Sexual Assault in Canada can broadly be defined as “all unwanted sexual activity-grabbing, kissing, and fondling as well as rape” (LEAF, 2020). This can look like many things however a key aspect of sexual assault is that it is unwanted. This persistent issue is affecting over 11 million Canadians (Stats Canada, 2019, para 11), and about 35% of women worldwide (The World Bank, 2019, para 1). These numbers represent cases that have been reported, and unfortunately, only about 5-10% of cases are reported, and as a result the rest become unknown to the public. To help create safer communities that support survivors, it is important to understand what sexual assault is and is not.
Myths and Facts
As the issue of sexual assault grows, a lot of information is spread. Sometimes this information can be true, and this can help raise awareness and build safer communities. On the other hand, there are times when false information is spread. This can have the opposite effect on communities by creating negative ideas on the issue and preventing others from helping. In order to build safe communities, we will talk about some myths on sexual assault and compare them to some facts.
It is often believed that rape includes violence and the use of weapons and that sexual assault leaves a sign of injury. This is a myth as it is more common that survivors report that there was a threat of receiving serious injuries or being killed. Also, weapons are not necessarily needed to subdue or threaten someone. Since weapons are not needed, it also true that someone who has been sexually assaulted may not have physical injuries.
Another myth is the belief that women falsely report rape, sexual assault, or other forms of abuse. The truth is that only about 2-7% of reported sexual assaults are thought to be false which is the same rate or lower than other crimes such as theft. This means that the number of false reports on sexual assault is not very different from the number of false reports for other crimes.
As mentioned, sexual assault can briefly be defined as “all unwanted sexual activity – grabbing, kissing, and fondling” (LEAF Canada). To break down this definition, we can look at when sexual activity is legal. Sexual activity is only legal when the parties involved give their consent at the time of the sex act. This means that even if someone consented before the sex act occurred, if they change their mind and do not give consent during the sex act, there is no consent. The age for consent varies in some situations, however, the age of consent in general is 16. When prostitution or pornography is involved, the consenting age becomes 18.
History of Defining Sexual Assault
The road to our current definition of sexual assault has been long and hard. First, we will go back to 1983 where there was a very broad definition of sexual assault. This definition included all forms of unwanted sexual contact which was not limited to intercourse. It was in this definition that the rape of one’s wife became criminalized. The criminalization of raping one’s wife was a step forward in making change.
Moving on to 1987, the definition of rape started to become clarified and included toughing a women’s breast. It was also at this time that the perpetrator’s intentions were considered. By 1991, past sexual history of the survivor could be used.
In 1992, the definition of consent, or rather, want consent consisted of changed. Now, silence or passivity was not consent. Then, going to 2011, consent had to be given at the time of the sex act, or rather, consent could not be given before the sex act.
Finally, in 2017, if a person was unconscious, they were considered unable to give consent. It was at this point that the accused would no longer be able to make a defense based on the belief that they misunderstood the survivor.
History is important as it is what has shaped today, but it is also important because it shows the progress that has been made. To this day, Canada continues to update sexual assault laws. Though it is a slow process, these historical changes are proof that we can change for the better.
Sexual assault is not straight forward and can be hard to identify. One way to help identify if a person is being sexually assaulted, or if a person is at risk of being sexually assaulted is if there is the presence of an abusive relationship.
An abusive relationship can involve patterns of behaviours used by a partner in order to maintain control and power over the other person in the relationship (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2021, para 2). Abuse can be seen in many forms from domestic violence to Intimate Partner Violence and relationship abuse (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2021, para 2).
There are no restrictions or limitations on who can be affected by or in an abusive relationship regardless of gender, sexuality, race, religion, education, or economic background (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2021, para 3).
Some identifying characteristics of abuse includes physical harm, intimidation, manipulation and control over a partner, emotional abuse, and financial control (National Domestic Violence Hotline, 2021, para 3). If you notice these behaviours, there are resources to help including the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Cotter, A., & Savage, L. (2019, December 5). This Juristat article provides an in-depth analysis on the experiences of inappropriate behaviours in public, online and at work, as well as information on experiences and characteristics of violent victimization. Using data from the 2018 Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces, this gender-based analysis fills a critical gap by measuring behaviours that have not previously been a focus of other surveys. Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2019001/article/00017-eng.htm.
LEAF (Ed.). (2020, October 25). The Law of Consent in Sexual Assault. LEAF. https://www.leaf.ca/news/the-law-of-consent-in-sexual-assault/#:~:text=Canada%20has%20a%20broad%20definition,legal%20when%20both%20parties%20consent.&text=273.1(1)%2C%20as%20the,the%20sexual%20activity%20in%20question.
The World Bank Group (Ed.). (2019). Gender-Based Violence (Violence Against Women and Girls). World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/socialsustainability/brief/violence-against-women-and-girls#:~:text=The%20numbers%20are%20staggering%3A,someone%20other%20than%20a%20partner.
National Domestic Violence Hotline (Ed.). (2021, January 27). Understand Relationship Abuse. The Hotline. https://www.thehotline.org/identify-abuse/understand-relationship-abuse/.