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Eliminating the myths around sexual assault

Toronto civil litigator Stephany Mandin hopes the case of a woman suing police for dismissing her sexual assault complaint will ultimately help investigators deal more sympathetically with rape victims.

“There needs to be more sensitivity training for the police in how to handle sexual assault complaints,” says Mandin, a partner with Goldman Hine LLP.

“People who have been sexually assaulted often don’t speak up for fear of exactly what happened in this case,” Mandin tells AdvocateDaily.com.

A young woman whose sexual assault complaint was dismissed as “unfounded” by police in London, Ont., is suing the force and accusing investigators of discriminating against her based on her gender.

The lawsuit alleges that officers relied on rape myths and stereotypes to evaluate and ultimately dismiss her case in 2010, reports the Globe and Mail.  

In her statement of claim, the now 24-year-old woman says the detective who interviewed her suggested she had consented to sex and repeatedly alluded to her drinking and to kissing her alleged attacker earlier in the night.  

“There’s never that same scrutiny with physical assaults,” says Mandin. “The precursor conduct is irrelevant. Yet, in sexual assaults, that is the focal point. ‘Did you kiss him? What were you wearing? How much did you have to drink?’ It’s all these contextual things because the focus is consent.”

She says “myths and stereotypes surrounding what a victim should do may be grounded in gender-based descrimination” and officers need to be aware that not all victims react the same.

“Most people understand fight or flight, but there’s also a freeze response. And, some cultures take a much more subservient approach — certain cultures internalize shame.

"Sometimes the victim’s response is to just lie there and do nothing. Some women want to clean themselves afterward and scrub it all away. It doesn't mean they weren't raped.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit tells the Globe she worries police services will not change without such court action.

“This will keep happening if not addressed within the legal system. I don’t have the utmost faith in internal police reviews. While I think they’re well intentioned, there needs to be some sort of outside entity involved,” the plaintiff said.

In addition to asking for unnamed monetary damages, reports the Globe, the claim also asks that the London Police Service be ordered to implement an annual, external review of sex-assault cases based on the Philadelphia Model, an oversight program where front-line advocates in that city are invited to examine files for signs of bias and investigative missteps.

Mandin thinks police officers should encourage victims to speak to a lawyer. She believes such confidential counsel early on may better prepare them for the often-daunting process of making a complaint to police. Unfortunately, she says, complainants in sexual assault cases are often viewed suspiciously by police if they consult with a lawyer.

“If you get hit by a car, if you lose your job, it is expected that one of your first calls is going to be to a lawyer. But if you are the victim of a sexual crime and you speak to a lawyer, the perception is you’re looking for money and that can taint the investigation from the get-go,” says Mandin.

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