Kristin Raworth: Has the #MeToo moment passed?
Speaking out was and remains a recipe for losing your career; there are no standardized sexual violence policies in the majority of our institutions.
By: Kristin Raworth
In 1996, Sheldon Kennedy came forward about sexual abuse he had experienced as a hockey player with the Swift Current Broncos. The story exploded. It was everywhere. Players were commending him for his courage. Sexual violence in sports and especially sexual violence experienced by men was discussed in mainstream media, often for the first time. Kennedy later rollerbladed across the country to bring attention to childhood sexual abuse. It felt like a watershed moment for the National Hockey League — a chance to address sexual violence with a spokesperson like Kennedy, who would later go on to form a child advocacy centre in Calgary. It seemed a shift in the culture of hockey was on the horizon.
Fast forward to 2010.
Kyle Beach, then a 20-year-old player with the Chicago Blackhawks, reported to leadership within the organization that he had been sexually assaulted by the team’s video coach. Not only was nothing done, but after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup this individual went on to get a day with the cup, which bore his name until it was crossed off this week. Leadership did not want to put their team’s Stanley Cup dreams at risk, with one person in senior leadership reportedly saying: “I don’t want to deal with this now.” It wasn’t until Beach filed a lawsuit that the details of his abuse came to light, 11 years and, reportedly, several more victims later. One was a child.
When the #MeToo movement went mainstream it felt like a beginning of a new normal: from that moment on, the experiences of survivors would be weighted more heavily than those of the perpetrators. Much like when Sheldon Kennedy came forward, there was hope that this signalled a change in the culture and how we respond to sexual violence. In the years since, however, we have continued to put the onus on survivors to push change instead of demanding it from our leadership. Survivors who do come forward often experience a backlash that does more damage to their futures than it does to the alleged perpetrator. We still treat sexual violence like a one-off, like an issue to be managed rather than something requiring institutional change: it is easier to ignore a survivor than believe them and accept the prevalence of sexual violence.
Here is the ugly truth. Someone you know or like has committed an act of sexual harassment or assault, or failed to act when one was reported. That fact alone is something the majority of people cannot quite accept. When Beach’s story came out in the media, his teammate Jonathan Toews, who was captain of the team at the time (and remains so) made a few sympathetic noises about Beach’s experience, but mostly had words of defence for the managers who had swept the problem under the carpet 11 years ago. They were “good people” who weren’t “directly complicit” in the alleged assault.
This kind of response is, alas, fairly typical when someone you personally like is accused of bad things, either as perpetrator or enabler — you make it about your experiences and not the survivors’. Because of this tendency and the difficulty of believing accusations made against people “on our side” we continue to tolerate an epidemic of sexual violence.
That change begins with sexual harassment policies that ensure a third-party investigation of accusations. It should not have been left up to the Blackhawk leadership to decide what happened. We cannot keep letting powerful organizations police their own. We have seen this exact pattern unfold over and over across almost every institution you can think of, from the NHL to politics to police to media.
Or, in one topical example, the Canadian Armed Forces.
Not only were men within the military accused of sexual misconduct not disciplined, but in some cases they were actually promoted. In one case — though briefly — an officer, Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe, was promoted to be the head of the group of the military conducting investigations into sexual misconduct despite having already acknowledged badly mishandling a prior incident where an officer he knew was accused of a series of crimes, including sexual assault against a fellow soldier (said officer was convicted of that assault). This galling incident was not an isolated one. With the lack of a standardized process survivors who spoke out were usually ignored, sidelined and had their careers derailed as the price of coming forward.
Speaking out in any institution was and remains a recipe for losing your career.
There are no standardized sexual violence policies in the majority of our institutions. Where there are, there is often not mandated training in place to help people understand what sexual violence is and what its impacts are. It was only six months ago we celebrated mandating sexual violence training for federal judges as a milestone. The military, RCMP and crown corporations remain without sexual violence training or standardized polices. Many of our institutions remain without sexual harassment policies that ensure all allegations will be investigated by a third-party investigator — in other words, there’s no guarantee that the person investigating an allegation won’t have a personal or professional interest in determining the outcome that suits their priorities.
This failure of leadership on issues of sexual harassment or abuse exists because this topic makes people uncomfortable. It is easy to respond like Jonathan Toews and brush it off because it hasn’t happened to you. When asked by reporters if the NHL would reach out to Sheldon Kennedy for training or support after the incident with the Blackhawks, Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, said no, and qualified it by saying Kennedy’s abuse occurred in the minor leagues. This response is exactly how institutions handle these issues: that incident over there is something that wouldn’t happen here.
More than six years ago, I was in a friend’s car when he locked the door and sexually assaulted me. After disclosing, I lost all my friends who found it easier to not believe me than to believe that someone they cared about could do a bad thing. Imagine my confusion when a few years later I saw one of them at a benefit for a sexual assault centre proudly wearing a “believe survivors” sticker. We remain a society that is seemingly outraged by the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse but unwilling to do anything to resolve it.
It has been 25 years since Sheldon Kennedy disclosed. It has been 25 years of work by advocates and governments and organizations to help address the stigma of sexual violence and to bring this issue to the general public’s mind, to make it matter. To make the average Canadian understand that this issue impacts a third of women and quarter of men in their lifetimes. We have made some progress, but what we have not achieved is the recognition that bad people aren’t the ones hiding behind a bush — “stranger danger” is not the issue, the issue is our buddy sitting next to us having a beer, or someone who, to paraphrase Toews, has been “good to you.” Putting better policies in place isn’t a perfect solution, since people will still struggle to accept that people they love can do bad things. But it would still be a massive step in the right direction. And it is long, long overdue.
Kristin Raworth is a victim advocate.
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