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Jacob Hoggard trial exposes misconceptions about consent, say experts

The trouble lies in how the letter of the law is applied

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

The sexual assault trial of Canadian musician Jacob Hoggard turned on one central issue: consent.

The Hedley frontman was found guilty of one count of sexual assault causing bodily harm against one of two complainants on Sunday, but acquitted of the same charge plus a count of sexual interference related to a teenage fan.

At the crux of the proceedings was a clash about consent, as is often the case in sexual assault trials, say observers.

The Crown alleged Hoggard violently and repeatedly raped a teenage fan and a young Ottawa woman in separate incidents in the fall of 2016, while the defence argued the sexual encounters were consensual.

High−profile cases like Hoggard’s have the power to shape our understanding of consent, lawyers and advocates say, exposing harmful misconceptions that pervade the courts and society at large.

“It’s great to be trying to shine a light on some of these stories and also worrisome,” Toronto criminal and constitutional lawyer Megan Stephens said in an interview ahead of the verdict.

“These kinds of cases are the ones that make people wonder whether they should come forward and report what has happened to them.”

Canada has some of the most progressive laws on the books about consent in sexual assault cases, said Stephens. The trouble lies in how the letter of the law is applied, she said.

The Criminal Code requires that consent be affirmatively communicated through a person’s words or conduct, meaning through signals that indicate “yes,” rather than the absence of a “no.” Consent can be withdrawn at any point in a sexual encounter. 

Ontario Superior Court Justice Gillian Roberts told the jury deciding  Hoggard’s fate that consent in the context of a sexual assault case is about whether the complainant “in her mind wanted the sexual touching to take place,” citing a provincial appeal court ruling.

Stephens, a former Crown lawyer, said this “subjective standard” means many sexual assault cases come down to jurors’ assessments of the credibility of the complainant and accused based on the evidence they present.

Jurors typically do their best to stick to the law, she said, but identity can influence their determinations and what and whose evidence is to be believed. 

Related: Hoggard found guilty of sex assault against woman, acquitted on two other charges

Many observers have noted the perceived gender imbalance on Hoggard’s jury, which appeared to consist of 10 men and two women.

“We’ve learned a lot over the last few years about implicit biases and how those can affect our understandings and experiences. And I think the jury system is not immune from that,” said Stephens, who advocates for women’s rights in the justice system.

“It is hard for people to sometimes understand the experiences of others when they’ve never been in that place, whether it is a male juror making sense of a female complainant or a white juror making sense of the experiences of a Black woman.”

Canadian courts have been grappling with the “myths and stereotypes” that plague the legal process, but even judges are prone to fall prey to them, said Pam Hrick, executive director and general counsel at Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

Canada’s highest court has issued a number of rulings in recent years finding that lower courts erred in their application of sexual assault law, said Hrick, serving as a course correction in a system that has subjected complainants to unfair scrutiny.

This shows how the social reckoning of the #MeToo movement has reverberated through the courts, but there’s still work to close the gap between Canadian law and our evolving understanding of consent, said Hrick.

“There is a lag, I think, sometimes between public understanding the application or development of the law,” she said. “We need to be vigilant in continuing to push for change and be continuing to try to safeguard some of the gains that we have made.”

Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, said the Hoggard trial illustrates how misconceptions about sex and consent persist both in and out of the courtroom.

Defence lawyers alleged the complainants lied about being raped to cover up their embarrassment after being rejected by a “rock star.”

The defence narrative fed into familiar tropes, such as the “jilted lover” embittered about unreturned affections and groupies who fall under a famous musician’s sexual thrall, said Khan.

There were power dynamics at play in the case, such as differences in age and social status, that Canada’s consent laws don’t account for, but can nonetheless influence how sexual violence survivors process their own experiences, she added.

“It’s important for survivors to understand it, because sometimes you can gaslight yourself in these situations,” she said. “Just because you wanted to see someone, just because you wanted to kiss someone doesn’t mean you want to be sexually assaulted.”

The Canadian Women’s Foundation conducted an online survey of more than 1,500 Canadians in 2018 that found only 28 per cent of respondents fully understood what it means to give consent, a drop from 33 per cent in 2015 before the #MeToo movement emerged. 

With so many young people who grew up listening to Hedley keeping track of the Hoggard case, Khan said she’s concerned the next generation will suffer similar confusion unless we start prioritizing consent and pleasure in sex education.

“The challenge is that we treat consent like a checkbox,” she said. “Consent is about a conversation… And it’s ongoing, it’s reversible.”

feature image: The Canadian Press