Definition of sexual assault
The Montreal Sexual Assault Centre adheres to the definition of sexual assault proposed in the Quebec government’s Orientations gouvernementales en matière d’agression sexuelle (government guidelines in matters of sexual assault).
"A sexual assault is an act of a sexual nature, with or without physical contact, committed by an individual towards another without the latter’s consent or, in certain cases, particularly where children are concerned, through emotional manipulation or blackmail. Sexual assault is an act in which a person subjects another to his or her own desires through the abuse of power, use of force or constraint, or implicit or explicit threat. Sexual assault is an attack on an individual’s basic human rights of physical and psychological integrity and personal safety." (Government of Quebec, 2001)
"I'm not sure if what happened to me was really sexual assault."
The many myths and prejudices surrounding sexual assault can have negative consequences for victims and those close to them. These myths normalize violence, minimize the serious nature of the acts committed and keep victims in silence.
Too often, these false beliefs lead victims to doubt their own feelings, reinforcing the negative image they may have of themselves after being sexually assaulted. It is therefore important to re-establish certain facts in order to support victims during the healing process.
''I always thought that if it happened to me one day, I would be in a state of complete panic and emotional distress.''
It is commonly (and wrongly) believed that victims should be in state of complete panic after a sexual assault. Victim who appear outwardly calm lead those around them to question whether they were actually sexually assaulted.
Sexual assault victims do not react in the same way. Many are simply too frightened to defend themselves. They become paralyzed, or very quickly realize that any attempt at self-defence could do more harm than good. After the assault, they may themselves have trouble realizing what has happened to them. Victims’ reactions can be influenced by different factors: their age at the time of the assault, the frequency and duration of the assaults, the relationship between the victim and the assailant, the nature of the acts carried out, the context (threats, violence, fear of death), the reactions of friends and family when the assault is revealed, and the victim’s personal resources. (Orientations gouvernementales en matière d’agression sexuelle, 2001)
In Quebec, close to 80% of victims know their assailant. People who are close to the victim are more likely to use psychological pressure than physical force, which leads victims questioning whether they were actually assaulted. It is important to remember that even in the absence of physical violence or injury, sexual assault remains an act of violence to which the victim did not consent.
''What could I have done to provoke him? I must have done something.''
Victims of sexual assault must have provoked their assailant—“asked for it”—in some way.
No one but the assailant is responsible for the assault. Regardless of how a woman behaves or how she is dressed, no one is ever asking to be sexually assaulted. It is therefore not helpful for her to discuss what she could have done to avoid the attack; all that does is reinforce the myth that there was something she did that provoked her assailant and that it was somehow her fault.
''I can't remember exactly what happened - I'd had too much to drink.''
“If I can’t remember all the details, no one will take me seriously.”
It is generally presumed that a person is responsible for his or her acts after having voluntarily consumed alcohol or drugs. People also think that a person should be able to remember all the details of such a traumatic event. Many people believe that women press charges for no reason or just out of spite, to get revenge.
Approximately 25% of women who have been sexually assaulted say that drugs played a role in their rape (Weir, 2001; McPherson, 2004). (www.sexualityandU.ca) Whether the victim drank alcohol or consumed the drug unknowingly or voluntarily, however, makes absolutely no difference (www.sexualityandU.ca).
Shock, fear, shame and distress can all affect our memory. Moreover, many survivors tend to repress their memories or downplay what happened to them in order to be able to live with the events.
The percentage of false accusations with respect to all crimes is 2%, and there is no reason to believe that it would be higher for crimes involving sexual assault. This widely believed prejudice casts doubt on the victim’s account of events, giving more power to the alleged assailant. (RQCALACS)
''It's not such a big deal - it was just my husband. It's normal that he should expect me to meet his needs.''
If a person has already had consensual sexual relations with her assailant—a boyfriend, husband, acquaintance or even a client—he has every right to take her consent for granted.
If a victim has consented to sex, there is a point when she is not allowed to change her mind.
