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Suing for Silence: Sexual Violence and Defamation Law

by Mandi Gray

Seven years after #MeToo rocked global consciousness and Time named Silence Breakers their Person of the Year, sexual violence survivors face a bleak landscape of rising femicide rates, online misogyny, and an increasingly unbelieving culture that denigrates and denies their painful lived experiences.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the use of legal mechanisms employed to punish and gag survivors (as well as their supporters). These defamation lawsuits financially, emotionally, and psychologically deplete those who’ve come forward, or been supportive of complainants – or even those who have commented on allegations. Whether complaints are made formally (to police, or through workplace and university grievance processes) or via informal means (disclosure to friends and colleagues or on social media), anti-violence activist and sociology professor Mandi Gray’s groundbreaking exposé carefully documents how silence breakers are liable for an insidious species of retaliatory litigation framed as reputational protection for alleged perpetrators.

Gray’s timely title is an important wake-up call to recognize a phenomenon that, left unchecked, could seriously impair public discourse around such a critical issue. Her rigorous work expertly combines sociological research, political analysis, legal explanation, and personal testimonies. The book takes readers through the institutional barriers that prevent disclosure, as well as case law precedents and individualized experiences of both pseudonymous and well-known subjects who’ve been sued (such as Senator Marilou McPhedran). This rarely covered ground provides valuable insights into a trend that largely occurs behind closed doors, intimidates and re-traumatizes silence breakers, and generates a libel chill in media circles.

As author and researcher, Gray has to tread carefully, as she herself is subject to an ongoing lawsuit based solely on seven tweets she posted regarding sexual assault allegations against B.C. professor Steven Galloway. His decision to sue more than 20 individuals for defamation shocked the anti-violence community, and also generated a stinging CanLit community controversy when Margaret Atwood and other high-profile authors came to his defence.

Gray knows this material intimately – she began studying institutional responses to sexual violence after reporting her 2015 assault to police and her university – noting, with an exhaustion familiar to anti-violence campaigners, that despite the seeming newness of such litigious action (notably witnessed in the polarizing Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial in 2022), the same power dynamics that have traditionally prevented survivors from disclosing are still very much in play. From courts that frown upon anyone who’s not a “perfect victim,” to the old canard that men are victims of gold-digging, lying women, Gray’s accessible history of plaintiff-friendly defamation law in Canada is both a fascinating journey and a regrettable reminder of the patriarchal power that still stitches together so many strands of the judicial milieu.

Suing for Silence also provides recommendations for: building greater silence-breaker protections; a re-examination of public advocacy efforts regarding revenge lawsuits; increased sexual violence training within the legal system; and expanded civil law education for the anti-violence sector. While she faces an uncertain future, Gray has armed herself and those who may find themselves in her shoes with a protective resource that will provide sound advice, comfort, and answers to challenges that survivors of violence should never have to face.


Reviewer: Matthew Behrens

Publisher: University of British Columbia Press


Price: $32.95

Page Count: 180 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-077486-917-1

Released: March

Issue Date: March 2024

Categories: Media, Politics & Current Affairs, Reference, Reviews, Social Sciences