The Facts About Sexual Assault and Harassment
What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence refers to any form of unwanted sexual contact. That includes sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Sexual assault refers to unwanted sexual activity (e.g. touching, kissing someone without consent, rape). Sexual harassment can include comments, behaviour, and unwanted sexual contact. It can take the form of jokes, threats, and discriminatory remarks about someone’s gender or sexuality. It can happen in person or online.
Sexual violence is a form of gender-based violence rooted in gender inequality and injustice. It can happen between people in romantic relationships. It can happen in families, at work, and between friends and acquaintances and strangers. It often occurs in private places between people who know each other.
Anybody can experience this violence, no matter their background, identity, or circumstance. But women, girls, and gender-diverse people are at high risk of sexual violence. Some are at even higher risk due to the additional discrimination and barriers they face. This includes women with disabilities, Indigenous women, and women who are homeless or underhoused. Those facing sexual violence may have not have access to services that meet their needs (e.g. people in rural or remote areas).
Draw-The-Line.ca says: “sexual violence is a lot more than rape. Everything from sexist jokes to stalking, harassment and assault contributes to a culture that condones and supports sexual violence.”
The Government of Ontario says, “sexual violence is a broad term that describes any violence, physical or psychological, carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality.” It can include: sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, incest, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent or sexualized exposure, cyber harassment, trafficking, and sexual exploitation (Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, 2021).
The Criminal Code of Canada includes different types of sexual offences (Shannon Brennan and Andrea Taylor-Butts, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2008).
- Sexual assault level 1 (s.271): An assault committed in circumstances of a sexual nature such that the sexual integrity of the victim is violated. Level 1 involves minor physical injuries or no injuries to the victim.
- Sexual assault level 2 (s.272): Sexual assault with a weapon, threats, or causing bodily harm.
- Aggravated sexual assault (level 3): Sexual assault that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering the life of the victim.
- Other sexual offences: A group of offences that are meant to primarily address incidents of sexual abuse directed at children. The Criminal Code offences included in this category are: Sexual interference (s.151), Invitation to sexual touching (s.152), Sexual exploitation (s.153), Incest (s.155), Anal intercourse (s.159), and Bestiality (s.160). The Code also includes indecent acts (s.173) and corrupting morals (s.163).
Why is ending sexual violence so urgent?
- The harm of this preventable violence is significant and has long-lasting, widespread impacts on those who experience it (Lori Haskell and Melanie Randall, 2019).
- Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada not on a decline (Samuel Perreault, Statistics Canada, 2014).
- It costs billions of dollars: in 2009, dealing with sexual assault and related offenses cost an estimated $4.8 billion (Department of Justice, 2009).
Frequently asked questions about sexual violence
Approximately 4.7 million women – or 30% of all women aged 15 and older – have been sexually assaulted outside of an intimate relationships at least once since age 15 (Statistics Canada, 2019).
According to self-reported data, there were 22 incidents of sexual assault for every 1,000 people in Canada aged 15 and older. Of all sexual assault incidents, the vast majority (87%) were committed against women (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017).
Women are five times more likely than men to be a victim of a self-reported sexual assault (Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2021).
Overall, women are more likely than men to be sexually assaulted or experience unwanted sexual behaviour in public, unwanted behaviour online, or unwanted behaviour in the workplace. Not only are women more likely to experience these behaviours, the impact of them is greater. They are more likely to change routines or behaviours and face negative emotional consequences (Adam Cotter and Laura Savage, 2019, Statistics Canada).
Sexual assault offenders are often known to those they victimize. Of self-reported sexual assaults, Friends, acquaintances, and neighbours represent 52%. Friends, acquaintances, and neighbours are more often the perpetrator for men than for women (62% versus 51%) (Adam Cotter and Laura Savage, Statistics Canada, 2019).
Women account for 92% of police reported sexual assaults. Police-reported data shows that rates of intimate partner sexual assault are over 30 times higher for women than men (33 incidents versus one per 100,000 population) (Shana Conroy, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2021).
The rate of self-reported sexual assault in 2014 remained unchanged from 2004; however, declines were noted over the same time period for all other types of violent and non-violent crime measured by the General Social Survey on Victimization (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017).
The impact of sexual assault goes far beyond individuals. In 2009, dealing with sexual assault and related offenses cost an estimated $4.8 billion in Canada (Department of Justice, 2009).
Some populations are at higher risk of sexual assault.
- Of all sexual assault incidences, 47% are committed against young women aged 15 to 24 (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017).
- The rate of sexual assault against indigenous women is approximately three times higher than among non-Indigenous women (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017). “Indigenous women are at an increased risk of violent victimization and are frequently dismissed by the justice system. This is consistent with ongoing structural violence resulting from colonization, and may be associated with unconscious or conscious racial discrimination” (Jodie Murphy-Oikonen et al., Violence Against Women, 2021).
