Sexual violence is an umbrella term, meaning it covers a range of different forms of violence. McMaster’s Sexual Violence Policy defines sexual violence as sexual acts or acts targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression. These acts can be physical or psychological in nature, and includes not just committed acts, but also acts that are threatened or attempted against someone without their consent.1
Experiencing trauma after an incident of sexual violence is normal, and nobody’s experience should be minimized.
Anybody of any gender can experience or perpetrate sexual violence.
Sexual assault is defined as an assault committed in circumstances of a sexual nature such that the sexual integrity of an individual is violated, including but not limited to unwanted, non-consensual sexual activity. This includes kissing, fondling, sexual grabbing, and intercourse/rape.1
Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome comments or conduct targeting a person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression or sexual solicitation or advance by someone in a position of power over the person1. This can include unwanted sexting, suggestive gestures, offering benefits for sexual favours or threatening to out someone.
These terms are related to but distinct from “sexual violence,” and are not defined in McMaster’s Sexual Violence Policy. Gender-based violence is defined as violence against someone because of their gender, gender expression, gender identity or perceived gender2. The term “sexual violence” as defined above is therefore inclusive of gender-based violence, and support for those who have experienced gender-based violence is available through the SVPRO.
Violence against women (VAW) is defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”3
We often hear people use terms like “victim” or “survivor” when discussing sexual violence, but which term is more appropriate?
“Victim” is often used when discussing sexual violence in a legal or criminal sense. The term “survivor” focuses on the person’s healing journey and has become popular in the mainstream when discussing sexual violence more broadly. Both terms place an identity on the person (“I am a survivor”), which doesn’t feel right to some people, so sometimes we can refer to the person as “someone who has experienced sexual violence.”
It’s important to take our cue from the person we are supporting by using the same language they use to refer to themselves. Every person will have their own reason for preferring one term over the other, and those reasons are valid. If you have experienced sexual violence, know that you can use whichever term you feel works best for you, and that it is okay for this preference can change over time.
Sexual Violence is Gendered
Sexual violence is not a series of random, interpersonal incidents. Viewing it this way doesn’t allow us to see the patterns that exist; if we can’t see the patterns then we can’t effectively address the issue. The vast majority of people who perpetrate sexual violence are men and the majority of people who experience it are women.4
At the same time, we know that people of any gender can perpetrate or experience sexual violence. Anybody who has experienced sexual violence, regardless of gender, deserves access to support and healing.
Visit our intersectionality page to learn more about how other identities like race, sexual orientation and disability impact people’s experiences of sexual violence and access to support.
Myths and Realities
There are many myths around sexual violence, particularly sexual assault, that are commonly believed. These myths may be internalized by victims, perpetrators, potential supporters to the victim, and professionals like judges and police officers. These ideas can influence whether a victim chooses to disclose,5 the way a potential support person responds to the disclosure, and police investigations, arrests and convictions.6
Some of these myths include:
Myth: Sexual assault is usually perpetrated by a stranger (“stranger danger”), and someone can’t be sexually assaulted by their partner or spouse.
Reality: In Canada, 80% of sexual assault perpetrators have a previous relationship to the victim, such as an acquaintance, family member or friend.4 While sexual assault by a stranger does sometimes happen, understanding that sexual assault is more often at the hands of someone the victim trusts and often in a place they feel safe shifts the way we see sexual violence. For example, it forces us to confront the possibility that we can cause harm to those we love and look for ways to better our consent practice. If you are pressured into sex by your partner, know that it’s normal to feel pain and it’s okay for you to reach out for support.
Myth: Sexual violence prevention is about training women and girls to defend themselves.
Reality: Women may take self-defense classes to feel safer, but framing this as the basis for sexual violence prevention is harmful because it puts the onus onto victims and increases victim-blaming (e.g., “Why didn’t you protect yourself better?”). Sexual violence prevention has to lie with the person responsible, and the person responsible for it is always the perpetrator.
Myth: Men can’t be sexually assaulted.
Reality: Men can and do experience sexual assault. Gender stereotypes often present unique challenges to men survivors. For example, men are stereotyped to always want sex, so their “no” may be met with responses like “You can’t say no to a woman like me” or “Be a man and just do it”.7 Men are also stereotyped to be strong and may feel shame for not fighting off a perpetrator. For cisgender men, we often conflate an erection or ejaculation with desire and consent, and the man himself might be confused by what these mean, but physiological responses do not constitute consent.8
Myth: Women make false allegations of sexual assault to ruin men’s reputations or for fame.
Reality: False allegations of sexual assault are rare. 2-10% of sexual assault reports are false allegations;9 this is similar to the rate of false allegations for other major crimes, yet other crimes are never discussed in this light. This narrative silences victims and survivors from speaking up, since it provides one more reason to fear not being believed.
1McMaster University. (2019, December 11). Sexual Violence Policy. https://secretariat.mcmaster.ca/app/uploads/Sexual-Violence-Policy.pdf
2Status of Women Canada. (2020, October 28). About Gender-based violence. https://cfc-swc.gc.ca/violence/knowledge-connaissance/about-apropos-en.html
3World Health Organization. (2017, November 29). Violence against women. https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women
4Department of Justice. (2015, January 7). Bill c-46: Records applications post-mills, a caselaw review. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/ccs-ajc/rr06_vic2/p3_4.html
5Ahrens, C. E., PhD., Stansell, J., M.P.H., & Jennings, A., M.A. (2010). To tell or not to tell: The impact of disclosure on sexual assault survivors’ recovery. Violence and Victims, 25(5), 631-48. https://search-proquest-com.libaccess.lib.mcmaster.ca/docview/817785178?accountid=12347
6Benoit, C., Shumka, L., Phillips, R., Kennedy, M. C., & Belle-Isle, L. (2015, December). Issue brief: Sexual violence against women in Canada. Status of Women Canada. https://cfc-swc.gc.ca/svawc-vcsfc/index-en.html
7Project Unbreakable. (n.d.) Tumblr. https://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com/
8RAINN. (n.d.) Sexual assault of men and boys. https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-assault-men-and-boys
9Lisak D, Gardinier L, Nicksa SC, Cote AM. False allegations of sexual assualt: an analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women. 2010 Dec;16(12):1318-34. doi: 10.1177/1077801210387747. PMID: 21164210.