Unbelievable shows what empathetic sexual violence response looks like

Netflix's new series reminds us of the importance of adequate procedure and support for survivors

At Queen's, we need to reflect on our own procedures and support for sexual violence survivors.
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This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

While Netflix offers a vast selection of crime dramas to binge watch, Unbelievable is unlike any other.

In fact, the careful and honest way the platform’s new limited original series portrays the treatment of sexual violence survivors should be emulated at a university level.

Released last week, Unbelievable follows two parallel stories. The first story introduced is that of Marie Adler, a young woman in the state of Washington who is accused of lying to police about her sexual assault. The second follows a pair of female detectives in Colorado racing to catch a serial rapist.

The first episode follows Marie’s experience after calling 911 to report being raped. The 18-year-old, newly out of the foster care system, was living in subsidized housing designed to help at-risk youth get on their feet, when an intruder broke into her home and attacked her at gunpoint.

Once detectives arrive, Marie is swept up in the investigation. She’s questioned about the assault over and over, forced to give multiple statements, and brought in for interrogation. The detectives latch onto minor inconsistencies in Marie’s story, casting doubt over her entire report. Following a series of accusatory questioning and threats to her security, Marie reluctantly recants her statements and finds herself charged with a false disclosure.

On the flip side, in Colorado, two detectives, Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen, are a stark contrast to Lynnwood police. Duvall’s first interview with a college student named Amber who was raped in her apartment could not be more unlike Marie’s. Duvall is kind and patient, reassuring Amber that she should only recall what she’s comfortable with and should take the time she needs to work through the details.

Duvall and Rasmussen both demonstrate true empathy and care for the survivors in their investigation, and are thorough and meticulous, whereas the Lynnwood detectives were rash and impatient. The two are motivated, and will stop at nothing to catch the perpetrator.

The plots are two sides of the same story.

Duvall and Rasmussen are examples of what anyone helping a survivor should be: kind, compassionate, and understanding. The women respond to the assaults with the gravity and seriousness they deserve, and they respect the survivors and their experiences.

Marie is a sexual assault survivor failed by the system: she is dismissed, intimidated, and punished for reporting her rape. She loses her job, her support system, her reputation, and her housing because the adults she trusted refuse to believe her.

Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the show is the fact that its story is rooted in truth. Based on real events, Unbelievable is a raw depiction of our society’s tendency to vilify and abandon the people who need our help the most. Marie’s story is a testament to the lack of adequate procedure around and support for cases of sexual violence beyond the justice system.

Canadian universities are routinely failing young students who are survivors of sexual assault. Many institutions are lacking sufficient resources for survivors, and some have demonstrated a propensity for sweeping reports under the rug.

Statistics have demonstrated that students on university campuses are likely to experience a non-consensual sexual encounter. More needs to be done to support these students, and to prevent these encounters from occurring in the first place.

At Queen’s, we need to reflect on the University’s new draft of sexual violence policy. The updated policy requires university employees to immediately notify Queen’s sexual violence prevention and response coordinator of any disclosure they receive from a student.

We need to consider the implications of forcing survivors to report or disclose these traumatic events at a pace that might be too rapid for their personal healing processes.

Unbelievable’s Duvall and Rasmussen demonstrate the sexual violence response that every university should strive for. Survivors deserve to feel respected and safe, and to know that, should they come forward, they will be heard.

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