Survivors are charting their own paths to healing from their trauma, and finding solidarity
For the last five years, Sophie Brindle decided not to speak out or make a #MeToo post about her experiences. She wanted to believe that the lengthy restorative justice process herself and Peter Mirmotahari went through had changed him, and gave him the benefit of the doubt.
This past August, Brindle saw a post on her Facebook feed that changed all of that. Jenna North detailed their own experiences, alleging that Mirmotahari had sexually assaulted them in 2017 — after the six-month restorative justice process that Brindle and Mirmotahari went through. After over two years of court processes, in April 2020, North’s case against Mirmotahari was dismissed without charges.
When both Brindle and North posted their stories on Instagram, more survivors started coming forward naming Mirmotahari in allegations. Brindle says she received an “overwhelming” amount of supportive direct messages (DMs). Including North and Brindle, the Martlet spoke to five individuals who allege Mirmotahari assaulted them.
Although the #MeToo movement and other survivors empowered these individuals with the courage to come forward, it didn’t give them a rulebook for reporting a sexual assault on social media. Amid the positive DMs, survivors also found themselves navigating defamation law and the other potentially unrealized legal implications of coming forward on social media.
Other survivors, like Emma Sauer and Emily, who requested the Martlet only use her first name for privacy reasons, haven’t felt the need to share their stories on online platforms. But as they saw the accusations against Mirmotahari fill up their feeds, it solidified their feeling that they weren’t alone in their experiences. Like many others who have told their stories since the #MeToo movement, sharing their stories has also brought survivors solidarity.
Finding solidarity through social media
Brindle was 15 when she alleges she was sexually assaulted by Mirmotahari. They attended Oak Bay High School, and she experienced anxiety and panic attacks regularly after the assault. She reported it and was prepared to press charges in court, but she knew the court battle would not be easy — and she knew of a similar case that had recently been dismissed.
The week before the court date, Brindle was offered the option of restorative justice. Restorative justice is an alternative sentencing model whereby the complainant and the accused come together and usually undergo therapy, counselling, and consent-based education. Throughout the process, the victim and the accused are assigned a mentor. For Brindle, this option seemed like a good fit.
“Doing [restorative justice] gave me a little bit more peace of mind,” she says. “He also had to agree and state that he had assaulted me, which wouldn’t have come up if he just went to court so that was really important to me.”
Restorative justice is often touted as more victim-centred than a traditional court process. It allows greater focus on the victim’s perspective, as they have the opportunity to actually voice the harm the other person has caused them. Although restorative justice is seen as suitable for youth and first-time offenders, there are still questions around whether or not it is appropriate for cases of sexual assault because of the inherent violence and power imbalance.
After six months of therapy, Brindle and Mirmotahari met and she was able to ask him a set of questions she prepared with her mentor. Brindle hoped the process had changed him.
“The last thing I said to him in the meeting was, ‘I’ll always have hope for you and I can’t guarantee that this will change you, but this is me being optimistic for you and wanting you to get a chance to get help,’” said Brindle.
Not going to court also meant she did not receive any records of the restorative justice process, besides the list of questions she drafted before their final restorative justice meeting. Despite multiple attempts to contact him, the Martlet was unable to reach Mirmotahari for comment.
Brindle said he apologized and admitted he assaulted her during their final meeting. However, Brindle said the records of that meeting were shredded to protect their privacy. In restorative justice cases, there is not the same level of attorney-client privilege as there would be in a court case. The only way to ensure the total confidentiality of information shared during the meeting would have been to destroy it. If they weren’t destroyed, the documents could be subpoenaed in a subsequent court case.
Despite going through a six-month restorative justice process, Mirmotahari does not have a criminal record from this case. After the meeting, Brindle said the case was resolved and they agreed to not send it back to the courts.
In hindsight, Brindle says the process didn’t bring her closure, and she didn’t feel like Mirmotahari had substantially changed.
Brindle had her fears confirmed when she saw North’s post on Facebook. She quickly realized that North’s alleged assault took place after Mirmotahari had completed the restorative justice process. Knowing that he still had no criminal record despite two people coming forward with charges, she posted her own story.
More women started coming forward. Mirmotahari’s ex-girlfriend said he was abusive. His best friend posted a lengthy apology to the survivors, saying that he saw the signs early on but chose to believe Mirmotahari at the time. Another woman alleged Mirmotahari’s brother assaulted her.
Through the anonymous posts and other individuals coming forward, the Martlet spoke to five individuals who have made public allegations against Mirmotahari. Two, Brindle and North, have gone through the justice system. Because one case was referred to restorative justice and another case was dismissed without charges, Mirmotahari does not have a related record.
More and more users began sharing posts, and standing in solidarity with the survivors. Mirmotahari’s employer’s Instagram was flooded with comments until they shut down their account.
“Aside from all the messages of support, I’ve also received messages from other girls who have also been assaulted by him,” Brindle said.
“It’s hard to see how many more women there were … it’s awesome that there’s space for us now, but it’s just really heartbreaking.”
The people who came forward were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of messages they received. But now, they felt like they weren’t alone. Since, they have started a group chat to support one another.
“It’s altered my life completely,” Brindle said. “All of the girls have waited so long for this to happen and for actual ramifications for his actions to take place.”
In B.C., anyone can file a report or press charges regardless of how long ago an assault actually occurred. There are ample options available to survivors looking to report an assault, and considerations each survivor can make for themselves.
At UVic, the Anti-Violence Project provides peer-based support for survivors. The Victoria Sexual Assault Centre supports survivors through their 24/7 emergency services, and also provides legal services, counselling, and education. They recommend survivors write down notes of what occurred during an assault even if they don’t intend to press charges immediately. At Victoria General Hospital or the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, a forensic nurse examiner can also take samples of potential evidence within seven days of an assault or intentional relationship violence. This allows survivors to access a nurse before deciding what to do next.
