
Really, in order to convict, you must be manipulatively planning to convict from the event forward, ever monitoring every single word and action. If you're just a normal person trying to cope with a trauma, you'll never make it. Don't even bother.

This is a complex situation requiring a nuanced understanding of the way people cope. As a woman who was assaulted decades ago, I knew better than to even think of calling the cops. My assailant acted like nothing unusual had happened, and I got swept up in that version of the story for a while (because it was comforting to believe it) until it seemed like it was too late to do anything about it. Telling the authorities wouldn't have done anything but cause more problems for me for making waves. It's not that it was so traumatic that I've repressed it; but the contrary - it just seems like it's so commonplace that it's not worth a mention. Like Amy Schumer put out there, hasn't everyone been a little bit raped?

But it's not going to stop until we bring all the manifestations of this illegal behaviour to light. You'd think with many woman testifying against one man, and with many of that man's own friends commenting on his hurtful behaviour, that the reality of the heinousness of his behaviour would be far too clear for anything but a conviction.

But it was not nearly enough. And if that's not enough, what possibly could be? How can anyone possibly be convicted of sexual assault under our current legal system?

Be careful out there, kids. The law is not there to serve and protect. And now it's crystal clear that sexual assault can't really be convicted regardless the mountains of evidence that the assault occurred. You also need mountains of evidence that it was painful and traumatic from that moment forward. Saying so doesn't count for shit; there can't be a moment of questioning it or feeling like you deserved it, and don't even think of being remotely forgiving or understanding for a second. That will totally screw you over later.

It's also very clear to the courts that women want heaps and heaps of attention, and we will go so far as to make up degrading stories about ourselves to get it. We want our tales of sexual abuse in all the papers so people will notice us. We are that starved for attention.

Maybe our only solution is to band together on these events outside the law. Banging pots outside the abuser's home to bring attention to it. Our only compensation here is that Jian's life won't entirely go back to normal after this. I'm not hopeful that his June trial will be any different. But even though he's not been convicted, he's not entirely free either - not like he was.

ETA: The same tactics were used with the same judge to get a previous acquittal.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

For the Love of the Songbirds

Last weekend I went to see the film The Messenger. It's about the demise of songbirds. It had some amazing shots of birds in flight, and there were really interesting vignettes, but the overall message missed the mark.

Standing in line before the show, my daughter and I were among the rare few under 60. The film primarily attracted the retired birding crowd. Before the film, the birders in line compared notes about the trips they've taken and ones they're planning to see the greatest number and variety of birds possible. The chitchat soon developed a competitive edge that seemed to provoke some to decide to go even further and for longer into the forests of Costa Rica, Galapagos, Australia.... Some seemed disgruntled that they hadn't actually seen that one bird with their own eyes, convinced, as they were, that it would be so much more magical in person. It was as if they expected to meet up with the same audience to compare notes again, and maybe then they could win some unspoken challenge to see birds in the flesh. It's not unlike teenagers counting the number of concerts they been to and autographs they've collected. (Autographs? How old school! I mean selfies.) Except these were grown ups.

We have a weird need to prove our value through association with things that impress us - birds, celebs, cars, locations, whatever. When teenagers are developing their sense of self, it's understandable that they'd try attaching to things to further their own exploration of identity. But you'd think that as time moved on, as we solidify our sense of self, that we'd grow out of that need. It always seemed to me that's just part of growing up. It's what my parents taught me, but, more and more, I think my parents were extraordinary people. I thought everyone was taught the old adage that people who are your real friends, won't be concerned with how impressive you are, and people who are concerned with how impressive you are, aren't your real friends, so just ignore them and carry on doing your own thing. Maybe it's that case that most are taught that but few actually learn it. It runs counter to all the ads telling us how likeable we could be if only...

Back to that movie. Songbirds are in decline. The film talks a lot about the problem with cats, and, at my screening, they gave out postcards about how important it is to keep cats indoors. It is a problem, but it's not the biggest problem by far. They lamented the harm done by the cowbird (but ignored that it can be beneficial). The film also focused on a small group of people who hunt and eat one type of songbird as a delicacy. I find it hard to be horrified by that as long as we're all happy to each chickens by the droves. Are animals more value because of the aural aesthetic they have to offer us? Is it only the animals who fail to entertain us that should be eaten? It's a loaded issue. But we can take some comfort that activists are laying in wait to prevent that illegal activity.

They had a good bit about the bird deaths caused by glass windows in cities and by the 9/11 Tribute in Lights. We love to see regular people having a positive impact on the world. A group of activists collected and tracked the numbers of birds killed by hitting the windows of buildings in Toronto, and they were able to convince some building owners to add markers to the window that help birds navigate away from them. Similarly in NYC, birds were dropping from exhaustion as they circled the Tribute in Lights in confusion. A small group of activists monitor bird migration, and have been given the right to indicate when the display need to be shut down and for how long when birds are flying overhead. So for many problems there are clear solutions and individuals necessary to take up the cause. Hooray!

But then the filmmakers mapped out the trees lost to logging and drilling for oil and digging for pipelines. The boreal forest is becoming a patchwork of trees - a far cry from a forest. And, from all I've read and seen, this is the crux of the problem: habitat destruction. There was aerial footage showing the paths ripped through the territories of birds - wide enough swaths to make it difficult to breed due to habitat fragmentation. And they had us listen to the noise of the equipment that makes finding a mate through song all but impossible. But they didn't tell us the solution to this. It doesn't have a happy ending. Studies on bird mortality don't factor this in because it doesn't directly kill the living birds, so windows and cats seem like the primary culprits when we see fewer and fewer birds each year. But they're not even close.

If we want to save songbirds, it's not enough to just keep our cats indoors and put dots on our windows. Ken Rosenberg, of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology, sees these issues as mere distractions and says "the top three threats to birds overall are habitat loss, habitat loss, and habitat loss. . . . We're losing the battle acre by acre." This is exacerbated by climate change of course. We're in an endless loop of logging trees that absorb GHGs and increasing emissions through burning fossil fuels, which is affecting the climate necessary for breeding.

In yesterday's NYTimes, Edward O. Wilson clarifies that we have to focus on habitat to save everything.
"The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half. Congratulations, we might say -- even though the patient will be dead by morning. . . . The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3 percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. . . . This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so."  
It might seem a dramatic move, but it's time for that level of action, yet our fair leader is busy arguing that pipelines will help us become green. He needs to be convinced of his tragic error.

On top of reserves, the personal solutions to this issue are to build fewer things with wood, use fewer paper products, and travel less in cars and planes. But those birders won't want to watch a movie that tells them to stop travelling around the world looking at birds. The filmmakers were savvy yet cowardly in this regard.

I recently went to a Preparing for Retirement seminar so I'd be in the know and could advise staff if they have questions. There was a clear message there that most teachers who retire need significant funds because they almost all intend to travel. A show of hands reinforced that reality. This is an entitled way of life that must end, and better by choice than necessity. The bird lovers watching the film will learn they're absolved as long as they restrain their cats, then they can fly as far as they can afford. But, obviously, it's people that need to be restrained.