Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Had It Coming: Robyn Doolittle

When Robyn Doolittle set out to write Had It Coming, an investigation into how police services handle sexual assault cases across the country, she had the success of a Globe and Mail Unfounded series behind her. Like the series—one of the most viewed and read stories in the newspaper’s recent history—the book profiles the results of a two-year investigation examining sexual assault cases police reclassified as “unfounded.” In other words, the assault allegations in these cases bore no basis of claim, according to police. But after investigating 54 such cases and pouring over data from 873 police jurisdictions, Doolittle uncovered systemic police mishandling.


In her exploration into the root causes of sexual assault, Doolittle took an unconventional approach—undertaking a thorough self-examination, questioning her own misperceptions about sexual assault allegations. What she found was evidence of the pervasiveness of “rape culture,” which can take many forms from victim- or slut-shaming to gender-stereotyping to buying into rape myths like false allegations. 


“I wasn’t born this progressive,” the reporter shared with moderator Julie S. Lalonde, and a full house on the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s opening night. Sharing one such “bad take,” as she calls it, Doolittle discusses her initial reaction to the 2003 Kobe Bryant sexual assault case. 


“What did she expect going to a hotel room with an NBA player?” she recalled asking herself at the time. Having since reviewed the case, Doolittle said she was astounded by the evidence against Bryant. (The case was dropped after the accuser refused to testify in court, but a civil suit settled in the accuser’s favour out of court). Doolittle told the audience her own “bad take” offers a broader lesson: we must grant one another the space to say the wrong thing and learn from it. 


Doolittle brought particular rigour to her reporting for this book, as myths abound about sexual assault. There’s a long-standing misperception that false allegations of sexual misconduct are common, for example. And yet, Doolittle estimated that false allegations comprise roughly two to eight per cent of all cases. However, she pointed to the damage poor reporting can do to spread misperceptions. A retracted 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story, “A Rape on Campus” is often cited as the exemplar. The story profiled an alleged gang rape at a college fraternity, but as other reporters probed the case, gaps appeared in the accuser’s account of events. Although the story was pulled, the damage it did continues.


“The hardest thing I have to do is [ask myself] what if I’m wrong?” Doolittle told listeners, arguing that it’s imperative to “stress-test” your journalism, especially when handling sensitive, investigative cases. It’s likely because of that investigative rigour, Doolittle’s work is leading to positive outcomes. For example, police have recently reopened unfounded cases. Canada is also well-positioned to improve handling of sexual assault, Doolittle asserted, given that we have among the most progressive sexual assault laws in the world. For example, an accuser need not report an allegation immediately to be taken seriously in Canadian court. The national data agency, Statistics Canada, collects and reports information on sexual assault and rape. But there’s still work to be done.


“We need to unwire our brains,” Doolittle concluded. Getting to a more progressive public discourse on this subject will require more people to look in the mirror the way Doolittle did, calling out our own misperceptions about sexual assault.