It is only 8:15 a.m. on a sunny June morning, but already the line-up for the Paul Bernardo trial is snaking its way around the Toronto courthouse. About half of those in the crowd are women, and one group of five, in line since 6 a.m., have succumbed to fatigue and plopped themselves in a circle on the pavement. All are taking a law course at their high school in Thornhill, just north of the city, and they are here—with the permission of parents and teachers—to attend the trial in lieu of school. But this is no mere field trip: the trial about the abduction, rape and murder of young Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French has shaken them profoundly. “I wouldn’t walk in broad daylight by myself in a safe area any more,” shudders Mandi Perkins, 18. “It’s so easy, at the snap of a man’s fingers, to be raped. There’s no place to be safe.”
Her friends nod sympathetically, and most agree that the trial has made them even more conscious of what they wear, where they walk,
and with whom. “I definitely think women should expect trouble if they wear a short skirt or something,” says jean-clad Erin Doppelt, “but I don’t think it’s fair. You should be able to wear what you want.” The vapid good looks of the accused, despite his not-guilty pleas, have convinced them that appearances are no help in assessing a stranger, and the involvement of his former wife, Karla Homolka, frightens them even more. “Everybody has their own interpretation of what a rapist and a murderer looks like,” says the 18-year-old Doppelt. “This should send the message that you can’t judge people by what they look like—he might look like a decent person and be an absolute monster. You never know.”
Young Canadian women have good reason to be frightened. Recent studies estimate that those between the ages of 14 and 24 are twice as likely to be assaulted as older women. At the very age when girls are becoming women and forging a sexual identity, the spectre of rape— or worse—is making many fearful of dating, going out at night, even of leaving home to attend university. Pop culture, from movies to
magazines, is rife with images of brutalized women, a fact that some psychologists partly blame for a disturbing increase in sexual assaults—up 25 per cent to 34,764 between 1991 and 1993. No one, however, seems quite sure what to do about it. Recent federal studies and local initiatives—everything from better street lighting to walkhome programs on campuses—have tried to create safer
environments for women. But the sad reality is that 80 per cent of sexual assaults are committed by men known to their victims: dates, acquaintances and family members. “The irony,” says Heatherjane Robertson, director of programs for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, “is that women are most often attacked and murdered by the people who say they love them.”
The experts say that fear of assault starts to chip away at girls’ confidence early, as soon as they reach puberty. Researchers, such as Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, have found that most girls suffer a calamitous drop in self-esteem that begins around 12 or 13. The causes include sexual
stereotyping, pressure to conform to impossible ideals of beauty—and a pervasive fear of violence. By adulthood, many women are left with self-doubt that drains their spirit and often leads to anxiety and depression. Mary z Pipher, a clinical psychologist in Lincoln, Neb., and the g author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of t Adolescent Girls (1994), says the social climate for 8 teenage girls has never been worse. “It is virtually impos| sible to overstate how frightened they are,” Pipher told £ Maclean’s. Nor is it possible to assure them that taking
The spectre of assault leads to anxiety and depression
precautions will ensure their safety. “The reality,” says Catherine Hedlin, executive director of the Edmonton Sexual Assault Centre, “is that almost anybody can be outsmarted or just simply strong-armed.”
Counsellors who work with young girls find that their fears rise sharply during sensational trials like the Bernardo case. University of Toronto student Lauren
Speers, who recently failed to get one of the 118 public seats at the trial, says she has changed her behavior since details of the proceedings began to fill the media. “I don’t stand at phone booths any more late at night,” says the 18-year-old Speers. “And when you’re walking down the street, you don’t look people in the eye, you just keep your face down to the ground.” She has even gone so far as to stuff her shirt with a pillow if she finds herself out alone at night. “Ugly is safer,” she says.
June Larkin, an educational psychologist in Toronto, believes that young women may be attracted to the trial in the hope of putting a face on their anxiety. “In
that way,” she adds, “they may feel they can control the fear, and avoid it.” But there is no standard personality profile for crimes like this, she notes, and women are better off re-examining their own routines and ways of dealing with threatening situations. Striking a balance, however, between cautious behavior and reasonable risk-taking can be difficult—and discouraging. ‘These fears are like a dripping tap,” Larkin says. “They erode the confidence and sense of security of these girls.”
