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OPINION: Real impact of abuse trauma widely misunderstood

Former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi leaves a Toronto court after day four of his trial on Friday, February 5, 2016.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
April 16, 2016 - 9:30 AM

Editor's note: April 17 to April 23, 2016 is Prevention of Violence Against Women Week. As part of its efforts to focus attention on the ongoing issue of intimate partner violence, and galvanize the community to take action to help prevent it, the Kelowna Women’s Shelter submitted this article.


The recent, high profile trial, and subsequent acquittal, of former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi on four charges of sexual assault and one of choking has shone a long overdue spotlight on how victims of violence respond to trauma.

Throughout the proceedings, the complainants were accused of lying and withholding information. In his ruling, the judge spoke of the victims being “deceptive”, and of their lack of “reliability” and “credibility”.

Anyone who has worked closely with people who have experienced sexual assault or other forms of intimate partner violence knows reactions to trauma are varied, unpredictable, and often completely different than people, and the system, expect.

In the wake of an assault, victims may feel shame, panic, humiliation, grief, guilt, depression and anxiety. They may question themselves and their memories of the abuse. They may pretend it didn’t happen at all as a way to lessen the trauma response. They may make up, or make nice, with the abuser because they don’t want to be seen as a bad person, or as a misguided way of fixing things, or normalizing something that is far from normal.

And when it comes to victims effectively telling their story, in a courtroom or elsewhere, the reality is that trauma affects memory. Victims of trauma are sometimes unable to express an articulate narrative because the brain tends to hone in on only the most essential details of what occurred. When victims later try to string together the full story of what happened, the details are inaccurate, often not recalled in a lot of detail, and may change from telling to telling.

Too often, when women report an assault, their absolutely natural, post-traumatic inability to relay details of what happened in a manner that satisfies the strict consistency and credibility requirements set by a system that just doesn’t get it, sets them up for failure from the outset.

Which helps explain why assaults are so underreported, and convictions so few. Studies show half of Canadian women have experienced physical or sexual assault. Yet fewer than one in 10 report a sexual assault to police. And although there are about half a million self-reported sexual assaults each year in Canada, in 2006, there were only a little more than 1,500 convictions.

Women who experience sexual and other assaults say they don’t report because they fear reprisal, re-victimization, stigmatization and a justice system that will not help them.

In the wake of the Ghomeshi trial, those barriers no doubt loom larger than ever for any woman considering reporting an assault, something which takes incredible strength and bravery to do.

Even if it doesn’t increase the confidence of victims to come forward, one can only hope, at the very least, the discussion and debate sparked by the trial increases public education about the need for more trauma-informed practices at every level of the policing and judicial systems.

Karen Mason
Executive Director
Kelowna Women’s Shelter

— The Kelowna Women’s Shelter is a non-profit organization that offers emergency transitional housing, counseling, support and education to women and their children who have experienced intimate partner violence. For more information, or to make a donation, visit or call 250-763-1040.

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