Sexual Assault

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Sexual Assault

This FAQ contains useful information for a woman who has been sexually assaulted or who knows someone who was. Even though it is an information piece, some people may feel upset when they read it and need emotional support.

Even if you choose not to continue reading, remember that sexual assault is a crime. Only the person committing the crime is to blame.

How common is sexual assault in Canada?

In 2011, more than 21,800 sexual assaults were reported. This represents only about one tenth of the sexual assaults that took place since 90% go unreported. In the majority of cases, a person knows their assailant. It can be a partner, an ex-partner, someone they have just met or a stranger.

Many women do not report an incident because they do not trust the system - the police and the courts - to defend them. They are afraid that they will not be believed, that they will be blamed, or that they will be have to re-live the experience if they have to testify. Nevertheless, even if a woman decides not to involve the police, she will need care if she has been sexually assaulted.

People use the terms sexual assault and sexual abuse interchangeably. Is there a difference?

This FAQ will use the term “sexual assault” to describe non-consensual sexual activity with adults. For information on the sexual abuse of children, see: FAQ: Sexual Abuse.

Canadian law considers someone to be a “child” until age 18. However, the legal age of consent to sexual activity is 16 with some “close-in-age” exceptions. For 13 and 14 year olds, if there is less than a three year age difference between the two people, consensual sex is not considered an offense. For 15 and 16 year olds, consensual sex is not considered to be an offense as long as the older partner is no more than five years older, and is not in a position of authority or trust. Sexual assaults can, of course, take place when there is non-consensual sexual activity between adolescents under 18.

How does the law define sexual assault?

In 1983, the laws and the definition of rape changed to allow for more offenses than forced vaginal penetration. The current law includes all unwanted sexual activities and explains the meaning of consent. The bottom line is: if one person does not want the sexual activity, it is non-consensual and therefore a crime.

There are three levels of sexual assault:

-          non-consensual activity including touching, kissing, oral, vaginal or anal penetration

-          non-consensual assault with a weapon causing harm

-          aggravated sexual assault causing serious bodily damage and even death

What does the law say about consent?

The Criminal Code defines consent as voluntary agreement to a sexual activity. This agreement can be expressed by words or actions. There is no consent if someone is not capable of consenting – for example, if they are drunk, drugged, asleep or unconscious. No one can give consent on behalf of another person. It is also considered to be assault if someone abuses their position of trust or authority; for example a police officer, or a member of the clergy. Even if someone agrees to a sexual activity and then does not want to continue, there is no consent.

What should a woman do if she is sexually assaulted?

Anyone who is sexually assaulted will need physical and emotional help. Women who are put at risk for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) need to see a health care provider as soon as possible. Some towns and cities have a rape crisis centre; some have a sexual assault centre which may be part of a hospital; or they can go to the emergency department of a hospital.

It is very important for a woman who was assaulted to make her own decisions about reporting as well as about her care. She may or may not decide to involve the police. She may choose to make a “third party” statement. In this case, she reports the attack, describes her assailant but does not give her name. (Sometimes her assailant is already known to police.) However, if she is under 16, the police will automatically be involved.

If there was a vaginal assault, a woman needs to be offered emergency contraceptive pills (ECP) to help prevent pregnancy. She should also have an HIV rapid test (to establish that she does not have HIV) and then have a definitive test three months later. She needs a test for other STIs but may have to wait for some of them to show up in her body (See the FAQ on Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)). She should be offered antibiotics in case she was infected with a bacterial STI like chlamydia or gonorrhea.  A woman who has suffered physical harm may wish to have her injuries photographed as evidence before she is treated. She must also give consent for the collection of any other sexual assault forensic evidence (“rape kit”).

What can a woman expect following a sexual assault?

Like children who are sexually abused, people who have been sexually assaulted sometimes tend to blame themselves. It is understandable that someone might think they should not have been in a certain place or with a certain person – in other words, they may feel they did not protect themselves.

But they are not to blame. Someone has committed a crime against them.

Here are some things a woman might experience or feel:

  • loss of self-esteem
  • shame, humiliation, guilt, anger
  • powerlessness
  • ugly or embarrassed by her body
  • physical symptoms of stress: headaches, stomach problems, eating and sleeping problems
  • anxiety, depression, shame, anger, rage or fear
  • shock, disbelief
  • disconnected
  • frozen or numb
  • loss or grief
  • mood swings
  • hyper-alert
  • a desire to withdraw
  • aggression
  • flashbacks
  • fear of being alone
  • fear of future attacks
  • nightmares or other sleep disturbances
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty trusting others
  • difficulty being emotionally close with others
  • no desire for sexual intimacy

A woman who was sexually assaulted may use any number of coping mechanisms, some of which are harmful, such as alcohol or drugs or risky sexual behaviours.

For these reasons, it is very important that she have emotional support from a professional. Such support can often help a woman work through the range of emotions she might go through following a sexual assault.

It may take a woman some time to understand in a profound way that what happened was not her fault.

Where can I get more information?

Supporting a woman who was sexually assaulted: Supporting a woman in your life who's been sexually assaulted by the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services 

A helpful graphic explanation of consent: Consent Fact Definition Sheet by the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres

Definitions of sexual assault, consent, healthy relationships: Definitions by the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres

The law: Criminal Code of Canada: 271. Sexual Assault

Care after sexual assault: What To Do After A Sexual Assault by the Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan

This FAQ may provide medical information, but is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. When you have questions about your health, it is always advisable to ask a health care practitioner.

Created December 2013.