2014 Hero: Antonia Zerbisias and Sue Montgomery
Nominated for: creating a safe space in social media where women can talk about sexual assault.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the people, places, things, and ideas that have had the most positive and negative impacts on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 5 p.m. on December 30. At noon on December 31, we’ll reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
In this country, statistics reveal that only 6 per cent of women who’ve been sexually assaulted go to the authorities. Many are concerned they’ll be blamed or called liars; many worry that the police and the court system will offer little justice or redress and that pursuing the matter will create its own kind of trauma.
When allegations of sexual assault and physical abuse against Jian Ghomeshi surfaced and continued to multiply in late October and early November, the integrity and credibility of his accusers were immediately called into question. Loyal listeners and fans rallied to his defence: hashtags such as #supportJian sprang up; high-profile women such as Elizabeth May and Sheila Copps, apparently swayed by a Facebook post in which he blamed the situation on a spurned and embittered former girlfriend and claimed to have an interest in consensual BDSM-style sex, initially expressed support for him and told the nation to keep its nose out of his private life; doubters suggested that if the women involved weren’t willing to come forward publicly, they didn’t deserve our belief and attention.
After the allegations first came to light, long-time Star reporter Antonia Zerbisias found herself discussing the public response—to this and to many other such cases—with her friend Sue Montgomery, a reporter with the Montreal Gazette. The two spoke of the fact they’d each been raped, and that neither had ever reported the assaults to the police. Zerbisias had felt “ashamed”; Montgomery had worried no one would believe her story. Out of this conversation, a hashtag was born: #beenrapedneverreported.
Within a day, it had been used by almost 8 million people worldwide. Women tweeted about their personal experiences with sexual assault, outlined their reasons for having decided not to approach the authorities, and offered one another support. Social media is too often turned into a toxic swampscape by poisonous, aggressive, and hateful voices: by creating this hashtag, Zerbisias and Montgomery helped establish a safe space in social media where respectful and responsive people can share their stories, stigmas can be examined and challenged, and entrenched cultural narratives about sexual assault can be contested and rewritten.