You're a victim

(even if you don't know it)

Barbara Kay

Published: Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Unless you swore off newspapers and TV between April 12 and 19 in Quebec, you were exposed to a carpet-bombing of "sensibilisation" ads on sexual assault against women, sponsored by the Ministere de la Culture, Communications et la Condition feminine du Quebec.


The TV ad featured a fresh-faced woman with flowing tresses framing an angelic face -- she could be 17 or 25, hard to say -- staring gravely into the camera. Calmly, she intones: "One out of every three women in Quebec will be the victim of a sexual assault during her lifetime." Pregnant pause, then: "I'm one of them." Cut.


Expensive public service campaigns are worthwhile when their content helps to lower rates of disease or accidents. Jolting statistics around smoking or unsafe sex or drunk driving motivate reform, eventually resulting in fewer deaths or reduced medical costs -- a win-win for everyone.


Unlike lung disease, STD and road deaths, risks for which preventative remedies are at hand, however, Quebec's "Breaking the Silence" ad doesn't even implicitly suggest a strategy for avoiding sexual assault. The ad's content neither warns of an elevated lifetime risk to women who work in the sex trade, nor reassures prudent, sexually discerning women of diminished risk. So if there was a perceptible objective beyond fear-mongering to all women attached to this powerfully emotive ad, it was lost on this one.


The Minister, Christine St. Pierre, says the campaign "sends unequivocal messages on the hard reality of sexual aggression and paints a just portrait of the situation."


An unequivocal message, to be sure. But "just"? Au contraire. In the print ads, the Minister claims that the statistic of one-in-three is drawn from 1999 Stats-Can data, and from 6,000 annual Quebec police reports of alleged sexual assault. (Stats for how many of these allegations are actually proven are not referenced.)


Mme. St. Pierre has massaged stats before, most recently last November, when she estimated the number of Quebec women who are victims of domestic violence every year. In fact, she took that figure -- again -- from annually accumulated allegations of domestic violence recorded in the Declaration Universelle de la Criminalite.


Only about a third of those allegations were considered worthy of going to trial, which should at the least exclude the use of the other two-thirds as supportive material. (Many false allegations are meant to "teach him a lesson," as we recently learned from a well-publicized Toronto case.) Yet on exactly such spurious "evidence," the Minister now declares that 1.5 million Quebec women "will" (not "may") become victims of sexual assault.


The U.S. National Institute for Justice puts the lifetime risk of sexual assault for women at 14.8%, less than half Mme. St. Pierre's figure of 33%. Quebec women don't live more than twice as long as American women. Whence the disparity?


When contacted for elucidation, a spokesperson from the Minister's office confessed she could not speak to the methodology of the "study," nor could she say whether the Minister's understanding of "sexual assault" (nowhere defined in the ads) corresponded to that of the Criminal Code's, which specifies the use of physical force.


If, as I suspect, Mme. St. Pierre has decided that sexual assault is what she says it is, her "study" may craftily incorporate what credible researchers wryly dismiss as "activist variables": measures like "attempted unsuccessful sex," a catch-all trope dragging teenage grope sessions or construction workers' wolf whistles into statistical nets designed to cull real predators.

Anyway, stats, shmats: For women viewers of the ad, the understated "during her lifetime" will fail to register, but "one out of every three women" will linger. They will believe -- and I believe they are meant to believe-all women equally are victims-in-waiting, and over a million Quebec men are potential rapists. That's inflammatory, irresponsible communication.

Et alors? (Gallic shrug). For the ministry, the $1.3-million ad's real purpose isn't to educate or better the lot of Quebecers, but to serve as a vehicle for extorting money from the government at allocations time.


Since 1987, over a billion Quebec taxpayer dollars have gone to "la condition feminine." It's time for Premier Jean Charest to order an independent audit of the Ministry's self-serving activities, leadership and demonstrably dubious credibility.