- Several sections of the Criminal Code define the notion of consent: 150.1(1), 153.1(2), 265(3), 273.1 and 273.2. Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced into sexual activity to which he or she did not consent, regardless of whether consent was given earlier or on a previous occasion. It is the responsibility of the person initiating sexual activity to make sure the other person is in full agreement. Before initiating anything sexual in nature with another person, “reasonable steps” must be taken to make sure the person consents.The law doesn’t say what those steps are, as they can vary depending on the situation. In most cases, however, asking a partner if he or she agrees to participate in sexual activity is considered to be a reasonable step in most cases. Consent cannot be given if one of the people is in a position of authority or trust, utters threats, or uses force or fraud to obtain consent.
- If a person does not take any “reasonable steps” to ensure a partner’s consent, he takes the risk that his partner may not have really consented and that his acts may be interpreted as assault. If someone is accused of sexual assault, he cannot claim that he “assumed” his partner consented if the issue was deliberately not addressed directly (Educaloi)
- It is always possible to withdraw your consent if you no longer want to participate in a sexual activity (i.e., if you change your mind before or during the activity).
- Consent is not valid if given by a person who is under 16 or in a situation of dependence.
''People are probably going to tell me that I could have defended myself or assume that I'm gay.''
Boys and men cannot be victims of sexual assault because they are capable of defending themselves. Since a man who was assaulted by another man obviously attracted that man, he must be homosexual.
- It was not until the 1980s that it was recognized that boys could also be victims of sexual assault. In fact, however, one out of every six boys is sexually assaulted before the age of 18, and one man out of every three says that he was subject to unwanted sexual contact at some point during his life. (Dorais, 1997)
- The sex of the assailant has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the victim.
- Men who sexually assault men and boys, like those who assault women and girls, are for the most part heterosexual. Homophobia keeps men and boys in silence out of fear of being called homosexual if they reveal that they were sexually assaulted by another man.
''I can't believe I trusted that guy - how could I be so stupid? I should have realized he was mentally unbalanced.''
Sexual assailants are all mentally ill sexual predators.
Sexual assaults are not generally committed by men with mental health problems. In fact, although they are more likely to experience personal and relationship problems (including mental health problems like depression or an anxiety or personality disorder), the majority of sex offenders function normally in society. Most are people in good mental health, and can even be extremely charming, well known figures in their community. (Media kit issued by the Quebec Institut national de santé publique)
''If my mother had met my father's sexual needs, he would never have abused me.''
If a couple with children has a normal sex life, the father will not commit incest with his daughter.
Questioning the nature of an offender’s sex life with his partner is just another way of making the victim accountable for his actions, assuming that women are always responsible for satisfying men’s sexual desires. Every person, however, is responsible for his or her own sexuality; the sexual life of parents has nothing to do with incest. In fact, studies have shown that most incestuous fathers continue to have sexual relations with their spouse. (Source: Macdonald, 2001: Child Sexual Abuse in Europe, Ed. Council of Europe, p. 27)
''I must have secretly wanted my father to do it.''
Some children are extremely seductive and initiate sexual activity with an adult.
Although a child who has been a victim of sexual abuse may display adult sexual behaviour, this is never a justification for sexual abuse. The adult alone is responsible for the acts he or she commits. Children have the right to expect to be treated properly by the adults around them, regardless of their behaviour.
The myth of the child initiating sexual activity is even more prevalent in the case of women who sexually abuse boys or male adolescents. It is often thought that a young boy is lucky to have the opportunity to be sexually initiated by an older woman. This is sexual abuse, however, even if the victim experiences pleasure. Sexual assault is an act of violence that has negative consequences over the long term, regardless of whether the victim is a girl or a boy.
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center of the University of Michigan, www.sapac.umich.edu/article/52
University of Toronto, www.askfirst.utoronto.ca
Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, www.sexualassaultsupport.ca
Ma sexualité, www.masexualite.ca
Institut national de santé publique, Québec www.inspq.qc.ca/agressionsexuelle
Regroupement québécois des CALACS, http://www.rqcalacs.qc.ca
Association canadienne des centres contre les agressions à caractère sexuel
Dorais, Michel. (2008) Ça arrive aussi aux garçons. L’abus sexuel au masculin. (2e édition) Montréal. Typo éditeur.