Canada is Blaming Sexual Assault on “Biological Wiring”

In March, retired Canadian Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps published a report detailing the cultural factors that contribute to the high levels of harassment, date rape and other forms of assault in the Canadian military. Earlier this month, CBC news released an interview with Canadian Chief of Defense Staff General Tom Lawson, who had something to say about Deschamps’ findings.

It would be a trite answer, but it’s because we are biologically wired in a certain way, and there would be those who would believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others.

When CBC’s chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge asked him to clarify his remarks, Lawson continued:

There will be situations and have been situations where, um, largely men, will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members. So that’s what I’m talking about. Now, I think what we have not been able to bring across is that we’ve gotten much, much better than we were years ago.

Deschamps details incidents of sexual assault being used to reinforce hierarchies, breaks down the “endemic” nature of violent and misogynistic language and exposes an overall “sexualized culture” in the Canadian military, all of which have created an environment that makes it extremely difficult for officers to report any incident of sexual harassment or assault.

Lawson’s assumption that male officers are “biologically wired” to take advantage of women officers is an offensive rephrasing of the “boys will be boys” argument that many people use to excuse rapists. This phrase also ignores instances of male-on-male sexual assault in the military, as Deschamps’ report shows that “male victims of sexual assault by other men also appear to suffer dramatically and are even less likely to report the offensive conduct.”

It also seems dubious that the military is now “much, much better” at dealing with sexual assault, as Lawson claims. Michel Drapeau, a lawyer who has represented 65 military members in various sexual assault cases, argues that the Canadian military is in need of serious reform. As cited in Deschamps’ report, a 1998 change to the National Defence Act gave the military jurisdiction over cases of sexual assault; previously, all cases related to sexual assaults had been “investigated by civilian police, and all charges for such allegations were prosecuted before the civilian courts.” Since the implementation of the new act, “there is a strong perception among members of the CAF [Canadian Armed Forces] that the way in which the military handles such cases is the cause of added prejudice to the victim.”

Clearly, it’s not easy for victims of assault to come forward in the Canadian military. Lawson has since apologized for his comment about “biological wiring,” calling it an “awkward characterization” of sexual assault.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Embassy Canada licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Emma Niles is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz and an editorial intern at Ms. Follow Emma on Twitter @emmalorinda.