Understanding Sexual Violence
Sexual violence is any violence, physical or psychological, carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality. This includes sexual abuse, sexual assault or rape. It also includes sexual harassment, stalking, indecent or sexualized exposure, degrading sexual imagery, voyeurism, cyber harassment, trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Source: Western's Policy on Sexual Violence, MAPP 1.52 and adapted from Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives: Ontario's Sexual Violence Action Plan, 2011 - http://www.women.gov.on.ca/owd/docs/svap.pdf
Sexual violence can affect persons of all genders. However, there is strong gender-based component as recent statistics report that over 93 percent of reported sexual assault adult victims are female and 97 percent of accused are men.
Sexual violence is about power, force and control over the victim. It is not about love, lust or sexual desire. Sexual violence can happen without physical force. A victim may be threatened with words, manipulated or pressured into doing something they do not want to do. Or, a victim may be incapacitated and unable to provide consent.
Eighty-two percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows - a friend, acquaintance, date, teacher, family member, professor, advisor or coach. Sexual assault often occurs in a private place, such as the residence of the victim or perpetrator, but can also happen in a more public place such as a party or other social event. Sexual assault can happen in dating, acquaintance, common-law or married relationships. It can happen in heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
The Criminal Code of Canada defines consent as it relates to sexual assault as the voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. An individual must actively and willingly give consent to sexual activity. Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault. Consent:
- Is never assumed or implied
- Is not silence or the absence of "no"
- Cannot be given if the victim is impaired by alcohol or drugs, or is unconscious
- Can never be obtained through threats or coercion
- Can be revoked at any time
- Cannot be obtained if the perpetrator abuses a position of trust, power or authority.
Consenting to one kind or instance of sexual activity does not mean that consent is given to any other sexual activity or instance. No one consents to being sexually assaulted.
Misconceptions about sexual assault are often referred to as "rape myths" although they apply to the broad scope of sexual violence. Myths downplay the seriousness of sexual violence and confuse our understanding of what consent means. Unfortunately, they can also contribute to the social context in which survivors are reluctant to report, blame themselves for what happened or worry that they won't be believed. Myths can create a climate of victim blaming in which perpetrators are excused for their actions.
Perhaps the most harmful myths are those that focus on victims and their perceived "role" in the assault. For example, focusing on what a woman was wearing or that she was drinking or flirting to suggest that she was at least partly to blame for the assault. Other myths suggest that certain groups are more sexually provocative because of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Myths may also excuse the actions of the perpetrator. Some may believe that a man has the right to sex if he buys the woman a drink, takes her to dinner, helps her with an assignment, or if a couple is dating, living together or married.
Other myths may cause people to question whether a sexual assault or sexual violence occurred. For example, if the victim does not appear to be upset, or upset "enough", has no obvious injuries or knows the perpetrator.
Rape myths can also prevent people from stepping in when they witness behaviours that could lead to a sexual assault. For example, a friend may observe a roommate pressuring someone to have sex and do nothing to intervene.
Alcohol and drugs are one of the most significant risk factors for sexual violence on university campuses. While not a cause, there is a strong relationship between sexual violence and the use of alcohol or drugs. Over half of all sexual assaults on post-secondary students involve alcohol or drugs (Source: Antonia Abbey et al., "Alcohol and Sexual Assault," Alcohol Research and Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 25. No.1 (2001), 44.)
Alcohol is by far the most prevalent drug involved in drug-facilitated sexual assault. Alcohol is sometimes used as a deliberate strategy to impair the victim's ability to provide consent. A perpetrator may use alcohol (sometimes also mixed with other drugs) to intentionally incapacitate a victim. In other instances, a perpetrator may target an individual who is already visibly intoxicated.
Other drugs that are also sometimes used include prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, illegal drugs or "date-rape" drugs.
A victim who has been drugged may lose consciousness and suffer memory loss. Survivors are left confused and may not seek help. As a result, the short window to conduct evidence-related drug testing may pass.
When alcohol and drugs are used to facilitate sexual assault, perceptions about who is responsible may be influenced by myths and misconceptions. Victims are often perceived by others to be at least somewhat responsible for what happened to them. Many victims also internalize rape myths and blame themselves. The actions of an intoxicated perpetrator are often excused.
Sexual violence is traumatic and can have significant and long-lasting physical, emotional, psychological and academic consequences.
Physical effects may include unwanted pregnancies, reproductive problems, or sexually transmitted infections. Acute injuries are not always immediately evident and chronic health conditions may emerge over time.
Emotional and psychological effects may include chronic stress, anxiety and depression. Survivors may feel guilty or blame themselves. Shock, fear and embarrassment can impair memory. Many survivors have difficulty concentrating or sleeping and may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Some may struggle with intimacy or withdraw from their social networks. Some survivors may cope with substance use. Others may try to minimize or forget the incident(s) as a way of coping with the trauma.
Academically, it may become difficult for a student who is unable to separate the experience of sexual violence from the campus environment itself. In some circumstances, it may be difficult for the survivor to avoid the perpetrator in common areas (such as libraries, residence halls, classes) and this distress can affect academic performance (lower or failing grades). Some survivors may choose to suspend their studies, transfer to another institution, or drop out of school all together.
Victims of cyber harassment, sexual harassment and stalking also experience emotional and psychological trauma. Sexual violence perpetrated through technology (harassing text messages, sharing or threatening to share intimate photographs, audio or video recordings) can publicly humiliate a victim. The emotional and psychological consequences of an assault can be compounded when social media is used to harass or discredit a victim.