Dispelling The Myths About Sexual Assault


Our society’s understanding of sexual assault is complicated by myths.  Many of these myths blame or shame the survivor of sexual assault, instead of holding the offender responsible for his actions.  To dispel these myths we need to ask ourselves: 


Do I believe that ...


1.    . . . women often provoke sexual assault by their behaviour or manner of dress?

Fact:  No behaviour or manner of dress justifies an assault.  Such a belief takes the onus off the offender and places it on the survivor.  A person should always ask to ensure his advances are wanted. The idea that women “ask for it” is often used by offenders to rationalize their behaviour. Offenders are solely responsible for their own behaviour.



2.    . . . many people lie about sexual assault?

Fact: Unlike other crimes of a violent nature, sexual assault is for the most part unreported (LEAF). Less than 10% of sexual assaults are reported to the police (Brennan, S. & Taylor-Butts, A. 2008; and Statistics Canada, Minister of Industry. June 25, 2014). This percentage is closer to 6% according to Toronto Police (Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit, 2014).  False allegations of sexual assault are not a common problem. 



3.    . . . when someone says “no” she/he secretly enjoys being forced, teased or coerced into having sex?

Fact:  No one enjoys being assaulted.  “No” means “no”.  It’s the law.  When someone says NO to any form of sexual activity it is the responsibility of the other person to respect this.



4.    . . . saying “no” is the only way of expressing your desire to not continue?

Fact:  Many offenders will rationalize their behavior by saying that because she didn’t actually say “no”, so they thought consent was obtained.  The law is clear: without consent, it is sexual assault.  Consent means saying Yes to sexual activity.  In addition to saying No, there are many ways of communicating non-compliance.

  • “I’m not into this right now”
  • “Maybe later”
  • “I’m not sure”
  • silence
  • crying
  • body language (squirming, stiffness, shaking) 

In addition:

  • If a person is too intoxicated to say No, there is no consent
  • If a person is too scared to say No, there is no consent
  • If a person is asleep or unconscious, there is no consent

Misconceptions about the use of alcohol and/or substances and sexual violence shift the blame to the victim/survivor.  This isn’t fair, and minimizes the perpetrator’s responsibility for obtaining clear consent. Any altered state that inhibits someone’s ability to say NO does not constitute consent.



5.    . . . sexual assault only occurs when there is a struggle or physical injury?

Fact:  Many survivors are too afraid to struggle.  They may freeze in terror or realize that the overwhelming size and strength of their attacker makes resistance very dangerous  In cases reported to police, 80% of sexual assault survivors knew their abusers (Statistics Canada, 2003, The Daily, 25 July).  Acquaintances, friends or relatives are more likely to use tricks, verbal pressure, threats or mild force like arm twisting or pinning their victim down during an assault.  Assaults may also be drug assisted.  Lack of obvious physical injury or knowing the attacker doesn’t change the fact that sexual assault is violent and against the law.



6.    . . . if it really happened, the survivor would be able to easily recount all the facts in the proper order?

Fact:  Shock, fear, embarrassment and distress can all impair memory.  In addition to this, many survivors actively attempt to minimize or forget the details of the assault to help them cope with its memory.



7.    … Experiencing sexual violence is not harmful in the long run.

Fact: Sexual assault can have serious effects on people’s health and wellbeing.  People who have been sexually assaulted feel fear, depression and anger.  Sexual violence can have significant impact on victims, regardless of the physical details of the incident: a Canadian study notes that while few survivors report sexual assault to the police, “a single incident of assault or sexual assault…can be a life-shattering experience” and as a result, survivors can feel fear, guilt, shame and low self-esteem (Status of Women Canada. 2002. Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile.). 



8.    . . . a  person who has agreed to sex previously with the offender  (for example, their spouse, an acquaintance, or a client who has paid for sexual services) cannot be sexually assaulted by that person?

Fact:  Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual activity forced on one person by another.  Sexual assault occurs whenever a person does not want to have sex but is forced into the act, regardless of previous consensual sexual relations.  The Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women found that 38% of sexually assaulted women were assaulted by their husbands, common-law partners or boyfriends.  Although illegal in Canada since 1983, few of these assaults are reported to police. In addition, consent is active and ongoing.  This means consent ceases to be present if someone changes his/her mind. This also means that person can say no to further continuance once any sexual activity has already begun. 




