Acknowledging the realities of sexual violence is essential to supporting survivors and ending 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.
Sexual violence is a public health crisis. All individuals, families, and communities are impacted by sexual violence – directly or indirectly.
Myths: Sexual violence is rare; Sexual violence doesn’t happen in my community.
While the #MeToo movement has brought great awareness to the issue of sexual violence in recent years, it is still common to hear people say sexual violence doesn’t happen in our community, in my family, in our school, in our church, on this team. It is appealing to believe that sexual violence is rare and that it is something that happens to other people in other communities.
- We estimate that 1.8 million Albertans have experienced at least one incident of sexual violence in their lifetime.1
- Nearly one in every two Albertans (43%) have experienced sexual violence.
- 34% of Albertans have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- For more information see the Scope of the Problem.
While women, children and youth, as well as equity seeking groups are at greater risk, anyone can be sexually abused or assaulted by someone.
Myths: Sexual violence is a women’s issue; Only young intoxicated women, dressed provocatively, out late at night, and hanging around with strangers get sexually assaulted; Men and boys don’t experience sexual violence.
It is completely understandable why people would want to embrace these myths. It is difficult to accept the reality that all people are at risk for experiencing sexual violence. Believing that only certain kinds of people experience sexual violence can make us feel safe.
- In Canada, 87% of those who report sexual assault to the police are women, particularly young women.2
- Young women, Indigenous women, Black women and women of colour, women with disabilities, transgender women, queer and bisexual women, women living in poverty or engaged in sex work, and others experience sexual violence at disproportionally high rates.
- Men also experience sexual violence. Young men, Indigenous men, gay men, transgender men, and others experience sexual violence at disproportionally high rates.
- Child sexual abuse is common. In Alberta, 44% of girls and 24% of boys have experienced child sexual abuse.3
- For more information see the Scope of the Problem.
It is rare for someone to lie about being sexually abused or assaulted.
Myths: Women lie about being sexually assaulted; Children lie about being sexually abused; If it really happened they would easily be able to recount the facts.
In some cases, it can feel easier (consciously or unconsciously) for family and friends to believe that someone is lying about sexual violence than to face the reality of their disclosure – especially if the person who sexually abused or assaulted them is someone that they know.
A limited understanding of trauma and how traumatic memories are stored in the brain can also lead support people and professionals to believe that survivors are lying about sexual violence.
It is also common for support people and professionals to confuse recanting (or taking back your story) for lying. There are many reasons why someone would recant their story – not receiving a positive or supportive response to their disclosure, fear that the person who harmed them will get in trouble, fear of breaking up their family, feeling re-victimized from the criminal legal process, etc.
- Children rarely lie about being sexually abused:
- In child abuse cases reported to Children’s Services in Canada in 2008, just 10% of those cases were considered intentionally ‘false allegations’.4
- A critical review of the academic literature on false reporting found that
- most child sexual abuse allegations are true;
- no research has ever found a sizeable number of false reports;
- and, false allegations do occur within the 2-5% range.5
- Non-credible disclosures or false negatives are far more prevalent due to the developmental level of the child.6
- Women rarely lie about being sexually assaulted:Research also indicates that false reporting of sexual assault by adult women is low, ranging between 2-10%7, with a 5% rate found in a recent meta-analysis.8
The vast majority of the time, people are sexually abused or assaulted by someone that they know.
Myths: Sexual violence is most often committed by strangers; People who commit sexual assault are easily identifiable; someone who is in a committed relationship (marriage, dating, common-law) cannot be assaulted by their partner.
It can be comforting to believe that those who commit sexual violence are strangers that exist on the fringes of society. To believe that they are ‘creepy’ men who are easily identifiable means that we can choose to stay away from those who commit sexual violence.
It is common to believe that sexual violence is committed by strangers because it is difficult to accept the fact that the people we know, trust, and maybe even those we love, are most likely to commit sexual violence against us and/or our loved ones.
- In 87% of police-reported sexual assaults, the individual who was sexually assaulted knew the person who harmed them. 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.9
- The same is true when it comes to child sexual abuse. In 2012, of the 14,000 police reported cases of sexual offences against children and youth, 88% of all sexual offences were committed by an individual known to the child/youth, with the remaining 12% committed by strangers. Of those known, 38% were family members, 44% were acquaintances of the child/youth, and 6% were intimate partners of the youth.10
- The majority of sexual assaults (62%) reported to police occurred on private property such as in someone’s home (41%).11
It is common for people to freeze, and to not fight back.
Myths: Sexual assault would decrease if women made a bigger effort to protect themselves; Women should be taught self-defence strategies to protect themselves from sexual violence; Children should kick and scream to protect themselves from sexual abuse; Men should be able to fight off someone who is trying to sexually assault them.
These myths are common because we understandably want to believe that we will fight back when in danger. This belief gives us a sense of control.
Women, and in some ways also children, are taught that they are responsible for preventing their own victimization. Women are to take self-defence classes, to carry pepper spray, and keep their keys between their fingers. Both women and children are taught to kick and scream to protect themselves from sexual violence. When someone attempts to sexually assault a man, it is assumed that he should be strong enough to fight back.
