Though sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada not declining, many incidents are not reported to police for reasons including victim blaming and low confidence in the justice system.
In August 2022, Statistics Canada reported that sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada not declining. According to the report, the sexual assault rate in 2021 was the highest since 1996. There were more than 34,200 reports of sexual assault in Canada in 2021, an 18 per cent increase from 2020.
Despite the increase in reporting, the number of sexual assaults reported to police is still very low. In 2019, only six per cent of sexual assault incidents that took place the previous year had been reported to police.
Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sexual violence is “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.”
Sexual violence is a form of gender-based violence. Anyone can experience sexual violence and sexual assault, but women and girls are at higher risk. It can take place between people in romantic relationships, in families, at work, and between friends and strangers. It usually happens in private places between people who know each other.
Sexual violence includes sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Sexual assault is “any unwanted act of touching or threat of touching, directly or indirectly that violates the sexual integrity of any person. It is sexual assault regardless of the relationship of the victim/survivor to the perpetrator.”
Sexual harassment can be “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.”
In R v Ewanchuk, the Supreme Court of Canada said that “violence against women is as much a matter of equality as it is an offence against human dignity and a violation of human rights.” The Court cited R v Osolin where Justice Peter Cory asserted that sexual assault “is an assault upon human dignity and constitutes a denial of any concept of equality for women” (at para 69).
It is important to note that the police can respond to all forms of sexual assault but only some forms of sexual harassment. A person who experiences non-physical forms of sexual harassment for example at work, by a landlord or by a service provider can also make a complaint to the appropriate human rights commission.
The Impact of Sexual Assault on Victims
The impact of sexual assault varies among victims. According to the Government of Canada:
In the aftermath of trauma, victims may make statements that appear to be incomplete or inconsistent. They may also seek to hide or minimize behaviors they used to survive, such as appeasement, or flattery, out of fear that they will not be believed or that they will be blamed for their assault. …
Shame, blame, and the attendant experience of social isolation that sexual assault victims feel create a significant barrier to receiving much needed social support. In some cases, that isolation and the negative emotional responses a victim receives increase the feeling of threat and lack of safety. A social context of victim blaming, therefore, has a neurophysiological consequence for the victim of sexual assault, by keeping her in a protracted state of anxiety and fear.
Victims may feel blame or shame from their perpetrator or family and friends. This leads to many women hesitating to report or disclose the assault.
Victim blaming usually stems from rape myths. These include wrong beliefs that only young and sexually desirable women get raped, that women who work in the sex industry do not get raped, and that women usually lie about sexual assault to get attention or revenge. The impact of rape myths can influence police investigations, arrests, and convictions of sexual assault, which can further lead to under-reporting.
In an Ontario case (Jane Doe v Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police), the court found the Toronto Police Service was biased in their investigation of sexual assault. Justice MacFarland said:
… the police can and do act as a filtering system for sexual assault cases. If, for example, an investigating officer determines that a particular complaint is “unfounded”, it likely will not proceed further in the justice system. Studies exist which show that, generally, the “unfounded” rate for crimes of assault is lower than for crimes of sexual assault.
One of the reasons suggested for the higher “unfounded” rate in relation to sexual assaults is the widespread adherence among investigating police officers to rape mythology, that is, the belief in certain false assumptions, usually based in sexist stereotyping, about women who report being raped. The fact that these stereotypical beliefs are widely held in society is a factor to be considered in relation to the larger social and political context in which this aspect of the plaintiff’s claim must be analyzed.
In addition, women victims of sexual assault, who usually experience lower levels of social support, have a higher number of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms than men who have been sexually assaulted. These women also report “emotional numbing, less range of feeling, avoidance responses, and experience higher levels of psychological reactivity to traumatic stimuli.”
An Under-Reported Crime
Sexual assault incidents are significantly under-reported to police. Many times, they are reported long after the incident took place. According to Government of Canada statistics, a person who experiences sexual assault has many reasons for not reporting, including:
- dealing with the issue another way (61%)
- deeming the incident not important enough to report (50%)
- considering the incident to be a personal matter (50%)
- not wanting the police involved (47%)
- feeling the police could not do anything about it (33%)
- believing the police would not help them (18%)
- fearing revenge by the offender (19%)
- wanting to avoid publicity over the incident (14%)
According to one victim:
The personal cost for nothing to happen was […] too unbalanced for me, and that was why I didn’t report. And this is the thing, it’s like there’s no guarantee that I am going to be heard and listened to and believed, and the skepticism that policing seems to have with sexual assault and all forms of unwanted sexual contact is a huge barrier to me. (Interview 4) I didn’t feel like the police would be able to do anything useful, so I thought that [reporting] might cause a lot of strife and conflict but not really have any […] benefits. […] I knew that the process of reporting could potentially be traumatic in itself, that I might not be believed, that there might be a lack of physical evidence.
Moreover, some women do not report sexual assault for “fear of stigma and general distrust of the efficacy and neutrality of the Canadian judicial system.”
A Framework for Police Response
Police services from Ontario collaborated to develop a framework for police response on sexual violence. The framework says police should inform victims of sexual violence about the criminal justice process and conduct in-depth impartial investigations. Police officers should gather, evaluate, and process evidence when someone reports an assault to them.
The framework asserts that victims of sexual assault should be informed when the police decide not to go ahead with charges and the reason why, such as not enough evidence. Not laying charges does not mean police do not believe the victims.
Police officers should protect the privacy of victims by interviewing victims in private and by ensuring victims do not have to keep retelling the incident to different investigative officers. Once the investigation is over, victims should receive an explanation of the outcome of the investigation and contact information of investigating officers.
Finally, the framework talks about prevention and public education of sexual violence, including prioritizing addressing rape myths.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.