Sexual Assault

An overview of sexual assault, its impact and how to seek support. 

Sexual assault is any form of unwanted sexual contact without voluntary consent.

In the Criminal Code, three types of sexual assault are outlined based on the degree of force used. The following is a simplified description of each (taken from Part VIII, Criminal Code of Canada):1

  • Section 271: Sexual Assault: an assault of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim. Sexual assault occurs if a person has been kissed, sexually touched, or forced to have intercourse without their consent. The sexual assault results in minor physical injuries or no injuries to the victim.
  • Section 272: Sexual assault with a weapon, threats, or causing bodily harm.
  • Section 273: Aggravated sexual assault: Sexual assault that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering the life of the victim.

Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault. Consent is voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. 

A popular misconception is that sexual assault is violent and happens through the use of force or by physically overpowering someone. However, coercion is more commonly used to facilitate sexual violence.

Sexual assault is prevalent and the vast majority of the time, people are sexually assaulted by someone that they know.

In 2020, AASAS released the findings of our Prevalence of Sexual Assault and Childhood Sexual Abuse in Alberta survey. 

  • In Alberta, 41% of women and 17% of men have experienced sexual assault.
  • In Canada, in 87% of police-reported sexual assaults, the individual who was sexually assaulted knew the person who harmed them.2 
    • 26% as a casual acquaintance or friend, 24% as a non-spousal family member, and 19% as an intimate partner.
    • Only a small proportion (13%) were sexually assaulted by strangers.

Fact Sheet: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls

Fact Sheet: Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys

Fact Sheet: Debunking Popular Misconceptions about Sexual Violence

Fact Sheet: Debunking Popular Misconceptions about Men and Sexual Violence

Sexual coercion is the use of pressure, threats, or emotional manipulation to get someone to do something that they don’t want to do. 

Those who experience sexual coercion may know that what happened wasn’t right, however, they may be hesitant to call it sexual assault. Coercion often leaves people who have experienced sexual assault feeling like they consented and therefore, are somehow responsible for what happened.

Alcohol is the most common substance used to facilitate sexual assault. It is readily available, legal, and socially acceptable.

Alcohol and drug-facilitated sexual assault occurs when someone uses alcohol or other drugs to intentionally sedate or incapacitate a person in order to perpetrate non-consensual sexual activity.

It is common for people to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they are sexually assaulted. Regardless of whether substances are consumed voluntarily or without a person’s knowledge, the survivor is not responsible for what happened and should not be blamed.

Sexual assault can be traumatic. Freezing is a common response.

When someone’s sense of safety is compromised, fear may trigger the body’s flight, fight, freeze response. This is a neurobiological response to trauma which people do not have control over. A fight response is rare. During a situation of extreme threat, the brain gets flooded with stress hormones which can impair a person’s ability to think clearly and rationally. A freeze response is much more likely.3

Even if someone is highly skilled in self-defence, when experiencing a traumatic event like sexual violence they may not have access to the part of their brain that is responsible for logic, problem solving, planning, conscious thought, and language – the neo-cortex. 

Freezing can feel confusing. It can leave people feeling like the abuse or assault was their fault. Those who experience sexual violence are never to blame. The person who chose to use sexual violence against them is fully responsible for their actions. 

Check out Her Brain Chose for Her for more information on the neurobiology of trauma.

Acknowledging the realities of sexual violence is essential to supporting survivors and ending sexual violence.

There are many deeply engrained, widely held and popular misconceptions (or myths) about sexual violence. Debunking popular misconceptions about sexual violence is key to ensuring that individuals who have experienced sexual violence are believed, are treated with respect and dignity, and are able to receive the support and services they need.

Acknowledging and confronting the realities of sexual violence is also an essential step towards ending sexual violence.

Support is available.

If you or someone you know has recently experienced sexual assault it can be difficult to figure out what to do next. Visit Following Sexual Assault for more information. 

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, support is available through your local sexual assault centre or Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence.