by Angela Psimenatos
It takes courage for people to share experiences of sexual violence. I say “people” because it is not only women who are assaulted: men, children, people of colour, LGBTQ and people with disabilities experience sexual violence, too. Courage is the strength of those who share their trauma and it is the strength of the cast in The Ghomeshi Effect who will speak it, but it also takes courage for the audience to hear them and for society to act to end the scourge of sexual violence.
We tend to want to categorize things so that we can easily differentiate one concept from another. However, trauma is multi-layered and complex; it also manifests itself differently from one person to another. Trauma is also invisible which makes it quite difficult to gauge its effects . Someone may look entirely “put together” and yet suffer tremendously and have difficulty to function.
As a person with chronic pain, I know what it’s like to have my daily struggle to exist dismissed because I do not fit into the mold of what a person who is suffering “should” look like. I am told that I don’t look depressed because I am not always in a foul mood. Medical professionals treating me for pain have said that I don’t look like I am suffering. I try really hard to live life as fully as possible with my pain, but that does not mean that I am not suffering. Like physical pain, emotional pain brought on by trauma is often met with this dismissive attitude. Professionals are trained to look for typical indicators of pain or trauma; they look, but because of their pre-conceptions, they don’t always see the person suffering.
Since pain and trauma are invisible, it is extremely difficult for sexual assault survivors when they choose to report the assault. The judicial system, as it is right now, it is ill-equipped to hear cases of this nature. Specifically, it often does not take into account that the normal rules of behavior no longer apply while the assault is happening because there is fear of being injured or attacked—in addition to the assault itself—if the victim tries to fight off his or her attacker. In short, it is not safe. This leaves many survivors feeling guilty because they feel responsible for what happened to them in addition to coping with the physical and psychological effects of the assault.
As a woman with a physical disability, I know misconceptions about people with disabilities linger: that we are not sexual beings, or that our disabilities prevent us from having or wanting to be in relationships. Even more pernicious is the notion that sexual assault doesn’t happen to us. However, the statistics tell a different story. A Department of Justice report states that “40% of women with disabilities have been assaulted, sexually assaulted, or abused in some way.” Even more disconcerting is the finding that “83% of women with disabilities will be assaulted, sexually assaulted or abused in their lifetimes.” These statistics make it clear that women with disabilities are a high-risk group. The crime of sexual assault is basically about the assailant asserting physical power over the victim. For women with disabilities, this is staggeringly clear: in many cases, the victim is unable to stave off the assault because her disability prevents her from doing so.
Unfortunately, people with disabilities and sexual assault survivors still face stigma. They may be afraid to disclose what happened to them, or ask for the supports they need for fear of being ostracized by their peers. This can lead to feeling isolated and alone, and bring on depression. But there are many people who are struggling with similar things. As a person with chronic pain, I often feel alone because my physical appearance belies how I am feeling and because my experience is so far removed from the lives of the majority, both able-bodied and disabled. I am looking for understanding and compassion, as many sexual assault survivors are too. Part of creating an inclusive society is being open to people with varied life experiences and actively listening to them.
The Ghomeshi Effect is groundbreaking for broaching the subject of sexual violence because the director gives survivors a voice by using their own words about their experiences, and in doing so, supports truth and counters the culture of silencing people who have experienced sexual violence. It is the responsibility of all people—women, men, parents, community leaders, lawmakers and government—to create a society in which sexual violence is recognized as a serious crime, punished accordingly and prevented through education about consent. Hopefully, the play will not only make people aware of sexual violence, but it will give them courage to spark a discussion around what constitutes sexual violence and how citizens and communities can work together to combat this crime.
 Source: Department of Justice Canada. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/ccs-ajc/rr06_vic2/p3_4.html Retrieved on September 29, 2016.