15/12/15

John Doyle: CPAC doc highlights sexual violence and social media crisis

We are in that odd time of the year when one is obliged to seek out serious programming in obscure corners. The schedule is filled with countless holiday-themed movies and specials that are either repeats or of little consequence.

And if you want a serious-minded program this weekend, you’ll find it on CPAC. If you do, then you might, like me, wonder in deep dismay about the kind of country we live in.

Sexual Violence, Social Media and Society: Is Canada Facing a Crisis? (Saturday, CPAC 6 p.m. and Sunday 9 p.m.) is about many things. Reported by Kimothy Walker, it begins with what might, at first, seem to be outlandish assertions – principally that a “rape culture” exists in Canada and nobody cares much about that.

However, after watching the program, you wonder whether it has gone far enough. It’s a stunning indictment of various institutions and their tolerance for rape, sexual assault and a kind of cyberbullying that is all about sexual aggression.

It asks this long-winded question: “As the lines of consent become blurred by the impacts of alcohol and drugs, and dating behaviours are shaped by the impact of social media and abundant violent online pornography, have cyberbullying and sexual violence become normalized in our society?”

And it seems, at times, unfocused and meandering. It moves from the issue of consent to the effects of online porn and then shifts gears to cover allegedly private Facebook comments that amount to grossly sexist comments about young women. But it sure has an impact.

At first, it is about the well-documented case of Rehtaeh Parsons, the Nova Scotia teen who was photographed during an alleged sexual assault while drunk; she later fled her school after the photos were distributed online. She took her own life when the situation became unbearable.

To many of us, the case might seem unique but illustrative and a cautionary tale about the inability of our laws to keep pace with technology. But another less-notorious case is also covered. Adriana Falcon was a teenager who was allegedly gang-raped at a party on a B.C. beach. According to her father, Rick, a nurse said the girl’s vaginal injuries were the worst she had seen in 23 years. Unable to cope and traumatized by the experience, the girl was dead of a drug overdose 14 months later. Nobody was held responsible for the rape, or her death.

There is a mess of issues in both cases: the matters of consent and the abuse of alcohol. Into this mess, the matter of online pornography is introduced. It is suggested that the major way in which boys learn about sex is through online porn. Like much to do with the study of the effects of sex and violence on TV or the Internet, it is hard to say if a clear, indisputable connection can be made.

But what is indisputable is the blithe indulgence in online commentary that is sexually aggressive, particularly in our universities. The matter of the Dalhousie University dentistry school scandal is raised in the program and that, too, is well known. But we are also introduced to Anne-Marie Roy, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, who was sent screenshots of a chat about her that had taken place between student federation board members and other male students, and featured sexually graphic suggestions.

When Roy went public, the first reaction of the male students was to threaten legal action. She sees the issue as an element of rape culture, a subtle approval of unwanted sexual attention.

CITY-TV correspondent Shauna Hunt, who confronted men who shouted sexual obscenities at her after a Toronto FC game, is also interviewed. She says many positive things came from the incident becoming an international news story. At the same time, one detects a weariness in Hunt’s assessment, a sense that, as the program says, there is a social crisis unfolding and women will always be the targets of obnoxious, sexually aggressive behaviour. Unless there is a dramatic change.

This is not a documentary to make you feel good about much. The number of occasions and the incidents of verbal and sexual violence cited in it just keep growing. But it’s better to know than be unaware.

Follow John Doyle on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle