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Take Back the Night : Take Back the Night: 32 Years in Toronto

January 7th, 2013     by deborah singh     Comments

Take Back the Night (TBTN) and the movement to end rape and rape culture is more than a protest about the fear of sexual violence and working toward ending it . TBTN has a rich history of working in solidarity with survivors and anti-oppressive radical movements in Toronto, working to create awareness around the issues that survivors of sexual violence face. Each TBTN is also informed by particular ideologies, activisms, and actions, but Herstorical context for TBTN Toronto is a necessary starting point for this piece. I will also speak to some of the current sexual violence that is plaguing Torontonians and connect that to the problems that feminist activists face today in the struggle to end sexual violence.

A Brief History of TBTN Toronto

Take Back the Night is a protest around ending sexual violence, violence against women and the fear we experience walking the streets at night. But Torontonians and the many community members who have supported in the planning of the event for the past 32 years see it as so much more than a protest to highlight the issue of sexual violence perpetrated by a stranger.

TBTN Toronto began as a response to the murder of Barbra Schlifer, who was raped and murdered in the stairwell of her east end Toronto apartment building in April 1980. She had just completed her law degree and the same night of her sexual assault and murder, she had been celebrating her call to the bar.

It is obvious that we did not need another woman to be raped or murdered to hold this event in Toronto. However, the high profile of Barbra’s case and her dedication to working with marginalized and oppressed people through the legal system incited both activists and her close friends to make local the globally-run protest. TBTN gave this initial group the space to also protest and respond to the obvious tragedy and political violence of this murder.

For more on the history of this international protest, check out thisand this.

In my mind, 32 years is a long time for any event to exist in the city of Toronto, let alone an anti-oppressive, radical march like Take Back the Night. At the same time, because TBTN is now a global phenomenon, sexual violence is often portrayed as an issue that doesn’t need our attention anymore among North American society. That said, for us at the collective of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape (TRCC/MWAR), there is so much more work to be done.

After more than three decades of resistance and struggle, TBTN has achieved a favored reputation among survivors, feminists and the mainstream public alike. In my experience coordinating the event along with numerous community organizations, I have experienced this march’s legacy as a grassroots event that empowers women to share our experiences of survivorship, allowing us to be our own experts and working together with other communities to stop violence.

In my four short but thrilling years as coordinator, participants have shared fond memories of past events, folks automatically trust my politics when I say I run TBTN, I’ve had supportive and respectful conversations with every venue I have ever called to ask to host the event, and I have found surprising but welcome allyship from police officers on event day. Further, every year more and more women and trans people join the Community Planning Committee, having never been to the event before, but having heard about it from other community members through word-of-mouth.

As we seek to highlight our experiences of sexual survivorship—including rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and childhood sexual violence—we see that violence is a tool of oppression. This means that those in power use violence as a way to continuously marginalize people based on their gender, race, class, age, ability, income, religion, family configurations, weight, looks, accent and the list goes on. At TRCC/MWAR, we strive to always incorporate intersectional, anti-oppressive politics into our practices—including TBTN.

At TRCC/MWAR, we work from an anti-oppressive framework that highlights our multiple identities and how we are treated in the world, based on them. Sexual violence impacts everyone, but there lies a further impact if you are marginalized and oppressed within society. This means that TBTN resists and responds to violence against women, but also draws attention to the connected issues that make some of us more vulnerable to that violence. For example, Indigenous women are 2.5 times more likely to experience violence than non-native women and young women between ages of 15-24 are also at an increased risk of experiencing violence.

TBTN 2012: The Story of the Theme

This year, the event focused on the issues surrounding the mental health system in Ontario and survivors of sexual violence who have been impacted by the mental health system. The write up for this year’s event reads:

“Un-Occupying Our Minds, Healing Ourselves”. This year’s theme speaks to our experiences as survivors of sexual violence in the mental health system, the medicalization of our experiences of survivorship, the stigma attached to diagnosis, and the (over)use of mental health ‘treatments’ such as drug therapies, electroshock and psychiatric incarceration.

How we at the centre, [TRCC/MWAR], as activists and community organizers, came to this place was multi-fold, as is every conversation about what theme we should highlight and what the location should be. Our reflections around what is happening in the world of counseling were and remain clear: more and more survivors on the waiting list at the centre had already found a psychiatrist by the time a counsellor could connect with them,. Many women we were seeing were already on a prescription related to their mental health and more folks were annoyed with the medical care and treatments provided by the current mental health model—and were complaining to us about their psychiatrists! In fact, TRCC/MWAR made a connection between the closures of feminist counseling centres and the increased funding to places like Centre for Mental Health and Addictions (CAMH).

Issues of mental health, violence and survivorship need to be raised now more than ever. Consider that in the last two years the Sudbury Rape Crisis Centre closed its doors and the Women’s Counseling and Referral Education Centre (WCREC) fell victim to an impromptu closure it has since reopened). WCREC is a resource not only for survivors, but for the city of Toronto, especially those of us who work with survivors—which, sadly, is pretty much everyone. Further, WCREC is a leader when it comes to supporting other organizations working to put a stop to violence against women.

Our analysis was this: if WCREC could close its doors due to a perceived lack of need determined by government officials, then more and more of (anti-violence non profit organizations) could be deemed not necessary. Further, we saw tens of millions of dollars by corporations and individual donors alike being funneled to CAMH, creating a culture of psychiatry, drug therapy, and increasingly pathologized survivors of sexual violence, queer and poor people.

This is not the solution and is a disturbing trend. While the TRCC/MWAR has, with survivors, co-created the use of a peer-based, survivor-led model as the basis of the counseling we provide, this approach to counseling was being de-funded. Moreover, the psychiatric model dis-empowers women and trans people, and simultaneously negates our work as peer-based, feminist counselors.

These issues faced by survivors of the psychiatric system and the slow and steady disappearance of feminist peer counseling were deciding factors with regards to the 2012 TBTN theme. This year’s event included many speakers and performers who spoke to the experience of the mental health system, like the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assaults and the Friendly Spike Theatre (pictured above). We also included groups with whom we sought to collaborate and join movements with, including SlutWalk organizers and Indigenous women around issues of land and decolonization—we see sexual violence and decolonization as inseparable tools of oppression.

Recent sexual violence in Toronto

While we carefully and anti-oppressively (as much as humanly possible!) planned this year’s march and event, reports of sexual assault across the city surfaced, (and were concentrated in the Bloor and Christie area). During this time, we received more calls from the media and other organizers than in past years. Mainstream and alternative media outlets were beginning to engage with a conversation about sexual violence, or so it seemed.

As a counselor and activist, it is a challenge for me to see this violence as an isolated, individual act upon a woman’s body. Working at the TRCC/MWAR allows me to see the larger picture surrounding this violence. This means many things. For one, the sexual assaults that we have heard about through the media are only those that are being reported. There is a high likelihood that there are survivors of the Thomas Reardon assaults, for instance, who have not come forward. According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series, Sexual Assault in Canada 2004 and 2007, 90% of sexual assaults are never reported to the police. (This number is partly created by the stats on how many assaults happen and how many of those do report to the police).

Another complexity of the violent assaults that have occurred across the city of Toronto is the actual reporting. Media outlets made a huge issue of the sexual violence that occurred in these areas because they were identified as stranger assaults. It is safe to assume that there are more survivors of sexual violence in these areas but their perpetrators were not strangers; they are men that are known to the women, like husbands, boyfriends, partners, brothers, fathers and uncles. Finally, the media could report on these assaults because these charges were founded by police and were released as sexual assault alerts on the news release page of their website. These sexual assault alerts were taken seriously by police because they were reported as stranger assault but also because these assaults happened in prominent, “crime-free,” middle class communities.

Due to the demographics (generally white, middle class, 25-45 year olds, students) in the downtown communities, I believe police, and even city councillors, took the violence that happened within these neighbourhoods more seriously.

Generally, there is a pervasive sentiment that things “like this” don’t happen in affluent communities like the Annex, the Village, or Kensington Market; violence like this occurs in areas that are populated with racialized, poor people … so we certainly don’t need to take those reports as seriously. These affluent areas are dense with people who know about things like TBTN, folks who attend International Women’s Day marches and other stuff that is “community-oriented.” These areas are full of U of T students, people who own some of the most expensive real estate in downtown Toronto and renters who can afford the downtown rents and standard of living. Within the context of violence, survivors in these areas are seen as more worthy of legal support and media coverage.

The challenge in this analysis is that of course, all violence is important to acknowledge and make political, and it is a great that this city is talking about and paying attention to the activism that is happening to resist sexual violence. At the same time, I don’t believe this would have been regarded in the same way if the area of town was Scarborough, Jane and Finch or Regent Park, and if it were, racialized communities would be blamed and shamed for it in some way, as survivors often are—especially when survivorship intersects with race.

When these reported sexual assaults occurred, TRCC/MWAR had already been planning TBTN for approximately two months. As an organizer, it is always a challenge to stay true to the focus of the event and not get lost in the details of planning or water down the issues. As a team of community members and non-profit organizations, we managed to keep clear the theme of the medicalization of our minds.

Looking Forward

Feminist activists around the globe have used TBTN to mobilize for decades. I believe the event’s strength is its flexibility; any community can make the march its own. An example of this is the Malvern community, which hosted its first TBTN this year, making Toronto the site of two TBTN events in the same month. Communities all over the city supported each other to make safer spaces, make noise, and make it known that sexual violence is not okay.

As information of multiple assaults continued to hit the news, we also saw the resistance in events like Take Back the Block (community parties held after TBTN in Ryerson and Kensington areas). Of course, this is not the first attempt at protests, marches, parties, rallies or demonstrations that have worked alongside TBTN to end sexual violence. The TRCC/MWAR used to run dances post TBTN to not only protest, but as survivors, to celebrate still being here.

At the same time, as much as we can hoot and holler, it is not in our power to stop the violence. It is a clear challenge to engage men in stopping the behavior of sexual violence. Men (cisgender and trans) need to mobilize more, and work in allyship with women and trans women organizers. It has been a challenge to engage men in effective ways around this issue, to say the least.

Another challenge we face, outside of co-creating a movement with other feminists is the “common cause” issue. Specifically, many women and trans women come to the table to talk about sexual violence but often the issue gets watered down and only speaks to interpersonal violence. At the TRCC/MWAR, but also as a larger community, we know that sexual violence is much bigger than a man raping a woman. It is a systemically accepted form of violence that affects racialized women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, older women, queer, lesbian and bisexual women, younger women and immigrant women more than women who do not identify in these ways.

If, as feminists, we don’t push the envelope to recognize how oppression is intersectional and is used to continue our collective marginalization, then we will not end sexual violence. If we continue to talk only of the interpersonal, we negate the bigger causes of why men use sexual violence to control and have power over women. Put simply, our biggest challenge as feminists is to talk about race, colonization and class at the same time as personal experiences with sexual violence.

It is common practice to end an article like this with something that shines bright about the future of the movement and Take Back the Night itself—and it is possible to do that. Take Back the Night has a rich history of activist mobilization in Toronto. The event has not only focused a lens on the pulse of what is currently happening for survivors. It is not only an event that highlights the common issue of sexual violence no matter what community you are in. It is not only a tool to showcase the anti-violence activism that happens in our city today. TBTN is a tool to bring community together. It is a tool to convey the struggles survivors face beyond the violence itself.

However, I’ll leave with you a few questions, in the hopes that you continue this conversation in your own communities and neighbourhoods. How do we want to use TBTN as a tool in the future? What do we want to see from an event like TBTN in our communities? What are you going to do to support the next TBTN in your community?

Stats and Info Section:

Stats compiled from Toronto Police Services website – News Releases Section, between August 21st at 12:43pm and September 21st, 2012 at 3:49pm.

Highlights of the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics Profile Series – Sexual Assault in Canada 2004 and 2007 report

• About 1 in 10 sexual assaults is reported to police, according to the General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization. With only a small proportion of sexual offences formally documented through law enforcement, the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada has been difficult to quantify. • Victimization data suggest that the rates of sexual assault remained stable in recent years. However, police reported data reveal a steady decline in offences coming to the attention of law enforcement for more than a decade. • The 2004 GSS showed that sexual victimization rates were dramatically higher among those ages 15-24, compared to those 55 and over. Additionally over half of the sexual assault victims reported to police in 2007 were children and youth under the age of 18. • Aboriginal women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women (in United States). 86% of the time its by a non-Native (according to Amnesty International). • On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. In 2009, 67 women were murdered by a current or former spouse or boyfriend. • On any given day in Canada, more than 3,000 women (along with their 2,500 children) are living in an emergency shelter to escape domestic violence. • Each year, over 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence—that’s about 12% of all violent crime in Canada.3 Since only 22% of all incidents are reported to the police, the real number is much higher. • As of 2010, there were 582 known cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.4 Both Amnesty International and the United Nations have called upon the Canadian government to take action on this issue, without success.Visit this site for more information.

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