Regina’s fledgling #metoo movement goes dark after a summer of speaking out

City by D.M. Ditson

Sarah (not her real name) first told her story of sexual assault to a stranger on social media who promised to believe her and keep her anonymous. These promises, even coming from someone she’d never met, allowed her to feel safe enough to share the abuse she endured.

In July, when news broke about a local mental health advocate and former restaurant manager who had allegedly sexually harassed a series of women, Sarah figured “surely there were many more stories going unheard.”

So Sarah started an Instagram page called Survivors’ Stories Regina (also known as Victims’ Voices Regina) and became for others the gentle online stranger who would listen to their stories, believe them and point them toward additional resources.

With survivors’ consent, Sarah amplified their voices by posting their stories — some of which named the alleged assailants — publicly on the page.

And now she is being sued for it.

According to media reports, Sarah, along with a second anonymous person who administers the page, are included in a Regina man’s $1,000,000 lawsuit along with Facebook, the company that owns Instagram.

In the five weeks that Survivors’ Stories Regina was running unhindered, the city was bowed under the weight of sexual misconduct claims. Before news broke about the lawsuit, the page contained hundreds of posts. As some posts named alleged abusers, several of the accused faced professional ramifications. Many more survivor accounts never made it past Sarah’s direct messages. She had been receiving 50 to 80 messages a day — far more than she’d anticipated, and so many that she and her partner weren’t able to keep up.

At least a dozen men are reported to have sought legal avenues to shut down Sarah’s efforts. They might say their intentions are noble — standing up for due process; silencing liars — but the issues at play are much broader than the details of what specific individuals are alleged to have done.

The real issue is about power, patriarchy and whose pain we care about. It’s also about whether we believe the multitudes of survivors when they show us their wounds.

Do these men, guilty or not, matter more than roughly 22,000 Regina women (one in four, myself included) who have been sexually assaulted? Should these men get to silence your friends, family members and neighbours who — for a few weeks only — were able to share their suffering and see the city both breaking and healing as they spoke?

Some, like those trying to sue the still-anonymous Sarah, might want to shut the conversation down, insisting that survivors shouldn’t name the accused, that we should instead be quiet and sweet and speak no evil, especially not that done to us.

But survivors deserve to be heard. Sarah gave us a place to speak at great financial risk to herself, and we ought to be grateful she allowed us to air our festering, silent grievances.

Difficult Truths

For a moment it seemed like Regina was ready to listen. But as soon as the lawsuit arrived casting doubt on the survivors and positioning the accused as the aggrieved, we had an excuse to put this reckoning aside and go back to sloughing off survivors and their testimonies.

Why are we so motivated to believe survivors are lying? Why do we stubbornly disavow their suffering when they tell us about the worst thing that ever happened to them and how it broke their souls?

Maybe because if it’s true, it means our world is shit.

“As a society, we are willing to believe the most crazy, complicated, alternative, untrue story just so we can pretend that what really happened didn’t happen,” says Pamela Cross, a feminist lawyer who represents sexual assault survivors. “I think in large measure it’s because we cannot as a society accept the depth and the extent of gender-based violence. It means we have to look at almost all of the structures in our society.

“We have to look at how we’re raising our children from the very youngest age, what they’re learning in school both formally and informally,” says Cross, the legal director of Luke’s Place, an Oshawa, Ontario non-profit that helps women fleeing abusive relationships. “We have to consider the possibility that men we like may have behaved in inappropriate or even criminal ways towards women. And I think that’s just too uncomfortable for most people.”

In 2017, Globe and Mail journalist Robyn Doolittle published results from an investigation into police departments across the country. Her Unfounded series showed police dismissing one in every five sexual assault cases as baseless.

According to Doolittle’s research, police were shuffling off cases at a rate more than double the high end of false reports and nearly 10 times the low end.

When her series ran, police services announced reforms including reviewing previously closed cases and overhauling processes. Since then, Doolittle says, unfounded rates have been falling but we’re still lacking when it comes to believing survivors.

“Many people will immediately reach for doubt when they hear a story,” says Doolittle. “[Rape culture] is this system of being that is so woven into every aspect of our lives; a system where we place doubt on victims and make excuses for perpetrators.”

Talking with Cross and Doolittle brought up my deepest shame, one that stretches back decades: I didn’t believe a friend who told me she was assaulted. Or another friend. Or another. 

I didn’t want to accept their stories, and — although I tried to say the right things — I closed my ears to their words. Twenty years later, I’m still trying to unpack why. It would hurt too much if I listened, partly because if what happened to them was bad then so was what happened to me.

“We don’t get anything out of coming forward,” Sarah says in an e-mail interview. “You just feel fear and you feel anxiety, and you’re worried that people are going to come after you, and it’s terrifying.”

And yet, Cross says, “there is absolutely nothing that’s more important” than speaking up about an assault and being met with an empathetic response.

“It’s the starting point to any healing,” she says.

Cross and Doolittle fully support survivors speaking out but say resistance is to be expected, especially when survivors name those they are accusing.

“People have a right to name what happened to them, but then [the accused] has the right to defend themselves,” Doolittle said. “If you want to take that next step and say ‘this is the person that did this to me’, there’s a lot of power in that. Many of the times when I’ve seen that, so many people come forward afterwards and say ‘yes, they did this to me, too.’”

But the accused don’t like it. And sometimes survivors can fall into what Doolittle calls men’s-rights-activists’ traps.

“We’re seeing the same pushback that we always see,” Sarah says. “Every single time someone tries to talk about sexual violence, there’s all these people that come out of the woodwork to call us liars, tell us that we need proof, tell us that this is slander, this is defamation, threatening legal action against us. It’s infuriating to see the same protections for abusers over and over and over again with very little consideration about survivors.”

At press time Sarah had just deleted the Instagram account based on legal advice. She intends to keep pushing forward.

So must we all.

Some quotes have been lightly edited. Prairie Dog’s coverage of this issue will continue in our next edition.

D.M. Ditson is an author and a survivor. Her memoir Wide Open details her experience with sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery. It’s available through Radiant Press.