Let’s talk about sexual assault: New Montreal chat line for victims could save lives

The Montreal Sexual Assault Centre has added a chat feature to meet young people where they are and provide added anonymity to facilitate taking that necessary first step to denounce violence and seek out help.

Some things, you can’t say out loud. At least not right away.

Knowing this, the Montreal Sexual Assault Centre (MSAC), helping victims of sexual violence in the Montreal area since 1980, has now decided to add a chat line to its 24/7 hotline.  

It’s a move many working in the field say could save lives. “We know that being able to reach out to and communicate with victims is one of the most difficult aspects of our work,” says Linda Basque, Services and activities coordinator at Info-Femmes

“Feelings of shame, guilt and fear are too often obstacles that prevent victims from coming forward and seeking help,” she explains. “Add other factors such as age, religion, culture, language, gender identity and sexual orientation, and the situation becomes even more complicated.”

Fear of not being believed, fear of negative consequences for oneself, loved ones or the perpetrator, and fear of the legal process and contact with the police are additional reasons preventing some from coming forward. 

“Being isolated, not being able to validate their feelings, not knowing where to turn to or how to deal with their situation adds to their suffering,” continues Basque. “It’s essential for victims to be able to quickly find the help and guidance they need and to reach out and talk to someone during those limited windows of opportunity.  This chat option is an important tool for both the victims and those offering counselling services.”

A different way of accessing the same help

The idea behind the initiative was to help expand the ways in which victims of sexual violence could reach out to those who needed their help. The chat service will also have a feature allowing the user to remain anonymous and have a confidential setting if they so choose, says Dèby Trent, Director of the MSAC, adding that “sometimes people need that added anonymity to take that necessary first step to denounce the violence and seek out help.”

The chat line was developed after recommendations made by the Select Committee on the Sexual Exploitation of Minors (2019–2020) stated the importance of an interactive online platform. As primary funder of the Sexual Violence Helpline, Quebec’s Justice Ministry provided the financial support to create this new channel.

Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a university lecturer, author and Ph.D. candidate in Social Work at the University of Ottawa, considers the initiative both very important and long overdue. “Several Canadian and Quebec studies show that young people are overrepresented among survivors of sexual violence,” she says. “I appreciate the effort to meet young people where they are. Second, as a millennial myself, I know that many people of my generation (and even younger) do almost everything on our phones and rarely make an actual phone call.”

En Marge 12-17, one of MSAC’s partners that works with young people in trouble and is involved in several joint projects focused on prevention and intervention for young people at risk or in situations of sexual exploitation, enthusiastically voiced its support for the new chatline in a press release. “The innovative chat tool is an effective response to the constant need to help those who are most vulnerable. Chat reaches out to young people by using the means of communication that is best adapted to the complex situations they may be dealing with.”

“It’s simply another way of accessing the listening line services,” says Trent. “Instead of calling, you can chat and type out your thoughts. Accessing the same type of listening that we offer, that provides information and answers questions in a non-judgemental confidential environment. Even though it’s a different point of access, there’s still a person on the other side who’s educated to offer help.” 

Trent says that a recent provincial research report on the sexual exploitation of minors showed this mode of communication was more favoured by younger people. “We hope it will reach that younger demographic,” she says, “because the chatline is an added layer of anonymity and not speaking to someone also encourages some to reach out. It makes them more comfortable doing so.”

Sexual violence a serious problem among minors

Let’s talk about sexual assault — New Montreal chat line for victims could save lives

Recent data by Quebec’s Public Security Ministry shows complaints involving sexual assaults increased in 2021 – especially among youth aged 12 to 17 years of age — with the number doubling since 2016.

In March of 2023, Quebec’s education ministry said it planned to investigate allegations of sexual violence at schools. Education Minister Bernard Drainville stated at the time that “multiple denunciations and allegations of misconduct of a sexual nature or inappropriate behaviour” were brought to the ministry’s attention.

“Since we are talking about young people,” says Souffrant, “the Quebec government should also pay great attention to how to prevent this problem, and that starts with sex education in elementary and high schools, which must be done by professionals, highly trained in this matter.”

In Quebec, in 2019, most victims of police-reported sexual offences were minors (62.5%). In 2021 more than 2,600 youths filed complaints for offences involving sexual assault, twice as many as five years earlier when less than 1,200 youth came forward.

“Sixty-two per cent of all sexual violence victims are under 18,” says Trent. “We just finished doing our year-end stats for services provided for medical and psychosocial intervention and the bulk of the people who we provide those services for are between 18 and 25 years old.”

Trent points out that cases of sexual exploitation usually also involve young people. “We’re sensitive to that,” she says. “Being able to talk on the phone may be dangerous for them, but being able to talk on a chat line may be easier.”

While 9 out of 10 victims of sexual assault are girls and women, Souffrant points out that it’s also crucial to develop services for male victims of sexual violence, since these types of organizations are rare in Quebec. “We need to make the services available more known and accessible to people who commit sexual violence or are afraid of committing sexual violence (for example, RIMAS represent some of these resources in Quebec),” she says. 

Chatline part of new UQAM study

Increasing ways to reach out to those who need help is ultimately the goal. 

“Since the younger generations prefer to communicate online in writing,” says Trent, “we set up a chat tool based on their communication habits.” 

Trent says that people can access the chat line via the centre’s website. “There’s a button that you press, and it will lead you to the chat counsellors. It’s a bilingual service, so the first question asked will be what language they want to chat in.”

The MSAC team will also be collaborating with UQAM’s department of social and public communication and researchers, with the goal of alleviating the deficit in literature and research in the area of sexual violence and digital counselling, as well as providing much needed information for community organizations interested in making the transition.

“The fact that this new service will also be part of a study to provide information on how effective this practice is,” says Trent, “will be helpful to all of us in the field and allow us to better adapt our services and put our resources to better use.”

A broader reflection on how to support victims of sexual violence from all walks of life is also needed, according to Souffant. “That means a flexible definition of what justice means and what it might look like, including for Black and racialized people, not all of whom are immigrants, as well as people from queer communities and people living with disabilities, who are highly represented among sexual assault victims.” 

Souffrant says it’s important to let people know that going to the police should not be presented as the only valid option when it comes to sexual violence and that all kinds of options exist. “There are many different ways to display courage when it comes to this issue,” she adds. 

Bilingual chatline for all

While the chat line is currently operational noon to midnight, seven days a week, it’s expected to soon increase to 24/7 sometime this spring. 

“So far, since it was launched, we received 278 chat requests that first month, give or take,” says Trent. “It’s too soon to conclude anything yet, but this is in addition to the phone calls, which means 278 people who reached out that way perhaps couldn’t reach out before.” 

But as we add to the many ways people can seek help and denounce their aggressors, we need to ensure the support that they need is available to them after they take this fundamental first step. 

“The multiple waves of denunciations of sexual violence and the cases of public figures that have received significant media attention have created a constant and tremendous pressure on the many community organizations that are supposed to help victims of gender-based violence,” says Souffrant. 

“I think it is great that more people are seeking support, but we need to make sure that we do not abandon them when they finally find the courage and strength to share their stories.” ■

The Montreal Sexual Assault Centre offers a range of bilingual services free of charge to anyone affected by sexual assault, sexual exploitation or any other form of sexual violence, as well as the victim’s family and close friends. The hotline receives an average of 10,000 calls every year. Its role as a referral resource is essential for guiding victims towards aid resources that can meet their specific needs. Counsellors offer a safe, respectful and non-judgemental environment. 

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.