Thursday, September 27, 2007

Sexual assault is not about the loss of virginity

This is a sad story.

A few weeks ago, a female student was sexually assaulted when she was working late at night in a lab at Carleton University. Her assailant also severely beat her up, leaving her injured and unconscious, and fled with some of her clothes.

The saddest part of the story is that the victim of this heinous assault has contacted the media in order to "set the record straight" on the fact that she was "not raped". As a matter of fact, the young woman, who is Muslim, wants to make clear that her sexual assault did not involve penetration and that she is still a virgin.

"As part of her culture, being a virgin is very important, and, if, all of a sudden, everybody looks at her and says she's not a virgin, she's a lot less desirable as a wife," said Christine Baker, a sexual-assault examiner at the Ottawa Hospital who has been keeping in touch with the victim.

I find it hard to believe that in Canada, women are still feeling that ultimate value as human being depends on their being a virgin until marriage, and on their "marriagebility". I am also deeply troubled by the fact that this woman's declaration suggests that she should have to bear any guilt or uncarable shame because she was sexually "accessed" by a man without her consent.

In addition, her concerns for her reputation as a virgin sadly highlight that no matter how heinous and twisted this crime was, and despite the fact that is no question whatsoever as to her complete and obvious lack of consent (having been beaten to the point of unconsciousness before being assaulted), there are people out there who somehow feel that she should feel responsible for her own "depreciation".

The mere fact that this is happening in Canada, in 2007, shows us that we still have a very long way to go in terms of changing people's attitude towards sexual violence and its female victims. I can't believe that we still seem to be grappling with the concept that women are not chattels, to be sold, exchanged or taken.


On another note, it should be noted that the young woman in this case is dead right about one thing: just because a penis did not enter your vagina when you were attacked doesn't mean you have not been sexually assaulted, nor does it make things any "better" for you.

Many people - including, I am sad to say, far too many judges who hear sexual assault cases - are still under the impression that "sexual assault" is a lesser, non-penetrative form of rape, and therefore, a lighter criminal offence. It is not.

Sexual assault consists of any type of sexual touching conducted without the person's consent, when the assailant is aware of the other person's lack of consent. Period. One's bodily integrity is not, in the eyes of the law, ultimately linked to one's virginity.


However, a distinction between sexual assault and the abrogated offence of rape has to be drawn. While sexual assault simpliciter is punishable by a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment (if prosecuted by way of indictment) or by a maximum of 18 months' imprisonment (if prosecuted by way of summary conviction), the old offence of rape carried a maximum punishment of life's imprisonment (along, in the good old days, with 50 lashes).

When I hear about extremely violent and wanton sexual attacks such as this one, I'm tempted to say: bring back the lash...

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