The Toronto Globe and Mail has been doing a huge investigation into law enforcement’s handling of sexual-assault cases.

National policing data, compiled and reviewed by The Globe as part of its 20-month investigation, reveal that one of every five sexual-assault allegations in Canada is dismissed as baseless and thus unfounded. The result is a national unfounded rate of 19.39 per cent – nearly twice as high as it is for physical assault (10.84 per cent), and dramatically higher than that of other types of crime.

True unfounded cases, which arise from malicious or mistaken reports, are rare. Between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of complaints are false reports, according to research from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. The Globe’s findings suggest that police in Canada are closing a disproportionate number of rape cases as unfounded, a phenomenon that distorts the country’s crime statistics.

It’s almost as if misogyny is a thing.

“What does unfounded mean to you? What does unfounded mean to anybody? It means ‘You’re lying,’.” says Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson, who has extensively studied that city’s unfounded cases. She believes that high rates send a message that police don’t believe large numbers of complainants, “which reinforces damaging myths that women lie about sexual victimization, and could act as a deterrent to already low reporting.”

The 1980s and 1990s were watershed decades for sexual-assault legislation and jurisprudence in Canada. The crimes of rape and indecent assault were replaced with three tiers of sexual-assault offences, encompassing a fuller spectrum of sexual violence. Restrictions were put on the circumstances in which a victim’s sexual history could be introduced in court. The corroboration requirement was removed, meaning that a complainant’s word, even without third-party testimony or physical evidence, became enough to secure a conviction. And restrictions were put on a suspect’s ability to claim that he had “mistakenly believed” a complainant had consented to sexual activity. Alongside other changes, these decades gave Canada some of the most progressive sexual-assault laws in the world, in theory.

The handling of sexual assault has again become the subject of a vigorous public debate: The spectacle of Jian Ghomeshi’s sex-assault trial; the unprecedented public disciplining of an Alberta judge who questioned why a woman didn’t “keep your knees together” to prevent an attack; the cases of Bill Cosby and of Brock Turner, the Stanford student who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 23-year-old woman who lay unconscious on the ground.

And although discussion is often focused on the fact that fewer than one in 10 victims report their assault to police, and that fewer than half of the cases that do go to court end with a conviction – among the lowest conviction rates of any type of violent crime – The Globe’s reporting has shown there is an equally pressing statistic that has yet to enter the debate in Canada.

Every year, an average of 5,500 people are reporting sexual violence to Canadian police, but their cases are dropping out of the system as unfounded long before a Crown prosecutor, judge or jury has a chance to weigh in.

The result is a game of chance for Canadian sex-assault complainants, whose odds of justice are determined not only by the facts of their case, but by where the crime took place, which police force picks up their file, and what officer shows up at their door.

Misogyny never goes out of style.

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