The recent spate of brutal rape-murders in Toronto, the nine rapes that had Calgary terrorized this spring and random attacks in other Canadian cities this summer may be doing more to cloud the sensitive issue of violence against women than bring it into sharp focus.
The Toronto attacks in particular have given rise to lurid publicity about what were already chilling crimes. On May 28 police found the battered body of 19-year-old Jennifer Isford, invariably described as an “Argonaut cheerleader,” on a lawn near her parents’ suburban home. There followed, over the next six weeks, four other vicious and apparently unconnected attacks on young women—three of which ended in death. The murders have touched off widespread fear and loathing in Toronto: more women are carrying keys in clutched fists, taking taxis instead of the subway, calling on male friends for escort service.
And, while police and rape crisis centres argue over whether or not rape-murder is on the increase, most women remember only the grisly details in newspaper accounts—“pantyhose knotted around her neck”; “head smashed with a brick”; “nude body face down in river.”
But the publicity has some feminists disturbed for other reasons. They say the alternately saccharine and salacious tone of most of the reportingincluding a lachrymose editorial in the Toronto Star that described the victims as “a cheerleader, a nanny, a mother and a bride-to-be”—feeds the erroneous notion that all victims of rape are young, attractive women. “The majority of women still think rape has something to do with sexual appeal,” says Debbie Parent of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. “The idea is if you are young and attractive, you are somehow asking for it.” In reality, she says, “very few women are immune,” citing the many calls the centre receives from
women of all ages, shapes and sizes.
Some women are also concerned that the publicity, particularly in Toronto and Calgary, bolsters the idea that the typical rapist is, in the words of a Calgary policeman, “some creep who crawls out of the woodwork.” In fact, says Dianne Kinnon, 27-year-old author of a comprehensive study on rape for the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, only 25 per cent of rapes are committed by strangers. Police statistics confirm that most attacks come from friends, lovers, husbands and neighbors, so-called “acquaintanceship rapes.”
Toronto Deputy Police Chief Jack Marks says that despite the recent string of gruesome attacks in his city, rape-murders are not up this year over last. Kinnon, however, argues from her study that “rapes are getting more violent,” perhaps, she says, “because
women are getting more uppity.”
The fog thickens again when it comes to the difficult question of what a woman should do if she is jumped.
Police forces differ in their approaches, but most are leery of the feminist claim that women should almost always try to fight back. Instead, the message—in Toronto’s Woman Alone pamphlet and Calgary’s Lady Beware program—is that women should avoid dangerous neighborhoods, public parks or going out alone at night. But such messages mean little when women read about a Toronto victim attacked in broad daylight and another in a quiet middle-class suburb. Most of the Calgary rapes involved break-ins. And, of course, home is no refuge either if the rapist is a boyfriend or a husband.
Staffers at rape crisis centres say it isn’t fair to put the onus on women, the victims of the crime, to circumscribe their lives in a way few men ever have to. “A common thing we hear women saying is, ‘It’s my fault,’ ” says Joni Miller of Vancouver Rape Relief. “We say, ‘No, it’s not your fault. You have a right to go to the laundromat, to go on a date, to live in this world.’ ” And women should fight for that right, she says.
Most rape crisis centres advocate self-defence courses—and there are signs women are listening more than ever. A recorded message at Toronto’s Wen’do self-defence for women crackles, “We have been swamped by calls and are setting up extra summer courses.” And, in front of Toronto City Hall last week, New York director of the Guardian Angels, Lisa Sliwa, in town on a promotion tour, attracted a crowd of curious women with an impromptu demonstration. “The idea isn’t to go 16
rounds with the guy,” she says, “it is to inflict pain, stun him, then run. Most men don’t expect you to fight back— you’ve got surprise on your side.” Dianne Kinnon maintains it is crucial that women drop their “be-nice mentality” and get psychologically as well as physically tough. But Ada Pink, a Toronto city employee who watched last week’s demonstration, says she doesn’t know if she could ever bring herself to “kick a man where it hurts. Maybe it’s because I was brought up in the ’50s.” Calgary police Sergeant Stuart Still agrees with feminists that women shouldn’t act like timid weaklings but, like many other policemen, he is afraid self-defence courses lead to over-confidence. “A woman shouldn’t think she can take on some six-footer and make a meatball out of him.” But by playing up the dangers of resisting rape, feminists say police are fuelling the myth that women are helpless and need boyfriends, cops or husbands to protect them. It’s a “male protection racket,” they charge.
Not surprisingly, this kind of statement makes police—and most law-abiding men—nervous and irritated. Most men still tend to think—with ample support from the psychiatric establishment—that rapes are the isolated acts of demented lunatics. Feminists—particularly in rape crisis centres—argue that rape is a social and political problem, what they see as the most violent expression of men’s all-pervasive power over women. “Rapists come in all shapes and sizes,” says Kinnon, who discovered in her study “there is no particular kind of man who doesn’t rape.”
The radical rhetoric in many rape crisis centres often leads to charges that they are staffed by man-hating harridans more interested in proselytizing than comforting. It may partly explain why Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) and four other B.C. rape centres all had their provincial funding cut in February. (Last week the B.C. government announced a $235,000 grant to a number of new rape crisis groups that have applied.) VRR won no friends in cabinet with its reluctance to work closely with police, the medical establishment or the legal system.
The centre believes, like Debbie Parent, that “there is a laxity in the legal system which not only condones rape, but encourages it.” To back that loaded charge, Parent cites the low conviction rate for rape—figures vary from two to 55 per cent—and the short prison terms given most rapists (an average two to three years, according to Kinnon’s study). And to get a conviction, says Parent, most women still have to go through the humiliating ordeal of proving their own innocence.
While the debate rages on in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, the only talk of rape in Ottawa last week occurred within the serene confines of a meeting room, where 20 parliamentarians are discussing a new sexual offences act, elements of which were first proposed five years ago. But such is the acrimony in Ottawa these days that the bill— aimed at reclassifying rape as a violent assault rather than a sexual act—may die on the order papers once again or, at best, survive in truncated form.
Little wonder impatient women are proposing bolder action: in Toronto a large Take Back the Night march is planned for this week in the east-end neighborhood where 38-year-old Judy Anne DeLisle’s strangled body was recently discovered. In Vancouver feminists have run newspaper ads describing suspected rapists and warning women away from certain areas. And then there are poster campaigns, like the one that popped up in a Vancouver neighborhood a while ago. The poster showed a pistol and bore the legend, YOU CAN’T RAPE A .38.
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