- The rate of sexual assault is higher among those who are single. Single women report a rate of sexual assault nine times higher than the rate among married or common-law women and among single men (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017).
- “Homelessness is uniquely dangerous for women and gender diverse peoples.” While on the street, 37.4% of young women and 41.3% of trans and gender non-binary youth experience sexual assault compared to 8.2% of young men (Kaitlin Schwan et al., 2020).
- People who identify as homosexual or bisexual have a rate of sexual assault was six times higher than those who identify as heterosexual (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017). More than triple the proportion of people who identify as “sexual minorities” (7%) report being sexually assaulted than heterosexual people (2%). Sexual minority refers to people who identify as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or otherwise not heterosexual.” Transgender people report higher rates of both physical and sexual assault in their lifetimes compared to cisgender people (Brianna Jaffray, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, 2020).
- “[People] with disabilities – particularly women and those with mental disabilities – are at greater risk of sexual violence, which may be partially attributed to greater vulnerability, negative social attitudes and perceptions, and abuses of trust.” The rate of sexual assault among those with a disability are approximately two times higher than those with no disability (Shana Conroy and Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2017).
- People, especially women, who are sexually victimized in childhood are more likely to be victimized in the future. Those who experienced sexual abuse as children report sexual and physical assault at rates three times higher than those who did not experience childhood sexual abuse (Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2021).
Sexual harassment can include discriminatory comments, behaviour, and touching. It may take the form of jokes, threats, comments about sex, or discriminatory remarks about someone’s gender (Ontario Human Rights Commission).
Fifty-two per cent of women in Canada have been subject to sexual harassment in the workplace. Twenty-eight per cent have experienced non-consensual sexual touching at work (Angus Reid Institute, 2018).
One in four women have been personally targeted with sexualized behaviours in their workplace, compared to 17% of men. Most women who had been targeted said that a man was always responsible. For women, personal experiences of inappropriate sexualized behaviour are most common for those working in occupations historically dominated by men: trades, transportation, equipment operation, and related occupations. Among women working in occupations historically filled by women such as sales and service, those who experience inappropriate sexualized behaviour often say that at least one incident is perpetrated by a customer or client (Marta Burczycka, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2021).
One in three women aged 15 to 24 experience unwanted sexual behaviour online and were twice as likely to experience this behaviour compared to those 35 or older. First Nations and Métis women of all ages report unwanted behaviour online at a higher rate than non-Indigenous women. Fifty per cent of bisexual women experience online harassment, compared to 21% of lesbian women and 18% of heterosexual women. “Sexual minority” women are 1.8 times more likely to experience online harassment. Women with disabilities are 2.3 times more likely to experience online harassment than women without a disability (Adam Cotter and Laura Savage, Statistics Canada, 2018).
Only one party is responsible for sexual violence: the perpetrator. Blaming the person who is abused is victim-blaming. It’s unfair and dangerous. It can make people believe abuse is their fault and makes them less likely to seek help and report what happened (Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, 2016). One in five women report being made to feel responsible for their own sexual victimization (Statistics Canada, 2020).
Research links alcohol to sexual assault, but the impact of variables such as a perpetrator’s negative views about women and a sense of peer support for forced sex are stronger predictors of sexual violence (Maggie Koerth, 2018). Still, there’s often a double standard in play: alcohol consumption and substance use are sometimes used to excuse an abuser’s behaviour, but they are used to blame the person who is victimized for the abuse.
“Sexual assault is never your fault. It does not matter what you were wearing, what you were doing, who you were with, or where you were. Sexual assault is the fault of the person who commits the crime” (Government of Canada, 2021).
Like other forms of gender-based violence, sexual assault as a social issue is rooted in gender inequality and unequal power relationships (World Health Organization, 2012). It’s driven by widespread sexist social-cultural ideas and structures that reinforce that the needs, feelings, rights, or beliefs of men are more correct and important than those of women, girls, gender-diverse people, and children. Other forms of discrimination such as racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and ableism combine with sexism and increase sexual violence risks for women and gender-diverse people.
Individuals who commit sexual assault perceive the person they are victimizing as unequal. That creates a rationale for their control, humiliation, intimidation, and abuse.
In our society, gender inequality is present in many areas, including politics, religion, media, cultural norms, and the workplace (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014). Everyone receives powerful messages — both overt and covert — that is it natural and right for men to have more social power. This leads to abusive gendered dynamics in relationships, families, and communities. It reinforces victim-blaming and enables abusers to defend and continue their actions.
Hyper-masculinity – the idea that masculinity is determined by hostility and aggression – is damaging for everyone. It promotes violence and entitlement. Men who demonstrate hyper-masculine attitudes are more likely to self-report sexual aggression against women (Sarah K. Murnen, Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 2015).
