Brunching with Constance Backhouse

Constance Backhouse spoke during a brunch sponsored by the Ally Centre of Cape Breton and the Cape Breton Inter-Agency on Family Violence on Friday. Backhouse is a legal scholar, historian, author, professor, activist and the sort of feminist I remember from my ’70s childhood — that is, an unabashed one.

Constance Backhouse

Constance Backhouse

Introducing Backhouse on Friday, Janet Bickerton — who wears a number of hats herself, including registered nurse, CBU prof and health promoter with the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) — invited her to “come up and help us think,” and speaking for myself, I have to say, she did. (Judging by the animated Q&A that followed her talk, I think she had the same effect on others.)

Backhouse’s subject was sexual violence, which she told us has been her subject for “closing in on five” decades now. She’s held the University Research Chair on the Sexual Assault Legislation in Canada at the University of Ottawa (where she teaches); she’s written books called Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975 and (with Leah Cohen) The Secret Oppression: Sexual Harassment of Working Women; and she has served as “an expert witness and consultant on various aspects of sexual abuse and violence against women and children.”

And yet, despite that “expert” status, her goal on Friday was not to provide us with answers. She was not only open about not having answers to some questions, she admitted that some answers she once had she now doubts. For example, she says the early fight against sexual violence was fought largely by white, middle-class, women lawyers like herself who, understandably, saw the legal system as the best avenue for change.

Now, she says she doubts the ability of the law to address the problem of sexual violence. Canada, she says, has a statute on sexual assault that “people all around the world want to follow” but it “didn’t change anything on the ground.”

What she means is that the legal system can only help assault victims who come forward and most women and children (and men) who have experienced sexual violence don’t. Backhouse says it is “almost impossible” to get accurate numbers about the prevalence of sexual violence because of this lack of disclosure, but she does have a statistic that has stuck with her since the 1970s, when she working for a sexual violence feminist activist group in Boston and they invited an FBI officer in to talk to them about the issue:

He said 19 out of 20 didn’t disclose. And I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s an interesting number.” Nobody else had any numbers at the time. And so, I’ve used it ever since. I figure, who could fault me for using an FBI number?

Forty years later, she says:

I have a feeling the 19 are still out there. Not disclosing.

She was backed in this conviction  by CBRM Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac, who was also in attendance and who said, during the Q&A, that he knew from his own experience as “parent, police officer, major crimes investigator” that the “vast majority” of victims don’t report their experiences for “various reasons” — including, he suggested, the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system.

Backhouse seemed to echo this sentiment when she dismissed the law as one of the solutions to sexual violence that “didn’t work.” While Canada’s reformed legislation “looks better,” she says, 19 people out of 20 are still refusing to disclose and those who do disclose and come through the system are “devastated” by the process, despite the best efforts of police and prosecutors and judges.

Along with the law, Backhouse also ranks employment policies, codes of ethics, university student codes and our current sexual education system among the solutions that haven’t worked.

And while she sees the #MeToo movement that has emboldened women to speak out about sexual assault and abuse and harassment as a “big moment,” one as “powerful and exhilarating” as the feminist movement of the ’70s, she also hopes it will prove “more effective” in ending sexual violence.

So what might work?

Backhouse has some ideas.


For one thing, she thinks it’s time to revisit the role of alcohol in sexual violence. She pointed out that first-wave feminists, besides demanding the right to vote, were also supporters of temperance because they had seen the toll alcohol took on marriages and families.

Temperance is not an easy subject to broach in 2018 (I had to fight the urge to go home and hide the gin) but Backhouse broached it. And I don’t think it’s because she herself is a teetotaler (she was clear that wine happened during the second-wave feminist movement of the ’70s, a period she described as “fabulous”). Moreover, she draws a distinction between alcohol and cannabis — suggesting that where the former makes people want to fight the latter is more likely to make them want to snack, which is why, she says, she has always been sympathetic to the notion of legalized pot. And opioids are often used by abuse survivors to cope with the pain. In some ways, she argues, alcohol “was the worst drug we could have decided not to criminalize.”

Backhouse says earlier attempts to revive the temperance argument failed in part because the second-wave feminists were, to some extent, rebelling against their first-wave counterparts whose day was seen as past. Plus, they were told the relationship between alcohol and violence (including sexual violence) was not “causal,” but she argues it is nevertheless “linked,” and it’s time to discuss that link.

Women's Christian Temperance Union. State Library of South Australia (Flickr: Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1918) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

First wave feminists? Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 1918. State Library of South Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An audience member picked up on this point during the Q&A, describing an experiment done in Manchester, England, where a pub was opened at one end of a street and a pot cafe at the other. Residents polled after both had operated for some period of time “overwhelmingly” wanted the pub to shut and the pot cafe to stay open.

(My contribution to this discussion would be to raise the issue of drinking culture — I haven’t done enough research to speak with authority, but I had the opportunity to do some excellent fieldwork in Europe, where I always noticed the difference between drinkers from countries with strict laws governing alcohol consumption — like the UK, with its weird pub hours — and countries that were more laid back. It was the difference between people who got drunk and sang — the Czechs — and people who got drunk and fought — the members of British stag parties.)

Backhouse also says it’s time to find out more about the perpetrators of sexual violence — what percentage of them has been abused themselves? Are the ones we actually catch typical? How does racism play into this, given that we tend to catch and punish racialized minorities, poor people and indigenous people at much higher rates than we do white people? If perpetrators are made, not born, how much of a factor is child sexual abuse? If we, as a society, were to throw all our efforts into ending the sexual abuse of children, would we create a generation that didn’t abuse?

And in addition to wanting to know more about who the perpetrators are, Backhouse says she wants to know “who are they not.”

Men who have never sexually coerced or exploited [anyone] — I want to know a lot about them.

Backhouse also says she felt the feminists of the ’70s dropped the ball when it came to broadening the discussion of sexual violence to include male victims. She says they didn’t do much about men due to the level of homophobia in society at the time. “We were afraid to touch it,” she said, “But it was a mistake.”

Nor did the feminists of the ’70s know what we know today about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so not only did they not understand the full extent of the damage done to victims of sexual violence, Backhouse says they “didn’t communicate the level of harm” to the community — or to the perpetrators, the vast majority of whom, she says, still “don’t understand the harm they do.” (This last point was driven home by an audience member who shared her own experience of confronting her abuser only to discover that where she had thought about the abuse, which had occurred when she was a child,  “every day,” he told her he’d “never thought of it” in the 20 or 30 years since it had happened.)

But for Backhouse, the bottom line about the search for a “solution” to sexual violence is that there is no one solution or group or program to the problem, instead there are lots of potential, creative approaches — approaches she says small towns, like the CBRM, can sometimes be the best-positioned to try out.







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