Understanding Sexual Assault — Definitions and Statistics

What is sexual assault? How common is sexual assault in Canada? What does it mean to give consent? This page is intended as a resource to address questions like these and many others.


Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is the improper exposure of a child to sexual contact, activity, or behavior. Child sexual abuse can include exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, sexual touching, and/or penetration.

The age of consent to engage in sexual activity in Canada is 16. According to the Criminal Code of Canada, a person under the age of 12 cannot consent to any kind of sexual activity.

See our handout on adult survivors of sexual assault

Coercion refers to using pressure, threats, and/or intimidation to force another to give in or submit to sexual activity. Some examples of coercion are:

  • Constantly putting pressure on someone or refusing to take no for an answer;
  • Making someone feel guilty ("If you love me, you'll...");
  • Threatening to withhold something or do something to make someone comply ("I'll break up with you...", "I'll tell everyone you...");
  • Being emotionally manipulative ("I can't live without you...", threatening to harm one's self);
  • Using physical or verbal intimidation to force someone into submitting or complying (not allowing someone to leave, previous or implied threats of violence).
Under the Criminal Code consent is defined as "a voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question." (Section 273.1) The criminal code further outlines five specific situations in which consent is not valid. Consent is not valid if:
  • It is given by someone else;
  • The person is incapable of consenting (i.e. unconscious, sleeping, drunk, or stoned);
  • It is an abuse of power, trust, or authority;
  • The person does not say yes, says no, or through words or behaviour implies no;
  • The person changes their mind.

A great resource to explain consent using tea...

Relationship Violence
Relationship violence, or intimate partner violence (IPV), is the abuse of power within a past or current intimate relationship that endangers the well-being, security, or survival of another person. Relationship violence can occur in all types of intimate relationships (e.g. dating, long-term relationship, common-law partnership, marriage, etc).

Relationship violence may include some or all of the following abuse: physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, cultural, and/or financial.

See our handout on relationship violence

Sexual Assault
At the Centre, we define sexual assault as any form of sexual contact without voluntary consent (adapted from the Criminal Code of Canada, Sec.270).
  • Kissing, fondling, vaginal or anal penetration, and oral sexual contact are all examples of sexual assault if they take place without voluntary consent.
  • Consent obtained through pressure, coercion, force, or threats of force is not voluntary consent.

Acquaintance sexual assault is sexual assault where the survivor knows the person who committed the sexual assault. The offending acquaintance may be someone the survivor hardly knows (e.g. a friend of a friend) or someone the survivor is close with (e.g. a partner).

See our handout on defining sexual assault

Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is often confused with sexual assault as they are both experiences of sexual violence. Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted sexual communication or attention that is offensive, intimidating, or humiliating, whether in verbal, written, or visual form (adapted from the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission). An example might include a teaching assistant (TA) repeatedly asking a student on a date and implying that their grades could benefit from doing so.

Sexual harassment includes unwanted attention, demands, or a pattern of jokes or insults that affect your job, work, school environment or your chances to obtain a service.

Sexual harassment falls under Human Rights Law, a civil legislation, not the Criminal Code of Canada. Sexual harassment complaints may be reported to the Alberta Human Rights Commission or University of Alberta Office of Safe Disclosure and Human Rights, not to the police.

See our handout on sexual harassment


Stalking can be broadly defined as willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly following and/or harassing another person.
Under the Criminal Code of Canada, stalking is referred to as Criminal Harassment (Section 264, Subsection 1).

Stalking consists of:

  • Repeatedly following the victim or someone known to the victim;
  • Repeatedly communicating, either directly or indirectly, with the victim or anyone known to them;
  • Watching the victim's house, or place where the victim, or anyone known to the victim, lives, works, or happens to be;
  • or Engaging in threatening conduct directed at the victim or any member of their family.

See our handout on stalking

Sexual Assault Statistics

  • Males are the majority of perpetrators in all sexual assaults (Scarce, 1997).
  • It is estimated that 5% of sexual assaults against females and 20% of sexual assaults against males are committed by females (Finkelhor and Russell, 1984).
  • The majority (88%) of perpetrators in male sexual assaults are straight men (Hodge and Canter, 1998).
  • National statistics report that 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males will experience sexual assault at some point in their life (Statistics Canada, 2006).
  • It is estimated that 1 in 2 girls and 1 in 3 males will be sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 16 (Badgley, 1984).
  • In over 75% of child sexual abuse incidences, the abuse is committed by a family member or someone well known to the child (Badgley, 1984).
  • Across Canada, 82% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows (Statistics Canada, 2008).
  • Alcohol is the most common rape drug used in drug-facilitated sexual assaults (ElSohly, 1999; LoVerso, 2001).
  • About 1 in 10 sexual assaults are reported to police (General Social Survey on Victimization, 2004).
  • Only 1% of acquaintance sexual assaults are reported to the police (Russell, 1984).
  • It is estimated that over 80% of survivors who are sexually assaulted do not report due to feelings of shame and humiliation or fear of revictimization through the criminal trial process (Fassel, 1994).
  • In fall 2010, a local project was created in which a person can anonymously submit a sexual assault or abuse experience, as an opportunity to voice what is usually silenced.

See our handout on reporting

Sexual Assault on Campus
  • 21% of students at the University of Alberta reported at least one unwanted sexual experience at some point in their life up until now (Survey of Unwanted Sexual Experience Among University of Alberta Students by LoVerso, 2001).
  • 90-95% of survivors who come to the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre are sexually assaulted by someone they know (University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre Statistics, 2013).
  • The risk for sexual assault is four times higher for women aged 16-24 than any other population group (Warsaw, 1988).