Without consent for sexual activity, any sexual contact is sexual assault. Consent is enthusiastic and ongoing. It is given with a clear “yes”, affirmative words, and positive body language. People can change their minds and withdraw consent at any time. It is important for partners to communicate and pay attention to each other’s body language.
Based on the Canadian legal definition, consent cannot be given in a situation that involves an abuse of trust, power, or authority. Anyone who is unconscious cannot legally give consent (Department of Justice, 2021). Anyone who is under the age of consent cannot give consent (Department of Justice, 2017).
A 2015 study by the Canadian Women’s Foundation indicated that consent not well understood. Almost all people in Canada (96%) believe all sexual activities should be consensual, but only one in three understands what it means to give consent. There is also a blurred understanding of consent when it comes to online activity: one in five people in Canada between the ages of 18 to 34 believe that if a woman sends an explicit photo through email or text, this always means she is giving consent to a sexual activity. And some think there’s no need for consent in long-term relationships. One in 10 believe consent to sexual activity is not needed between long-term partners and spouses.
A 2022 study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation reveals that 55 per cent of people in Canada do not fully understand consent when it comes to sexual activity.
Trafficking is a term used in law to describe recruiting, transporting, and holding people for the purpose of exploitation. Trafficking is a criminal offence (Public Safety Canada, 2021). It is a gendered form of violence. Men who are trafficked are often exploited for physical labour like construction work. Women who are trafficked are often subject to sexual coercion to force them into other kinds of labour such as domestic labour or commercial sexual activity (Fay Faraday, 2019).
Coercion in situations of trafficking can take physical and/or psychological forms. It can take the form of threats or abuse of trust or power (Public Safety Canada, 2021).
It is important not to equate trafficking for sexual exploitation with voluntary sex work: “adult individuals who voluntarily engage in sex work are not, according to the Canadian Criminal Code and UN protocol, being trafficked … While experiencers of human trafficking may be forced into sexual exploitation, it does not follow that all sex workers are exploited or that their activities constitute a form of human trafficking” (Robert Nonomura, 2020).
Women and girls are at higher risk of trafficking. People who are 2SLGBTQI+, homeless and marginalized youth, Indigenous women and girls, and people living with addiction, mental illness, and developmental disabilities are also at higher risk (Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, 2021).
In Canada, trafficking and exploitation cannot be pulled apart from colonialism and systemic racism, both of which have led to high rates of sexual violence against Indigenous, Black, and racialized women and youth, 2SLGBTQI+ people, and undocumented people, to name a few (Robert Nonomura, 2020).
Current data about the scope and nature of trafficking in Canada should be used with caution.
- The main sources of data are the police and the courts. But there may be many barriers to reporting for those being victimized and police-reported cases of trafficking may not be charged or processed in the legal system as such (House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, 2018; Adam Cotter, Statistics Canada, 2020).
- The term “trafficking” can be confusing. It is a specific legal term that may not match how people who experience exploitation describe what happens to them.
- When trafficking is conflated with sex work in the research, it can skew data analysis and understanding of the issue (House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, 2018). It can contribute to the targeting of sex workers and creates barriers to their rights, safety, services, and supports (HIV Legal Network, 2019).
Keeping these caveats in mind, data from 2009 to 2018 show that in 97 per cent of trafficking cases reported to police, survivors are women or girls, and the majority of those are young women (45% are 18 to 24) or girls (28% are under 18) (Adam Cotter, 2020).
The odds of sexual assault being reported to police are about 80% lower than for other violent crimes. Only six percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, making it the most underreported crime measured in the General Social Survey on Victimization (Adam Cotter, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2019). It is estimated that less than one per cent of sexual assaults experienced by women lead to an offender being convicted (Holly Johnson, 2012).
Some believe that many sexual assault reports are false, but a review of international research on false reporting suggests that it happens in only two to 8% of cases (Kimberly Lonsway et al., The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, 2009). In Canada, 9% of sexual assaults in 2020 were classified as unfounded (Statistics Canada, 2020).
In addition to “fight or flight” responses to fear and stress, “freezing” is another uncontrollable reaction. When freezing occurs in a situation of sexual violence, a person becomes physically incapable of resisting or speaking up (Brian P. Marx et al., Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2008).
Many sexual assaults are committed in homes by someone known to the person being assaulted. Shock of such unexpected danger can paralyze. “Preparatory kinds of feelings and thoughts are totally submerged because they should not be needed,” says Charlene Senn, a social psychologist at the University of Windsor (Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press, 2016). Survivors of an assault may struggle to comprehend how someone they know could hurt them, and they may not want to get that person in trouble.
From childhood, girls are often socialized to “be nice” and to behave passively in response to conflict. The pressure to be polite can be so ingrained that it can make speaking up about assault or harassment very difficult (Zosia Bielski, Globe and Mail, 2016).
