Sexual Assault and Harassment


The Facts About Sexual Assault and Harassment

Sexual assault and harassment are persistent forms of gender-based violence that are rooted in gender inequality.

In fact, sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining. Its impact goes far beyond survivors; dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault costs Canadians billions of dollars every year.

Since the vast majority of sexual assault isn’t reported to police, both police-reported data and self-reported data from social surveys help to establish its scope.

This fact page answers some frequently asked questions about sexual assault and harassment in Canada. For more information about domestic violence and violence against women in general, see The Facts about Gender-Based Violence.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Assault and Harassment

Women self-reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014, according to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization.
Women were 10 times more likely than men to be victims of a police-reported sexual assault in 2008.

Although both men and women experience sexual assault, women accounted for 92% of victims of police-reported sexual assaults in 2008.

Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining. Since 1999, rates of sexual assault have remained relatively unchanged. This is one of the reasons that women’s risk of violent victimization was about 20% higher than men’s in 2014, according to self-reported data from the General Social Survey on Victimization. While the rate of sexual assault has remained stable, rates of robbery and physical assault have gone down, and men are more likely to be the victims of these crimes.

Between 2009 and 2013, the rates of police-reported sexual assault of women by intimate partners rose by 17%.

The impact of sexual assault goes far beyond direct victims. Each year, sexual assault costs Canadian society billions of dollars. In 2009, dealing with sexual assault and related offenses cost the Canadian economy an estimated $4.8 billion.

Certain groups of women face a higher risk of sexual assault:

  • Young Canadians are more likely to experience sexual assault. The rate of sexual assault for Canadians age 15 to 24 is 18 times higher than that of Canadians age 55 and older.
  • 82% of all victims of sexual assault under the age of 18 are female, and girls under age 18 report a rate of sexual violence almost five times higher than boys under 18.
  • Girls are four times more likely than boys to be sexually abused by a family member.
  • Women with disabilities and those who are institutionalized, Aboriginal women, single women, and women who are unemployed or have low-incomes are at heightened risk of sexual assault.
  • Sexual assaults account for about 33% of all crimes committed against Aboriginal women, and 10% of all crimes committed against non-Aboriginal women.
  • Disabled women experience sexual violence at about three times the rate of non-disabled women.
  • Out of the total number of seniors who are sexually assaulted by a family member, 96% are women.

There are three levels of sexual assault in Canada:

  • Level one sexual assaults cause little or no physical injury
  • Level two sexual assaults involve a weapon, threat, or bodily harm
  • Level three sexual assaults involve physical wounds, disfigurement, or threaten the life of the survivor
  • While most sexual assaults fall into the level one category, any type of sexual assault can have long-term impacts on a survivor’s psychological well-being.
  • Many women who are sexually assaulted experience high rates of depression, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, suicidal behaviours, self-harm, eating disorders, and substance abuse issues.
  • Women who have experienced sexual assault are more likely to attempt suicide.
  • Sexual assaults can lead to health issues such as unwanted pregnancy, gynecological complications, and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Sexual violence also has financial consequences for survivors. It’s estimated that each year in Canada, the collective financial impact for women who experience sexual assault is $3.4 billion in medical costs, lost productivity, and intangible costs like pain and suffering.

Only one party is responsible for sexually assaulting or harassing another person: the perpetrator. Holding a survivor accountable for the violence she experiences is called victim-blaming and it is not only unfair, it’s also dangerous. Victim-blaming leads many women to believe abuse is their fault and makes them less likely to come forward and report sexual offenses.

  • There is a myth that sexual assault is usually committed by strangers, but in about 80% of cases, the sexual assault survivor knows the offender.
  • There is research linking alcohol to sexual assault, but “the fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur does not demonstrate that alcohol causes sexual assault.” There is also a double standard: while alcohol consumption is sometimes used to excuse the abuser’s behaviour, it is also often used as a reason to blame the victim for the abuse.

Like other forms of violence against women, sexual assault is rooted in gender inequality. It’s driven by the idea that the needs, feelings, or beliefs of one person/group are more correct or important than those of another person/group. Those who commit sexual assault perceive the victim as unequal. This inequality creates a rationale for control, humiliation, intimidation and abuse.

In our society, gender inequality is present in many areas, including politics, religion, media, cultural norms, and the workplace. Both men and women receive many messages — both overt and covert — that is it natural for men to have more social power than women.

The false belief that men have a right to control women, even violently, is common. This is not only wrong, it’s against the law.

Hyper-masculinity—the notion that masculinity is determined by strength and power—is damaging for men, women and everyone in between. It promotes violence and entitlement and devalues feeling and emotions.

Men who demonstrate hostile and hyper-masculine attitudes are more likely to self-report sexual aggression against women.

In addition to sexism, there are many other forms of social inequality that can compound abuse and violence, including racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, and religious persecution.

The social tendency toward victim-blaming reinforces the notion that abuse and assault are acceptable, and allows the perpetrator to defend and continue their actions.

Understanding consent plays a key role in understanding what constitutes sexual assault. Without consent, any sexual contact is sexual assault. Consent needs to be 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, so it is important for partners to communicate clearly 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. Anyone who is under the age of consent cannot give consent.