While some people can and do fight back, many cannot. These strategies are unlikely to protect someone from sexual violence.
- Given that people are most likely to be sexually abused or assaulted by someone that they know, it is doubtful that they will have a fight reaction when that person comes into close contact with them.
- Sexual abuse and assault are most often coercive in nature. That means that pressure, threats, and manipulation are used to get someone to do something that they don’t want to. Children are often tricked, bribed, and threatened.
- 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 we do not have control over. A fight response is rare. During a situation of extreme threat, our brain gets flooded with stress hormones impairing our ability to think clearly and rationally. A freeze response is much more likely.12
- 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.
Sexual abuse and assault do not have to be physically violent to be harmful and impactful.
Myths: Sexual assault is violent; If there are no visible physical injuries, the sexual assault didn’t happen or wasn’t as harmful.
It is easy to believe these myths because the media we consume often depicts sexual assault as violent. It is also more common for stories of violent stranger sexual assaults to make it into our daily news than stories of coercive sexual assault between acquaintances.
- Sexual assault is any form of unwanted sexual contact without voluntary consent. Sexual assault occurs if a person has been kissed, sexually touched, or forced to have intercourse without their consent.
- Sexual abuse and assault are most often coercive in nature. That means that pressure, threats, and manipulation are used to get someone to do something that they don’t want to – more often than physical violence. Children are often tricked, bribed, and threatened.
- Sexual assault is a violent crime whether or not physical injury occurs. It is common for people to experience little or no physical injury.
- In 66% of police-reported sexual assaults, the victim did not incur physical injuries, 19% incurred minor injuries, and 1% suffered major physical injuries, the level of physical injury was unknown for the remaining 14%.13
The person who was sexually abused or assaulted by someone is in no way responsible for the violence they experienced.
Myth: She should have known that outfit would attract the wrong kind of attention; They should have known not to accept that drink; He should have known better than to trust that person.
These myths stem from traditional prevention tips which are well-intentioned and commonly promoted. When someone experiences sexual violence, we have a natural tendency to try and make sense of this. Because in many ways sexual violence is incomprehensible.
Simplifying the complex task of preventing sexual violence into easy to adopt prevention strategies gives people a sense of control and safety. Unfortunately, this also suggests that people who experience sexual violence are at least partially responsible – that there was something they did or did not do that led to them being sexually abused or assaulted.
- While well-intentioned, in addition to being ineffective, these prevention strategies can have a harmful impact on those who experience sexual violence.
- They suggest that people are responsible for preventing their own victimization. Following a sexual assault, they can lead survivors and their support people to question what someone did or didn’t do to cause the assault. This is an understandable attempt to make sense of something incomprehensible. However, it is often the source of deep shame and self-blame for many survivors.
- Those who are harmed by sexual violence are never to blame. Those who use abusive behaviours are fully responsible for their actions.
1 Summary of Key Findings: Prevalence of Sexual Assault and Childhood Sexual Abuse in Alberta (2020). Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.
2 Rotenburg, C. (2017). Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009-2014: A statistical profile [Data set]. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/54866-eng.htm
3 Summary of Key Findings: Prevalence of Sexual Assault and Childhood Sexual Abuse in Alberta (2020). Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.
4 Lefebvre, R., Van Wert, M., Fallon, B., & Trocmé, N. (2012). Sexual Abuse Investigations by Level of Substantiation in Canada in 2008. Toronto, ON: Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal. https://cwrp.ca/information-sheet/sexual-abuse-investigations-level-substantiation-canada-2008
5 O’Donohue, W., Cummings, C., & Willis, B. (2018). The frequency of false allegations of child sexual abuse: A critical review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 27(5), 459-475. DOI: 10.1080/10538712.2018.147722
6 Azzopardi, C., Eirich, R., Rash, C.L., Macdonald, S., & Madigan, S. (2018). A meta-analysis of the prevalence of child sexual abuse disclosure in forensic settings. Child Abuse & Neglect. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30579645
7 Lisak, D., Gardinier, L., Nicksa, S., & Cote, A. (2010). False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases. Violence Against Women, 16(12), 1318-1334. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801210387747
8 Ferguson, C., & Malouff, E. (2016). Assessing Police Classifications of Sexual Assault Reports: A Meta-Analysis of False Reporting Rates. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(5), 1185-1193. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0666-2
9 Rotenburg, C. (2017). Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009-2014: A statistical profile [Data set]. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/54866-eng.htm
10 Statistics Canada (2012). Police-reported sexual offences against children and youth in Canada [Data set]. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2014001/article/14008-eng.htm
11 Rotenburg, C. (2017). Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009-2014: A statistical profile [Data set]. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/54866-eng.htm
12 Haskell, L. & Randall, M. (2019). The impact of trauma on adult sexual assault victims. Ottawa, ON: Department of Justice Canada. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/trauma/trauma_eng.pdf
13 Rotenburg, C. (2017). Police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009-2014: A statistical profile [Data set]. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/54866-eng.htm