Only 1 in 3 Canadians Know What Sexual Consent Means

Canadian Women’s Foundation study reveals that lines are blurred when it comes to new vs. existing partners, online vs. offline activity

Toronto, ON – May 5, 2015 – A new study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which launched its annual May-long Campaign to End Violence, reveals that while almost all Canadians (96%) agree that sexual activity between partners should be consensual, two-thirds of Canadians (67%) do not understand what it means.

According to Canadian law, consent should be both positive (e.g. saying yes, initiating and/or enjoying sexual activity) and ongoing (e.g. continues during the sexual activity). Only 1 in 3 (33%) survey respondents identified both of these traits as forms of consent.

“Over the past year, sexual assault has been pushed into the spotlight, causing greater awareness about the importance of consent” says Anuradha Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention, Canadian Women’s Foundation. “The fact that most Canadians agree sexual activity should be consensual is a positive sign that people understand the critical importance of consent. However, it’s alarming that so many people don’t understand what consent actually looks like. This gap can increase the risk of unwanted sexual activity and assault, and is a clear sign that Canadians desperately need more education on the meaning of consent.”

Consent in long-term relationships

The survey revealed that some Canadians think the need for consent becomes less important the longer couples are together. While most Canadians (97%) believe consent is required for sexual activity between people on a casual date or between new partners, 1 in 10 Canadians believe consent is not required or don’t know if it’s required between spouses (12%) or long-term partners (11%).

“Most sexual assaults in Canada are committed by someone the victim knows and trusts,” says Ms. Dugal. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together –- sexual consent is always required.”

Sexting culture

The survey also shows that many young Canadians have a blurred understanding of consent when technology is involved. One in five (21%) people aged 18 to 34 believe if a woman sends a man an explicit photo through text or email, this always means she is inviting him to engage in offline sexual activity.

According to Ms. Dugal: “As we embrace the digital age, it is important that younger Canadians fully understand the meaning of consent and how it applies in both online and in-person settings. Just because a woman shares a sexually explicit photo, doesn’t mean she’s interested or willing to engage in offline sexual activity.”

The Canadian Women’s Foundation Campaign to End Violence, which runs throughout the month of May, raises awareness and funds for women who have experienced abuse. The funds raised help more than 451 shelters for abused women and their children, and community violence prevention programs across Canada that break the cycle of violence.


From April 8th to April 9th 2015 an online survey was conducted among 1,500 randomly selected Canadian adults who are Angus Reid Forum panelists. The margin of error—which measures sampling variability—is +/- 3.1%, 19 times out of 20. The results have been statistically weighted according to education, age, gender and region (and in Quebec language) Census data to ensure a sample representative of the entire adult population of Canada. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding.

About Canadian Women’s Foundation

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is Canada’s public foundation for women and girls. We empower women and girls in Canada to move out of violence, out of poverty and into confidence. Since 1991, we’ve raised money and invested in over 1,300 community programs across Canada, and are now one of the ten largest women’s foundations in the world. We take a positive approach to address root causes of the most critical issues facing women and girls. We study and share the best ways to create long-term change and bring community organizations together for training and to learn from each other. We carefully select and fund the programs with the strongest outcomes and regularly evaluate their work. We have a special focus on building a community of women helping other women. Helping women creates safer families and communities, and a more prosperous society for all of us. We invest in the strength of women and the dreams of girls.

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