Perhaps no one knows that as well as the parents of
teenage girls. Caught between protectiveness and pride, many search desperately for a way to guide their daughters safely into adulthood, without stifling their spirit or ambition. Don Luney, 43, lives in Victoria with his wife and two daughters, aged 13 and 16. His rage over the Bernardo trial is only deepened by the case of Melanie Carpenter, a 23-year-old woman from Surrey, B.C., who was abducted last January. After a futile manhunt, her body was discovered, by accident, three weeks later. She had been stabbed several times and sexually assaulted. “I don’t care where you are,” Luney says vehemently. “If you want to bring up children these days you have to look after them every moment of the day, no matter how old they are.”
Luney’s views strike a chord with more and more parents, even though abductions by strangers remain relatively rare. That may be partly because of the frightening lack of predictability of such crimes. Earlier this month nine-year-old Joleil Campeau disappeared while walking through woods to a friend’s house in Laval, near Montreal. Last week, her body was recovered from a pond, 180 metres from her home. Police said they
Studies find that young women from 14 to 24 are mos
were treating the discovery as a “suspicious death.”
For Carol Wanka, the Montreal mother of a 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son, the Bernardo case has sliced through her preconceptions about the world her daughter lives in. ‘You know what really frightens me?” she says. “I might well have been delighted if my daughter brought home somebody like Bernardo. I mean, he didn’t have orange hair or a ring in his nose. He was polite, clean-cut.” She heaves a troubled sigh. “Instead, he may be a monster. How are you supposed to protect your children?” Wanka is not sure where to look for answers, but she believes children may get the wrong messages about relationships from the time they begin watching popular entertainment. “Just look at the difference between the Disney films that we watched and those our
kids are looking at,” Wanka says. “Snow White didn’t even have boobs. Pocahontas is a 38 B. What kind of message does that send?”
Some film-makers express concern about the sex-and-violence issue—even while creating the very images that many women object to. Atom Egoyan has won critical praise for his 1994 film Exotica, the story of a man who loses his own daughter to violence and then becomes obsessed with a stripper. The woman uses a tartan school uniform in her strip-dance, much like the ones that Homolka and French wore during the videotaping of forced sex acts between
them. Egoyan says that he was horrified to learn about how schoolgirl uniforms figure in the Bernardo trial, and he has forbidden the use of such images in advertising for the film. He is also well aware of how Hollywood films exploit young women. “Youth is a prized commodity in Hollywood,” he says. “It’s a very damaging way to view our society, because it fetishizes the very generation that we hope will absorb our best values.”
Faced at every turn with threats to their emerging identities, what are young women to do? Simply “being careful” is not enough, most
experts say, since so many sexual assaults occur within familiar relationships. What is needed—from teachers, family, boyfriends and female role models—is help in building self-esteem. Otherwise, young girls may be drawn into situations that can rapidly escalate out of control. In Montreal, seven men, ranging in age from 19 to 22, were arrested in May on charges of sexual assault and forcible confinement in connection with a case involving girls as young as 11 and 12 years old, who were lured to parties, enticed into sex, and sometimes raped. The crimes were discovered in midApril when one girl spoke to a social worker. “Initially, at least, some of these girls seem to have consented to sex,” says police Insp. René Mathon. “It’s probably one of the reasons why some of them don’t want to come forward. How do you tell your parents you went to a party for sex and then got raped when you’re only 11 or 12 years old?” Overwhelmed by such stories, as well as cries for help from many girls who have never been assaulted, resource teacher Barbara Hoover set up self-esteem discussion groups this year for Grade 7 and 8 girls at her school in London, Ont. At first
hesitant, the girls soon began asking if they could meet more frequently than their once-a-week schedule, and the sessions have become hugely popular. The creeping loss of confidence begins, Hoover finds, when teenage girls begin trying to conform to the stereotyped role models they see all around them. Then they look for inclusion in a group of peers, and later, are willing to be almost totally compliant in order to obtain what becomes an essential fixture of many young women’s lives—a boyfriend. “As self-esteem drops through adolescence,” Hoover says, “girls start clamoring for recognition, and sometimes get it in the form of an attentive, but abusive relationship, which only reinforces their image of themselves as losers.”
Avoiding or breaking a vicious cycle like that may be one of the most difficult tasks a young woman faces. And if the Bernardo trial has any larger lesson beyond the outcome, perhaps it will be in helping to alert more Canadians to the plight faced by many teenage girls—in both self-image and self-protection. “Some of my friends are real paranoid about being raped or kidnapped,” says Lauren Stryer, 14, of Vancouver. ‘They’re always looking around, looking down at the ground. And they talk about it a lot If you say, ‘I’m leaving, I’ll be back in a half hour,’ and you’re, like, 10 minutes late, they’ll freak out because they didn’t know what happened to you.” That pervasive sense of fear—at a time of life that once evoked innocence—may be the saddest commentary of all.
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