The Invisible War

SlutWalk exposes Victoria to the most provocative political movement yet

Five Victoria women

Five Victoria women

SlutWalk exposes Victoria to the most provocative political movement yet

It started for Canada that day in 2011, when a Toronto police officer said publicly that maybe women wouldn’t get raped if they didn’t dress “like sluts.” Canadians everywhere threw up their arms, raised their voices and put on their most provocative outfits in a nation-wide movement guaranteed to turn heads — SlutWalk.

It starts for Victoria this Sunday, June 9, thanks to one woman who refused to stand down when her own experience forced her to seek help. And though ours is one of the last cities to join the brigade by name, hundreds of Victorians are expected to strut beside her to acknowledge the facts: one in three women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. And, by the Criminal Code of Canada definition, no one can ask to be sexually assaulted.

Not her fault

It’s the day before Halloween, 2012, when Diondra Hall runs into an old friend at a music concert. The two decide to catch up later over drinks, though when the friend appears at her door, he’s brought another person Hall doesn’t know.

Still, the three meet, chat and drink together, until one shot becomes too many. Hall is drugged, unable to move her body, and the two men proceed to sexually assault her.

The first person she tells is a friend who assures her “This is not your fault.” Already, Hall has been asking herself why she drank so much, and with someone she didn’t know, and how could she have let this happen.

Hall makes the decision, with her friends’ encouragement, to report the incident. Within 72 hours, she undergoes a medical exam, submits to a police interview, writes a statement and relives the moment, again and again. In what would have been rare just a handful of years ago, Hall is met with support from all levels. A Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) worker and nurse are issued to walk her through the medical process. Her case worker at VicPD assures her, again, the situation is not her fault. Charges are laid against the two men, and a court trial is pending. Hall’s friends come to her aid and, just over six months later, Hall signs up to be the official contact for the first ever Victoria SlutWalk.

“SlutWalk is a movement that not only aims to provide a space for empowerment, but also destructs the way we shame women for their sexual choices and hold them accountable for crimes committed against them,” says Hall, 24. “The thing that shocked me was, when I started confiding in my friends, almost all of them told me about instances of assault they had been through.”

While Victoria has had its own spotlight on the issues thanks to the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre and the more jovial Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event, which just took place May 26, SlutWalk falls into its own category as an unsponsored — and more outspoken — display against sexual violence. On April 3, 2011, more than 1,000 people gathered at the first Toronto SlutWalk, dressed in the most seductive and suggestive outfits possible in response to a comment made by police constable Michael Sanguinetti, who stated, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this — however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.” This message, after Statistics Canada released its 2004-2007 report that 89 per cent of assaulted women knew their perpetrator, would lay the groundwork for a new look at the treatment of assault survivors. With the tagline “Because we’ve had enough!”, co-founders of the Toronto event, Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis, made a conscious decision to use “slut” in their response to reclaim the term.

“We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result,” the two say on the SlutWalk Toronto website. “Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.”

Since the kick off, hundreds of thousands have joined the movement from Halifax to Vancouver, often with police, community and even military support.

Attention!

Nicola Peffers is one former member of the military who will be speaking at the Victoria event.

Royal Canadian Navy Ordinary Seaman (OS) Peffers was posted to the HMCS Winnipeg from 2007 to 2012. At a 2009 NATO deployment, Peffers was sexually assaulted. She was the only female ordinary seaman in the engineering department on ship and survived ongoing harassment from her male colleagues, especially the higher-ranked officers. But when Peffers reported the incident, she was met with little support. Her complaint is now being heard through the Military Police Complaints Commission, since the case was closed without an investigation.

“On paper, [The Canadian Forces] sound quite accountable, but as soon as I wanted disciplinary measures for those responsible, they were quick to defend the respondents rather than the victim,” she says. “In my case, no witnesses were willing to talk, and for some instances there were no witnesses, so the Forces take the word of the high-ranking individuals over an ordinary seaman’s words. In the instances that couldn’t be dismissed as having no witnesses, they were dismissed on technicalities like improper formatting or not meeting how they define harassment.”

The Canadian Forces officially has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct, as outlined in the Harassment Prevention and Resolution Guidelines Peffers used to base her complaint. However, the Military Police determined her experiences didn’t meet the criteria for assault under the Criminal Code of Canada. And though every female solider Peffers spoke with reported at least one instance of harassment or sexual assault, all stayed silent to avoid professional repercussions. Peffers herself was denied access to training courses that would have furthered her career. Despite all her soldier training, Peffers would receive a new lesson on how to fight — how to work with a lawyer, keep records of all her communication, develop the patience for a response and how to put it out of her mind.

“Sexual assault in the military is rampant and I don’t think the public knows how bad it is,” says Peffers, who now works in a male-dominated trade outside the military where she says she feels safe. “I was inspired to not stay silent because silent is what every other woman in the military is being, and someone needs to stand up.”

While she awaits her court case, Peffers is writing a book on her experience and hopes her voice will influence Ottawa in a policy change that would make it a safe choice for women in the military to come forward.

When it comes to choice, words play a part. The 14th century definition of “slut” was “an untidy woman.” In 2013, the Merriam-Webster Canadian dictionary defines it as 1. “a slovenly woman,” or 2. a) “a promiscuous woman; especially: prostitute” and 2. b) “a saucy girl: minx.” Though the word is still evolving, Hall says the dichotomy — which is still seen today — gives women two options.

“As a woman, your sexuality is always up for conversation, and it starts in high school,” she says. “If you say ‘yes’ to a boy, you are a slut. If you say ‘no,’ you are a bitch. And there really isn’t anything in between.”

Hall has her own definition of the word slut: someone who is strong, sexually empowered, knows her boundaries, rejects what society says it means to be female and accepts her own power. With that definition, Hall says she would proudly use the term herself. When it comes to situations like her court case, however, part of the challenge will still be convincing the court that her own history doesn’t play a part.

“There are these implications in our society that there are people more deserving of rights and protection, and that person is the young, innocent virgin, not necessarily the woman who governs her own body,” says Hall. “A lot of my friends say this isn’t a comfortable topic to discuss, but sexual assault is not a comfortable experience to have. What prevents us from making progress is not talking about it — it’s time to talk.” M

Join the walk Sun., June 9, 11am at the legislature. The walk is free and is open to all ages and genders, and will end in Centennial Square with guest speakers, resource tables and entertainment. For more, visit VictoriaSlutWalk.com

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