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).