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By Maanvi Dhillon

*CW: This article contains discussion of sexual assault*

[spacer height=”20px”]During the summer, an Ontario Superior Court Justice ruled in support of an accused person’s right to use extreme intoxication as a defence in sexual assault cases. The rule has implications on campus as McMaster University continues to make progress in providing adequate support for victims, training for staff and responses to sexual assault cases.

Justice Spies’ ruling was not the first of its kind. According to The Globe and Mail, the Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that extreme drunkenness could be a defence to sexual assault, and several judges have agreed since, despite a federal law that attempted to counter the ruling and prevent the use of the defence. Nevertheless, the recent decision has evoked condemnation as many fear it could undo years of work in advancing the rights of sexual assault victims.

Meaghan Ross, the university’s sexual violence response coordinator, explains that the decision adds to the barriers for survivors who are willing to access the justice system. In addition, it can worsen the psychological and emotional effects of assault by perpetuating victim-blaming myths.

“Many survivors internalize widespread victim-blaming myths, such as the false belief that a survivor is responsible for the sexual assault perpetrated against them,” she said. “This can create lots of confusion and shame and can have the effect of discouraging survivors from disclosing the sexual assault, along with many other barriers to disclosing they encounter.”

Ross also notes that while the legal technicalities of the ruling are important, public discussion will also have a long-standing impact.

According to the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton), only one in three Canadians understand what sexual consent means. With public attention paid to this ruling, more and more people will hear about it and potentially develop misunderstandings about their responsibility for their actions while intoxicated.

From her experience working at McMaster, Ross says she commonly gets asked questions about the relationship between alcohol and consent.

“Another concern sexual violence advocates share is whether the ruling may adequately consider individuals who intentionally use alcohol to facilitate sexual assault, as well as what message may be sent to individuals who make irresponsible and harmful behaviour choices when alcohol is involved,” she said.

Many of the barriers to justice for sexual assault victims are higher for marginalized communities, including racialized women, LGBTQ+ women, Indigenous women and women with disabilities.

“[It is important to] understand the complexity of sexual assault impacts on a diversity of survivors, especially those from most socially marginalized communities who experience sexual violence at disproportionately higher rates,” said Ross.

Currently, it is unclear whether the federal or provincial government will try to contest the ruling. However, the decision will likely remain for some time.

Ross emphasizes the power that students have to participate in relevant conversations and voice their concerns. In particular, she commends the work that various student groups are doing to advocate for better sexual assault and violence policies on campus as the university strives to develop a “survivor-centred approach” to handling these instances.

She also encourages students to get involved in activism off campus, including protests against the repeal of provincial sex education, student organizations like OurTurn and Silence is Violence and campaigns by student advocacy groups like Ontario University Student Alliance and the Canadian Federation of Students.

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