Expert recognized for work to close ‘justice gap’ in sexual assault laws

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Lise Gotell was living in Toronto in 1986 when a serial rapist, later dubbed the “Balcony Rapist” because he broke into homes by climbing onto balconies, started attacking women.

Lise Gotell
Lise Gotell

Gotell, a graduate student, remembers following the case of one of his victims, who sued the police force for not warning women about the violent attacks occurring. The unfairness of not being publicly warned about a violent offender caught her attention, eventually launching a career path as an advocate for the legal rights of sexual assault survivors.

“I wanted to improve the experience of survivors in the criminal justice system.”

Gotell, now a leading expert in sexual consent law in Canada and a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts, has devoted her academic research of the past 30 years to helping shape policy and awareness around sexual assault law in Canada and violence against women.

For her dedication to applying her scholarly research for the public good, Gotell, based in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, is being recognized with the 2021 Community Scholar Award, one of three U of A Community Connections Awards.

The Community Scholar Award recognizes U of A tenure-track faculty, sessional instructors or lecturers who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to community research and scholarship by sharing and translating their area of expertise for the betterment of the community.

Assuring women’s equality and rights through justice system reform is fundamental to society, said Gotell.

“Sexual assault is an equality rights issue because of its gendered nature and its pervasiveness. The kind of work I do is uncomfortable for many—I raise critiques of law and policy—but we need to make changes.

“For the women’s movement, it’s been a four-decades-long struggle and it’s ongoing.”

Sharing expertise through collaboration

Her extensive community work as a scholar spans involvement with non-governmental organizations locally and beyond, including Edmonton Safe Cities, where she helped develop innovative approaches to addressing sexual violence in public spaces and gain recognition of Edmonton as a United Nations Safe City for Women.

Through her work with the Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund Canada, including as national chair, Gotell assisted in creating legal arguments for judicial cases before the Supreme Court of Canada, influencing the development of Canadian sexual assault law, including clarifying the issue of consent.

She played a role in a legal intervention before the Supreme Court of Canada that resulted in a new trial in the death of Indigenous woman Cindy Gladue. The offender, who’d previously been found not guilty, was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year.

“Our intervention was about preventing the dehumanization and indignity that Indigenous victims are subjected to in the criminal justice system.”

Working with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton and the Edmonton Police Service, Gotell contributed her expertise to the Don’t Be That Guy awareness campaign, focused on changing the behaviour of young men.

She is also closely involved in the complaints process group for Courage To Act, a national initiative to address and prevent gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions in Canada, as well as in the efforts that produced and successfully implemented the U of A’s sexual violence policy.

As the Landrex Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Arts, Gotell is currently researching the gap in the justice system between progressive law reforms and the day-to-day experiences of sexual assault complainants, with the aim of creating justice mechanisms that better meet the needs of survivors.

“Working to improve the law makes it less likely that complainants will be subjected to rape myths (prejudicial, stereotyped and false beliefs about sexual assaults and rape victims) in interactions with police and in trials.”

She’s also been collaborating on an emerging legal issue of condoms and consent, ensuring women have the right to protected sex, and on a restorative justice pilot program focused on heightening offender accountability.

Engaging the next generation of change-makers

In addition to her own community work, Gotell also passes on the idea of community engagement to her students.

“A lot of our graduates go on to work in the areas of gender and social justice as lawyers, or leaders of advocacy groups or in the non-profit sector. I want to help create the next generation of change-makers.”

Sharing her research and expertise beyond the university’s walls is important to demonstrating the value of the knowledge generated by social sciences and the humanities, she added.

“These disciplines create applied research that can make a difference in the world. I want to solve problems, create justice for sexual assault survivors, and the best way to generate innovative solutions is to collaborate with community organizations and advocacy groups.”

Receiving the Community Scholar Award is gratifying, Gotell added.

“For me, it stands as recognition that the University of Alberta values the work I do, which is about improving gender equality, and that is contributing to the public good.”

| By Bev Betkowski


This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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