Violence against women and sexual assault in St. John’s taxis

Deputy Mayor is shocked, but it’s the same old story for the Status of Women Council.

In March of this year, a 26-year-old woman, who I will call ‘SW’, got into a taxi cab near George Street in St. John’s. She got sick and then fell asleep in the taxi. She woke up parked in front of her house with the male cab driver holding her head and sticking his tongue in her mouth. The fact that SW had been drinking explains why she got sick and fell asleep, but it is totally separate from the man’s act of sexual assault. Without her permission (duh, sleeping people can’t give consent) he groped her and dominated her body. Read SW’s blog post about the incident here.

[I have chosen not to use SW’s full name in this article as a symbolic gesture. I believe that publishing the names of sexual assault victims can inadvertently focus the discussion on them, rather than the need to locate and name the perpetrator.]

SW made several phone calls to the taxi cab company. Staff, including women, trivialized her claims, treating her story as a minor complaint and ignoring the urgent nature of assault accusations. They said that without the identification number for the cab driver, there was nothing they could do.

SW filed a sexual assault statement with the police and says that the police she worked with were patient, attentive, and considerate. A female officer on her case followed up afterwards to ask if SW was alright. However, the police also eventually said that there was nothing they could do without the cab number.

Violence against women is not an “isolated incident”

St. John’s Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth, who is on the city’s taxi committee, told The Telegram he hasn’t heard of this type of thing before. But anyone who is shocked by SW’s experience, including Mr. Ellsworth, needs to get a grip on the reality of violence against women in this province.

For starters, half of all women in Newfoundland and Labrador will experience sexual and/or physical violence in their lifetime. And for people who claim to be ignorant of this fact, you also need to know that only about 10 per cent of sexual or violent acts against women are reported to police. The number of police reports is so low in part because men in powerful positions often act like violence against women is a rare and one-off occurrence (ahem, Mr. Ellsworth). This sends the message to women that the public and politicians simply don’t want to believe that sexual assault happens. It sends the message that women will have to fight very hard to have their story taken seriously and to have the perpetrator held accountable.

Indeed, Ellsworth comes right out and declares SW’s experience “an isolated incident,” saying that he’ll bring it up with the taxi committee if we wait long enough. I guess he means wait long enough for the other 90 per cent of victims to come forward and prove that this wasn’t a one-off event?

All you have to do is read below Ellsworth’s quote in the Telegram article to know that the St. John’s Status of Women Council hears these kinds of stories regularly.

Victim-blaming on repeat

Tom Hollett, owner of Jiffy and Newfoundland Cabs, is apparently keener to resolve this issue than Mr. Ellsworth. Hollett is considering the idea of installing cameras in all his cars. While it is refreshing to hear a man express a sense of urgency regarding the safety of his customers, particularly women, installing cameras in cabs does not actually address the root of the problem.

Image courtesy YMCA Canada.
Click to enlarge. Image courtesy YWCA Canada.

Sexual assault does not happen because a happenstance scenario gives assaulters the opportunity to assault. Sexual assault happens because our social norms, our laws, our language, and the stunned reactions of people in power to incidents of violence all help normalize rape, sexual assault, and violence against women. Installing cameras isn’t a bad idea per se, but it reinforces the idea that sexual assault is just a normal part of life if you’re a woman in a taxi in St. John’s.

The city of Montreal tried this sort of victim-blaming approach after a series of sexual assaults by taxi drivers in 2014. Montreal’s police service issued a warning to the public not to be a woman in a cab who has been drinking. This of course prompted backlash from people who actually understand how sexual violence becomes normal in our society.

As this Montreal blogger wrote, “You’re supposed to be there to SERVE and PROTECT me. Placing the onus on me, instead of where it belongs (the rapist) is absolving you of having to do your bloody job.”

Help fight victim-blaming and support victims of sexual assault and violence at the St. John’s SlutWalk, Sunday, June 14, 2 p.m., at Harbourside Park in St. John’s. A transnational movement that started in Toronto, Ont., SlutWalk is about ending the trend of using a woman’s appearance or clothing to excuse or explain rape. The first SlutWalk in St. John’s will feature Heather Jarvis, co-founder of SlutWalk.

If you require support or assistance in dealing with sexual assault or other forms of abuse, please contact one of these organizations:

  • Crisis Support and Information Line (NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre): 1-800-726-2743
  • NL Police (RNC): dial 911 or 1-709-729-800
  • NL Mental Health Crisis Line: 1-709-737-4668 or 1-888-737-4668

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