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Memo to jerks and jurists: no means no even if she’s wearing a tube top

I’m troubled by the reports about the Manitoba judge who decided not to send a man to jail for sexually assaulting a woman because the victim was wearing a tube top, high heels and makeup.

Judge Robert Dewar sentenced Kenneth Rhodes to a two-year conditional penalty that allows him to remain free. According to the Winnipeg Free Press story, Dewar described Rhodes as a “clumsy Don Juan who might have misunderstood what the woman wanted when he forced intercourse along a darkened highway…

The Globe and Mail reports the judge said the fact that the woman and her friend indicated they “wanted to party” with Rhodes and his friend, and that they were wearing “suggestive attire” and demonstrated “flirtatious conduct” means that the sexual assault wasn’t a case of “no perceived invitation” but was rather “a case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior.”

So let’s get this straight: women, if you wear makeup – especially heavy makeup – and a tube top in the summer, and if you meet a man outside a bar and you and your friend go with him and his friend to a lake, and if you kiss that man – look out!  You have now forfeited your right to decline further sexual activities. You are now fair game for “inconsiderate behavior” inflicted by “clumsy Don Juans” or – as I like to call them – rapists.

I haven’t been in the dating scene for many years but I think it’s still accurate to say it’s common for people to make overtures to people they haven’t met before and also to decide that they only want to kiss on the first encounter. And last I heard, having bad judgment – in clothes or companions – doesn’t give someone else the right to rape you (just as walking through a bad part of town at night doesn’t mean you’re to blame and your attacker gets to be treated leniently if you get robbed, assaulted or murdered).

Even if a woman initially indicates she wants to have sex, she has the right to say “no” at any time in the encounter (this goes for men too, of course).  In this case, the woman says she repeatedly said “no” so the defence of mistaken understanding seems pretty lame – but hey, it worked for Rhodes and Judge Dewar.

I think one reason I’m so upset by this story is that it brings back troubling memories of reading journalist Peter Worthington’s interview with Clifford Olson, who was convicted of killing 11 young people in B.C. in 1980 and 1981. I read that article at least 20 years ago but I am still struck by Olson’s claims that his killing spree started after he committed a series of sexual assaults on young people. Olson said he would pick up a vulnerable youth and give him or her alcohol and drugs and then assault them.  Not one of those young people ever reported the assaults. They apparently felt they had “asked for it” by getting in Olson’s car and accepting alcohol or drugs from him.

I can’t get over the “what ifs” to this story. What if our society instilled in each person the inalienable notion that everyone is of value and every person has a right – in any circumstance – to say “no” to a sexual activity, no matter what that person said or did or wore beforehand? What if even vulnerable, high-risk people knew that our social and justice systems would stand up for them if they were attacked? What if just one of Olson’s assault victims had reported the attack? Might 11 young people have lived to adulthood?

I thought we’d come a long way in disseminating the “no means no” message but apparently it hasn’t sunk in for jerks like Kenneth Rhodes – and jurists like Robert Dewar.

So let’s speak up to let them know about “no”.  Someone’s life might depend on it.

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