Despite the importance of consent, a 2015 study by the Canadian Women’s Foundation indicated that is not well understood. Almost all Canadians (96%) believe all sexual activities should be consensual, but only 1 in 3 Canadians understands what it means to give consent.

There is also a blurred understanding of consent when it comes to online and offline activity: 1 in 5 Canadians 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.

Some Canadians think there’s no need for consent in long-term relationships. The Canadian Women’s Foundation found that 1 in 10 Canadians believe consent to sexual activity is not needed between long-term partners and spouses.

While sexual assault refers to unwanted sexual activity, including touching and attacks, sexual harassment can encompass discriminatory comments, behaviour, as well as touching. Sexual harassment may take the form of jokes, threats, comments about sex, or discriminatory remarks about someone’s gender.

According to a 2014 poll, 43% of women have been sexually harassed in their workplace. Women were also more than twice as likely as men to say they had experienced unwanted sexual contact while at work (20% compared to 9%).

One highly publicized example of sexual harassment of women at work is the “FHRITP” phenomenon. Women journalists across the country have reported that male passers-by shout this obscene phrase at them while they attempt to broadcast news segments.

The Internet has led to incredible advancements, but it has also provided a platform for new forms of harassment. Young women (18-24) are most likely to experience online harassment in its most severe forms, including stalking, sexual harassment, and physical threats.

While most of us are familiar with “fight or flight” responses, “freezing” is another uncontrollable reaction to fear and stress. When freezing occurs during a trauma like sexual assault or harassment, a person becomes physically incapable of resisting or speaking up.

Most sexual assaults are committed in someone’s home, by someone known to the survivor. In this context, the shock of such unexpected danger can paralyze the person being assaulted or harassed. “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.

From a young age, girls are socialized to “be nice” and to behave passively in response to conflict. Experts and survivors say the pressure to be polite is so ingrained that it can make speaking up about assault or harassment very difficult.

80% of sexual assault is committed by someone the survivor knows. Survivors often struggle to comprehend how someone they know could hurt them, and they may not want to get that person in trouble.

Another reason women might not speak up about sexual assault or harassment is because the abuser is in a position of authority in their workplace, school, sports team, family, or community. Women may be afraid they won’t be believed and that the voices of men with status will be believed over theirs. Many fear that speaking up will jeopardize their goals, career or reputation.

Our culture has become accustomed to blaming victims for abuse rather than the perpetrators. When women internalize victim-blaming, they might experience psychological responses to trauma including:

  1. Denial: telling themselves that they are overreacting or the assault wasn’t a big deal
  2. Guilt/Shame: questioning their own actions and behaviour
  3. Embarrassment: blaming themselves for the abuse or feeling like they didn’t do enough to resist it.

Survivors can respond to harassment and assault in many ways. There is no correct way to react and many people find themselves reaching out to or staying in touch with an abuser.

“Women who have been assaulted by people they know act in ways that are often counterintuitive,” says University of Ottawa law professor Elizabeth Sheehy.

According to Dr. Patricia Janssen from the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health, some survivors might not recognize sexual harassment or assault “as part of a pattern of behaviour.”

Survivors might minimize an isolated event or deny that it happened because of a desire to feel loved by the abuser or to avoid the stigma of being a victim.

“Some people may immediately break off ties, but others may seek to continue and possibly “normalize” the relationship, hoping that it will not happen again,” says criminal lawyer David Butt. “At first there is often a sense of confusion, a sense of denial … it is not unusual for the relationship to continue.”

“Many survivors struggle to break off contact with their abuser because the nature of abuse includes undermining their self-esteem and confidence. They may feel controlled by their abuser … in some instances, those in an abusive relationship go through periods of calm, nurturing and love between the incidents of violence. An abuser may swear that it will never happen again,” says Keetha Mercer, Manager of Violence Prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Even though the rate of self-reported sexual assaults has remained relatively stable, the percentage of offenses that were reported to the police dropped from about 12% in 2009[51] to 5% in 2014.

It is estimated that less than 1% of sexual assaults experienced by women lead to an offender being convicted. The estimate is based on a 2012 analysis of self-reported sexual assault data and court statistics. The majority of offenders walk free.

After a sexual assault, a women might experience a range of psychological responses that affect her ability to report an incident, including denial, shock, guilt, shame, embarrassment, grief, anger, and fear.

In a Global/Ipsos Reid poll, the most common reason women gave for not reporting a sexual assault to the police was feeling young and powerless (56%). Forty per cent of respondents said they stayed silent because of the shame they felt and 29% said they blamed themselves for the assault. Others worried that reporting would bring dishonour to their families, feared retaliation from their attacker, or said they didn’t have faith in the criminal justice system.

Of the survivors in the Global/Ipsos Reid poll who did report a sexual assault to police, 71% said the experience was negative.

Some women begin to feel re-victimized when they report sexual assault and go through the legal process: “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.”

Sexual assault and harassment can be traumatic for survivors; many people experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the process of reporting an incident can be re-traumatizing.

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.

Studies suggest that when women of colour report violence, particularly rape, their experiences are often taken less seriously within the criminal justice system.

There is a belief that it is common for women to falsely report sexual assault. But a review of various international research on false reporting of sexual assault suggests that false reporting happens in 2% to 8% of cases.

One of the ways to prevent sexual assault is by understanding consent and raising awareness about its importance. For more information about consent, go to and share the video.

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 experienced 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.