Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 6

A Survey of Survivors of Sexual Violence

Melissa Northcott Footnote 4

In 2011, there were 21,821 incidents of sexual assault reported to the police in Canada (Brennan 2012). Incidents of sexual assault that are reported to the police, however, only reflect a small proportion of the actual incidents that occur. Findings from the 2009 General Social Survey on Victimization (GSS) revealed that an estimated 88% of incidents of sexual assault were not reported to the police (Perreault and Brennan 2010).

Available information on the prevalence of sexual assault reveals that there are certain demographic groups in Canada that experience sexual violence at higher rates than others. For example, data from self-reported and police-reported surveys reveal that females are the most common victims of sexual violence, and the rates of sexual assault are higher in the Canadian territories compared to the provinces and higher among Aboriginals than non-AboriginalsFootnote 1. Although the rates of sexual violence are higher among these groups, Canadians of all demographic backgrounds experience sexual violence.

This article summarizes the findings of a study that examined the experiences of male and female survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) and adult sexual assault (ASA) from various demographic backgrounds across Canada. It is hoped that a better understanding of the experiences of survivors of sexual violence will help shape policies and programs designed to provide them with assistance and support.

Interviewing Survivors

Data for this study were gathered through semi-structured interviews conducted in 2009 with 207 sexual assault survivors in Canada. Data were collected from six sexual assault centres across Canada. The participants represented three different demographic groups: a sample of males and females (34 participants) who were recruited from a sexual assault centre in the Northwest Territories that served both urban and rural areas (the Northern sample); a female-only sample (114 participants) who were recruited from sexual assault centres located in urban centres in Ontario, Alberta, and Nova Scotia (the female sample); and a male-only sample (59 participants) who were recruited from sexual assault centres located in urban centres in Ontario and British Columbia (the male sample).

The participants in this study were recruited through the participating sexual assault centres. Survivors from the Northwest Territories were interviewed in person by a counsellor from the participating centre. Participants in the female-only and male-only samples were interviewed via telephone by trained interviewers contracted by the Research and Statistics Division.

The survey consisted of questions on demographics, experiences of CSA and ASA, the psychological effects of abuse, coping skills, reporting to police, and experiences with, and confidence in, the criminal justice system. The survey also asked participants to provide suggestions on what survivors of sexual violence need to know about the criminal justice system and on how the criminal justice system can better meet the needs of survivors of sexual violence.

What Survivors Had to Say


The participants represented a range of demographic backgrounds. In the Northern sample, all but one participant was female. The participants were between 17 and 57 years of age, with a median age of 40. The majority of participants (88%) self-identified as Aboriginal, while the remaining participants self-identified as Caucasian. In the female sample, the age of the survivors ranged from 20 to 70 years old, with a median age of 42. Most of the participants self-identified as Caucasian (85%), with the remainder making up a range of ethnicities. In the male sample, the age of the survivors ranged from 26 to 66 years old, with a median age of 46. More than three quarters (76%) of the participants self-identified as Caucasian, while the remaining quarter was made up of a range of ethnicities, including Aboriginal, Black, and Hispanic.

Experiences of Sexual Violence

Many of the survivors across the three samples reported experiencing both CSAFootnote 2 and ASA. In the Northern and female samples, more than half of the survivors reported experiencing both types of victimization (59% in the Northern sample and 52% in the female sample). A smaller percentage (14%) reported experiencing both CSA and ASA in the sample of male survivors.

A closer look at only the survivors of adult sexual assault reveals that the majority had been victims of child sexual abuse. In the Northern sample, 85% of those who had experienced ASA had experienced CSA, as did 80% of survivors of ASA in the male sample and 69% of survivors of ASA in the female sample.

Child Sexual Abuse

The majority of the participants across all of the samples reported that they experienced CSA. In the male sample, 97% reported experiencing CSA, as did 88% in the Northern sample, and 76% in the female sample. Moreover, most of the survivors who experienced CSA experienced multiple incidents of abuse. Across all of the samples, the most common age range at which the participants experienced CSA was between 6 and 10 years old. The majority of survivors reported that the offender was someone they knew (e.g., a family member or someone they trusted).