9.    …some people  are less likely to be targeted for sexual assault: for example, lesbians, gay men and people who are gender variant, women of color, people with disabilities including psychiatric labels, transpeople, boys, and sex  workers?

Fact:  Many of the above mentioned groups are at higher risk for any type of violence, including sexual violence.

  • Women and young women from marginalized racial, sexual and socioeconomicgroups are more vulnerable to being targeted for sexual harassment and sexual assault (Wolfe and Chiodo, CAMH, 2008, p. 3.)
  • Women with low household incomes, low levels of education and/or who are unemployed are at higher risk of being sexually assaulted than women in general. (H. Johnson, 1996, Dangerous Domains: Violence Against Women in Canada, p.108-109)
  • 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. (L. Stimpson and M. Best, 1991, Courage Above All: Sexual Assault against Women with Disabilities

10.  . . .There is no such thing as a male survivor of sexual assault?

Fact:  Men and boys can be sexually assaulted too.  Women and girls are considerably more likely than men to be targeted; however for males, being under 12 years old heightens their vulnerability to sexual offences (Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends 2006, Statistics Canada). When adult men are assaulted they face stigma imposed by patriarchal views about masculinity.



11.   . . if a someone - for example, a partner, date  or acquaintance buys dinner or drinks, gives  a present, or does  a favour, the recipient owes them sex?

Fact:  No one owes anyone sex. It cannot be assumed that friendliness and openness are an invitation to sex.




12.  …if two people are married, or in a relationship, sex is an assumed part of the agreement?

Fact: Consent to any sexual activity can only be given by the individual regardless of context. Spousal relationships, including arranged marriage or any other relationship that implies indebtedness does not constitute consent to sexual activity.  Sexual activity cannot be expected or condoned in advance.



13.  … at work, a certain amount of sexual banter, flirting or jokes is just part of the job?

Fact: It’s not just part of the job. Harassment can include “bullying, intimidating or offensive jokes or innuendos, displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials, or offensive or intimidating communications” (Ontario Women’s Directorate. Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives: Ontario’s Sexual Violence Action Plan).  In workplaces, both women and men may experience sexual harassment in employment “but women tend to be more vulnerable to it because they often hold lower-paying, lower-authority and lower-status jobs compared to men” (Ontario Human Rights Commission); in addition, female employees are vulnerable to being targeted for vexatious comments and behaviors rooted in sexist and conservative attitudes about work, women and gender roles.  Serious and timely cases of workplace sexual harassment include John Raftery , a Crown Attorney in Brampton, Ontario; and Marc Daniel of Windsor, Ontario, who harassed and murdered his former partner Lori Dupont inside the hospital where they both worked .  Improved policy resources such as Bill 168 amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act were rolled out in recent years to support workplaces in preventing and responding to harassment.   




14.  . . . once a sexual assault report has been made, the alleged offender will be prosecuted and found guilty?

Fact: In fact, charges are less likely to be laid and conviction rates are lower for sexual offences than for other types of violent crime (Brennan, S. & Taylor-Butts, A. 2008; and Statistics Canada). Those cases that are reported are not always resolved through the criminal justice system.  Due to the limits of the criminal justice system response, a small minority of those initially charged with sexual assault actually see convictions (The Learning Network) .  Sexual assault is a difficult crime to prove as there are rarely witnesses, there is not always physical evidence of the crime, and sexual assault myths affect the efficacy of the criminal justice system. These contexts continue to deter survivor-victims from reporting sexual assault, in particular if their offender is known to them.  





See: Toronto Star. August 21, 2014. Hefty payout follows harassment claims against Crown attorney. Online: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/08/21/hefty_payout_follows_harassment_claims_against_crown_attorney.html

CBC News. June 15, 2010. Ont. workplace harassment laws change. Online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/ont-workplace-harassment-laws-change-1.886498

See The Attrition Pyramid in: The Learning Network. The Network Comes to Life.  May 2012: 2. Available online: http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/sites/learningtoendabuse.ca.vawlearningnetwork/files/LN_Newsletter_May_2012_Issue_1.pdf

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