Sexual Assault in Canada

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By Shannon Brennan and Andrea Taylor-Butts, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada

It has been 25 years since the first legislative reforms were implemented to help increase victim willingness to report sexual assaults to police (Kong, Johnson, Beattie and Cardillo, 2003; Integration and Analysis Program, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1999). In 1983, the Criminal Code of Canada was amended to replace the crimes of rape and indecent assault with three new sexual assault offences, which focus on the violent rather than sexual nature of the offence. In addition, the new legislation clarified that males or females could be the victim of sexual assault. The reforms also made it clear that the spouse of a victim could be charged with sexual assault.


This series of profiles provides analysis on a variety of topics and issues concerning victimization, offending and public perceptions of crime and the justice system. The profiles primarily draw on results from the General Social Survey on victimization. Where applicable, they also incorporate information from other data sources, such as the Census of the Population and the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

Examples of the topics explored through this series include: Victimization and offending in Canada's territories, Canadians' use of crime prevention measures and victimization of older Canadians. This is a unique periodical, of great interest to those who have to plan, establish, administer and evaluate justice programs and projects, or anyone who has an interest in Canada's justice system.

Research suggests that many victims continue to perceive sexual victimization as a private matter and most do not disclose their victimization to any formal source (Sable et al, 2006; Felson and Paré, 2005). Given that only a small proportion of sexual offences are formally documented, the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada has been difficult to quantify.

Using data from the 1999 and 2004 General Social Surveys (GSS) on victimization and police-reported data derived from the aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR) and the incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2),1 the prevalence and nature of sexual assault in Canada is examined. Specifically, this report examines rates of sexual victimization; characteristics of victims and offenders; rates of police reporting; reasons for not reporting to police; the emotional effects of sexual victimization; as well as fear of crime and the use of precautionary measures by victims of sexual assault.

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Sexual assault: A term used to refer to all incidents of unwanted sexual activity, including sexual attacks and sexual touching.

General Social Survey (GSS)

To assess whether the respondent had been a victim of a sexual attack, the GSS asked respondents aged 15 years and older if anyone had forced or attempted to force them into any unwanted sexual activity by threatening them, holding them down or hurting them within the 12 months preceding the survey. To assess the prevalence of unwanted sexual touching, respondents were asked if anyone had ever touched them in a sexual way against their will, including acts of grabbing, kissing or fondling, using the following questions:

Sexual attack: During the past 12 months, has anyone forced you or attempted to force you into any unwanted sexual activity, by threatening you, holding you down or hurting you in some way?
Unwanted sexual touching: During the past 12 months, has anyone ever touched you against your will in any sexual way? By this I mean anything from unwanted touching or grabbing, to kissing or fondling.

Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2)

The incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey captures criminal incidents that have come to the attention of the police, which includes 4 different types of sexual offences as defined by the Criminal Code.

Sexual assault level 1 (s.271): An assault committed in circumstances of a sexual nature such that the sexual integrity of the victim is violated. Level 1 involves minor physical injuries or no injuries to the victim.
Sexual assault level 2 (s.272): Sexual assault with a weapon, threats, or causing bodily harm.
Aggravated sexual assault (level 3): Sexual assault that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering the life of the victim.
Other sexual offences: A group of offences that are meant to primarily address incidents of sexual abuse directed at children. The Criminal Code offences included in this category are: Sexual interference (s.151), Invitation to sexual touching (s.152), Sexual exploitation (s.153), Incest (s.155), Anal intercourse (s.159), and Bestiality (s.160).

Two related offences, not included under the definition of sexual offences in this report, are indecent acts (s.173) and corrupting morals (s.163).


  1. The GSS and UCR surveys are very different in survey type, coverage, scope, and source of information. For instance, the GSS is a sample survey, representing the non-institutionalized Canadian population aged 15 years or over. In comparison, the aggregate UCR survey is a census of all incidents reported by police services across Canada. The UCR2 captures detailed information on individual criminal incidents reported to selected police services, including characteristics of incidents, victims and accused persons; coverage of the UCR2 Survey for 2007 incident counts represented approximately 94% of the population of Canada, while coverage for victims and accused persons counts represented approximately 90%. In addition, sexual assault data from the GSS exclude incidents involving spouses, which are captured in a separate survey module on spousal violence; whereas police-reported data on sexual offences include those incidents involving spouses.