The defamation risks of #MeToo
More survivors in Victoria began sharing their stories and looking for an outlet to do so anonymously. An Instagram account called Call Out Victoria temporarily provided a platform for this, but was deleted shortly after it was created. The account is one of many that has sprung up in response to the #MeToo movement.
Although the original Call Out Victoria account has been deleted, another account continues to share survivors’ stories with the justice system. Survivor Stories Project posts information about local support available to survivors. Their posts allow people to share their stories with the legal system and find information about upcoming sexual assault cases on the local court docket.
Across the country, survivors are using social media for solidarity. In Montreal, the CBC reported that a legal clinic that provides sexual assault survivors with legal advice got a wave of new women reporting after survivors started sharing their stories on Instagram. In one week, they opened 100 new files. In Winnipeg, the CBC also reported on an account similar to Call Out Victoria that was created to share anonymous stories from survivors.
Sharing allegations of sexual assault on social media has legal implications. It opens up the possibility of defamation accusations which, even if survivors are only threatened with defamation, can discourage them from sharing their stories.
As allegations of sexual misconduct through anonymous Instagram accounts began to multiply over the summer, VICE detailed how powerful threats of defamation lawsuits can be in silencing survivors — both virtually and offline. An anonymous Instagram account posted over 80 stories from survivors and amassed 23 400 followers before it was swiftly deleted.
In Regina, a similar Instagram account is facing a one million dollar defamation lawsuit. Defamation is when someone makes a false statement about another person that hurts their reputation. In B.C., libel is publishing defamation. For a post to actually constitute libel, the statement has to be false. However, under Canadian libel law, the defendant has to prove that the statement is true.
The owners of the Survivor Stories Project account denied the Martlet’s request for an interview.
Healing through the #MeToo era
Sauer says she was impressed by the women that came forward recently in Victoria to share their allegations against Mirmotahari. But for Sauer, Instagram didn’t feel like a place where she could get justice.
“Instagram is not the place where the necessary change is going to happen … because people are so quick to dismiss what [survivors say],” Sauer said. “It just seems like there’s no accountability with Instagram aside from being judged by society, but who even knows if the perpetrator’s family or friends will even know about that story.”
Emma Sauer was assaulted 11 years ago in her hometown in Newfoundland. She was 17 at the time. Recounting her experience in an interview with the Martlet, Sauer says her assailant’s continuous pattern of manipulation and lies has made it hard to process.
“It took me a long time to even process what had happened,” Sauer said. “I used to really blame myself, but in retrospect there was no mistaking me crying and me saying ‘no’ for consent.”
Afterwards, she called a friend who brushed it off — which Sauer says made it even harder for her to feel supported. “It just took any sort of strength I had left out of me.”
Her alleged assailant continued to spread lies about her, stalk her, and make repeated attempts to contact her.
She moved to Victoria and tried to move on, but he still attempted to contact her through her friends — asking them to forward her his emails. Still, Sauer feels she has been able to heal more while completing her degree at UVic.
During that time, she watched the #MeToo movement grow and considered sharing her own story.
“It’s been really positive for me to process my rape in the #MeToo era,” Sauer said. “I wish that that movement didn’t have to exist, but our society is way overdue for a reckoning on sexual assault.”
Although she has worked on healing, Sauer says sexual harassment can still be very triggering for her. This happens all too often during her serving shifts at a local restaurant.
“I don’t go more than an hour of work without being sexually harassed on some level,” she said. ”Those comments open deeper wounds to me.”
Sauer says she is not planning to press charges because she doesn’t want to go through a lengthy court process, but she plans to file a report with the police so there is some record.
“It’s normalized and it shouldn’t be normal”
Like Sauer, Emily says she experienced sexual harassment at the pub she worked at regularly. One night, Emily was sexually assaulted. The incident was caught on video and she decided to press charges.
Her assailant was found guilty. He has to complete 150 hours of community service work, counselling, and sexual boundaries training. He is also prohibited from contacting Emily, attending the pub she worked at, possessing or consuming liquor or drugs, and attending any place where liquor is the primary commodity sold — like a nightclub or liquor store — for two years.
“The court day was a very emotional, very long day,” she said.
A police officer, security guard, the defendant, and Emily all took the stand. The defence focused on the fact that the assault took place at a bar, and tried to argue that alcohol played a role. He continued to deny that the incident had occurred, even with video evidence to the contrary.
During the two-year process between the incident and the sentencing date, Emily did not share her story on social media.
“I don’t really like sharing it on social media, because everyone has an opinion about it,” said Emily.
Instead, she was able to build solidarity by talking to women within her support system about what she was going through. It made her realize just how common sexual abuse and harrassment is.
Pressing charges is still uncommon. The government of Canada’s Department of Justice estimates that only five per cent of sexual assaults are actually reported. In 2017, the Globe and Mail found that Central Saanich had the highest unfounded rate in Canada. 60 per cent of allegations in Central Saanich were dismissed because they lacked evidence or corroborating witnesses.
For those who say they were assaulted by Mirmotahari, Instagram offered a way to make their stories known — without the lengthy and often re-traumatizing court process. But social media is an imperfect way to get justice. It also exposes survivors to negative comments, victim-blaming, and defamation threats.
#MeToo has brought stories forward, but it hasn’t remedied the ongoing difficulties survivors face in holding their assailants accountable and healing.
Emily was surprised by how few women actually reported their experiences. But having been through it herself, she encourages others to report their experiences.
“It’s normalized and it shouldn’t be normal,” she said. “You’re not dealing with it alone.”