If an abuser is in a position of authority in their workplace, school, sports team, family, or community, it can be especially difficult to report. Survivors may be afraid they won’t be believed and that abuser’s status means their word will be believed more. Many survivors fear that speaking up will jeopardize their goals, career, or reputation (Marie Deschamps, 2015).
Reasons for not reporting violence victimization to police differ between men and women: 43% of women believe that the offender will not be adequately punished (versus 25% of men); 38% of women don’t think it could be reported to police (versus 6% of men); 34% of women report feeling shame or embarrassment (versus 6% of men); 25% of women feel they won’t be believed (versus 7% of men); and 19% of women feel reporting would bring shame and dishonour to their family (versus 4% of men). These differences are reflective of the fact that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Not wanting to deal with police (57%) or the court process (42%) are more commonly cited by those who experience sexual assault (Adam Cotter, Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics, Statistics Canada, 2019).
“Women often suffer secondary victimization when they turn to the police, social services, friends, or family if, as can happen, they are not believed, blamed or made to feel responsible for the violence, or subjected to callous or insensitive treatment, when police fail to take evidence, or when their cases are dropped arbitrarily” (Holly Johnson et al., 2013).
Complaints of sexual assault from women with mental disabilities are often disbelieved or discounted in the legal system (Janine Benedet and Isabel Grant, McGill Law Journal, 2007).
Immigrant women who arrive in Canada traumatized by war or oppressive governments may be less likely to report physical or sexual violence to the authorities for fear of further victimization or even deportation (Rupaleem Bhuyan et al., 2014).
Studies suggest that when women of colour report violence, particularly rape, their experiences are often taken less seriously within the criminal justice system (Rakhi Ruparelia, in Elizabeth Sheehy, ed. Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism, 2012).
Impacts include shock and anger, fear and anxiety, hyper-alertness and hypervigilance, irritability and anger, disrupted sleep, nightmares, rumination and other reliving responses, increased need for control, tendency to minimize or deny the experience as a way of coping, tendency to isolate oneself, feelings of detachment, emotional constriction, feelings of betrayal, and a sense of shame. “The sexualized nature of the violation of sexual assault adds a particularly traumatic aspect to the experience. In fact, being sexually assaulted or raped can be one of the most traumatizing experiences a woman can go through. When the victim knows the offender, especially a person the woman believes should be trustworthy and safe, and who she never believed would violate her, her sense of betrayal is a profound element of the harm and the trauma she experiences. This only compounds her sense of shame and self-blame, along with her reluctance to disclose what happened, all of which increase trauma” (Haskell and Randall, 2019).
When people who are abused internalize victim-blaming, they might experience psychological responses to trauma including: denial or telling themselves that they are overreacting or the assault wasn’t a big deal; guilt and shame, questioning their own actions and behaviour; and embarrassment, blaming themselves for the abuse, or feeling like they didn’t do enough to resist it (Government of Alberta, 2013).
Sexual violence can be traumatic. Many people experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the process of reporting an incident can be re-traumatizing (Avina and O’Donohue, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2002).
Sexual abuse in childhood is a major factor for future suicidal behaviour and can also be a source of post-traumatic stress disorder (Centre for Suicide Prevention).
Among adult women, there is strong evidence of significant associations between child sexual abuse and depression, PTSD, panic disorder, drug and alcohol dependence and suicide attempts (Department of Justice, 2012).
Sexual violence is preventable (Kathleen C. Basile, New England Journal of Medicine, 2016).
Research shows that high school violence prevention programs are highly effective. The Canadian Women’s Foundation supports teen healthy relationship programs across the country that teach participants how to recognize abusive relationships, and how to develop healthy relationships.
Even years after attending one of our funded programs, students experience long-term benefits such as better dating relationships, the ability to recognize and leave an unhealthy relationship, and increased self-confidence, assertiveness, and leadership.
Recognize and challenge victim-blaming, and let survivors and victims know that sexual assault is not their fault.
Hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. If we don’t, we reinforce the notion that abuse and assault are acceptable. It allows abusers to defend and continue their actions.
Address systemic barriers in the legal system to allow for better access to justice for those who experience sexual assault and harassment.
Challenge gender inequality wherever you see it. Identify and resist the idea that the needs, feelings, or beliefs of one person/group are more correct or important than those of another person/group.
If you or someone you know is seeking support for abuse or violence, please visit our support services page.
Last Update: November 22, 2022
of all women age 15 or older report experiencing sexual assault at least once
The rate of sexual assault against Indigenous women is approximately three times higher than among non-Indigenous women
The rate of sexual assault against people with disabilities is about two times higher than those with no disabilities
of people in Canada fully understand what it means to give consent to sexual activity