Since the month of July, a new wave of allegations of sexual assault has been flooding Québec’s social media networks. This movement seeks to break victims’ silence, pushing for radical change in current systems that all too often allow acts of sexual violence to be committed with complete impunity.
According to the study Témoigner en ligne de son agression à caractère sexuel : fiches pour l’intervention led by UQAM in collaboration with RQ-CALACS and the Je Suis Indestructible collective (JSI), every victim of sexual violence has their own very personal reasons for telling their story online. Although each person’s motivations are different, however, two main categories can be identified: personal and social. A personal motivation is characterized by a desire to speak out, take the first step, break one’s solitude, ask for help and support, and express oneself in a safe space. Social motivation stems from a desire to speak out in order to change people’s ways of thinking and fight against rape culture, join a social movement linked to a hashtag (such as #metoo), ensure that one’s attacker doesn’t hurt anyone else, or encourage others to share their experiences as well.
Benefits of speaking out online
The main benefits of speaking out online can be divided into four categories: individual, relational, informational and collective. Benefits for the individual are many: naming their suffering, stimulating memory, getting help, breaking isolation, re-writing their own history and denouncing their attacker. Relational benefits allow individuals to redefine their relationships with those close to them, identify the people they can count on, and obtain support from family and friends. Informational benefits consist of the possibility of gleaning additional information related to sexual assault, such as explanations about the legal process, available resources, and so on. Collective benefits are characterized by taking action to become part of a collective movement and collectively denounce an attacker.
Risks of speaking out online
In spite of the many advantages listed above, denouncing a sexual attacker on the Internet also comes with its share of risks. Blowing the whistle on a sexual attacker can spark negative reactions—passivity, insults and threats—from the victim’s friends and family as well as others on social media. Permanent digital traces are also a serious concern, as the post will be available for anyone at all, including a potential employer or Crown prosecutor, to read years later.
In the video Témoigner de son agression à caractère sexuel sur les médias sociaux : quels enjeux pour les victimes?, Rachel Chagnon, professor in the department of legal science and director of the Institut de recherches et d’études féministes (IREF) at UQAM, explains that there are two major potential pitfalls involved in reporting a sexual assault online. First of all, if a victim decides to lay charges against their attacker after making a public denouncement online, there is a risk that their words may be used against them, compromising their credibility in the event of a criminal trial. As Dr. Chagnon explains, the credibility of a witness is judged by their ability to remember what happened and express it concisely and accurately. If there are several public versions of a witness’s testimony and some are found to be different from others, the defense prosecutor may use that fact against the witness to prove that their memory is not reliable—or worse, that they are lying.
Another legal issue is the risk of being charged with defamation if the victim names their attacker online. Michaël Lessard, lawyer and doctoral student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, considers this risk to be much smaller. In his article in the Montréal daily La Presse entitled Le droit protège-t-il la réputation des agresseurs ?, he says that “aggressors often threaten to take legal action against their accusers in order to silence them. As we have seen, however, sending formal legal notice is one thing; winning a defamation trial is quite another.” In his opinion, there are three legal points that act in the victim’s favour in such cases. First, victims have the fundamental right to freedom of expression under the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A certain degree of harm to reputation is therefore tolerated as a form of freedom of expression. Second, the person accusing the victim must be able to prove the existence of defamation. They must be able to show that the victim’s allegations are false or that they did not have justified grounds—in other words, that their allegations were not information in the public interest, criticism or caricature within reasonable limits. Third, if the victim successfully proves in court that there was assault, they may file a counterclaim for significant financial compensation.
Concrete impact on medico-social services in designated centres
During a medico-social intervention, there is now an even greater possibility that a victim may talk to you about their intention to speak out against their sexual attacker online. We recommend three steps to guide the victim through this process. First, help them to understand the need that underlies their desire to tell their story online, as well as the related emotions. Explore their expectations and motivations. Second, discuss the possible parameters of the victim’s post, such as choice of platform and format, anonymous or not. Finally, talk to the victim about the benefits and risks of speaking out online, and listen to their concerns. To make sure you are prepared for this type of situation, consult the list of questions for preparing/guiding an online denunciation provided on page 11 of Témoigner de son agression à caractère sexuel sur Internet : fiches pour l’intervention.