Adult Sexual Assault

Three quarters of those in the female sample reported experiencing ASA, as did 71% of those in the Northern sample. Fewer (17%) of those in the male sample reported that they experienced ASA. Several survivors described experiencing multiple incidents of ASA. In the Northern sample, the most common age range at which participants experienced ASA was between 16 and 17 years of age, while in the female and the male samples, the most common age range was between 18 to 24 years of age. As with those who experienced CSA, the offender was a person known to the survivor (e.g., intimate partner, relative, friend, acquaintance, person in authority like a mentor or a teacher) in the majority of cases.

Reporting CSA and ASA

Over two-thirds of those in the male sample (68%) and in the Northern sample (67%) and 64% in the female sample did not report the CSA to the police or have another individual report the abuse. The findings were similar for survivors of ASA. In the male sample, 70% stated that they did not report the ASA, while 59% of those in the female sample and 56% of those in the Northern sample did not report the assault.

The most frequently reported reasons for not reporting CSA were because the participants thought that they would not be believed, they felt ashamed or embarrassed, they did not know they could report the abuse, and they had no family support. The reasons provided by survivors of ASA for not reporting the assault were similar to those of survivors of CSA. Other reasons cited by survivors of ASA included because they did not have any confidence in the criminal justice and they were afraid of the offender.

Among those who did report the CSA and/or ASA, survivors across all samples cited the same reasons for choosing to report. The most frequently cited reason for reporting was because they felt they needed to take action. Other reasons included the need to release repressed feelings and the recommendation to report by a professional, such as a psychologist, or by a friend.

Emotional and Psychological Effects

The participants described the strong emotional and psychological effects of the trauma. For most participants, the effects were multiple and ongoing. The emotional and psychological effects were similar across the groups, regardless of gender. In addition, the psychological harm experienced as a result of CSA was very similar to the harm experienced as a result of ASA.

The most common psychological and emotional effect of victimization described was depression and experiencing feelings associated with depression, such as worthlessness, helplessness, and suicidal ideation. A number of survivors described feelings associated with shame, self-blame, and low self-esteem and difficulties with trust. For many, this resulted in difficulties forming friendships and healthy, long-term relationships. Additionally, numerous participants described struggling with anxiety and fear.

Coping Mechanisms

The participants also described the mechanisms they used to cope with the effects of the trauma. The majority of participants described using multiple coping mechanisms, both positive and negative. Several of the coping strategies used by CSA survivors were also used among those who experienced ASA.

There were a number of positive coping strategies described. For example, the participants in all three samples described turning to professional supports for help, including counselling. Many participants named the sexual assault centre as being extremely helpful in their recovery. Several participants in the Northern and female samples described turning to natural supports, such as family and friends. However, these supports were not as prominently noted in the male sample.

The survivors also described using emotion-focused coping, which is coping that "involves activities that try to directly change how the victim feels" (Hill 2009, 47). Some examples of the types of emotion-focused coping used by participants included activities to keep busy, such as reading, drawing, and playing sports, which was especially noted by male survivors.

A very common coping strategy described by participants was turning to religion, including attending church and praying, and focussing on spirituality more generally. Although these were also noted by some participants in the other samples, they were more commonly described by the Northern participants.

Participants also described negative coping strategies. The most frequently described negative coping strategy was the use of drugs and alcohol, which was often used as a way of escaping thoughts or feelings. A number of participants used drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for CSA and continued to use that coping mechanism for dealing with ASA.

Dissociation, avoidance, and denial were also described by the participants. Participants in the female and Northern samples also described isolating themselves from others and not allowing themselves to become close to others.

Strategies associated with non-suicidal self-harm were also used by the participants, including physically harming oneself and engaging in promiscuous behaviours. Many participants also described attempting suicide on more than one occasion.

The Criminal Justice System

Participants were also asked to provide information regarding their trial. Very few participants stated that their cases went to criminal trial. Of the 55 participants in the female sample who reported their CSA or ASA, 22 cases went to criminal trial and a conviction was rendered in 18 of these cases. Of the 15 participants in the Northern sample who reported their CSA or ASA, nine cases went to criminal trial and a conviction was rendered in four cases. In the male sample, 17 participants reported their CSA or ASA and three cases went to criminal trial, with a conviction being rendered in two cases. The disclosure of third party recordsFootnote 3 was sought in very few trials. Third party records were sought in four cases in the Northern sample; in five cases in the female sample; and in only one case in the male sample. The records sought for disclosure included medical records, mental health records, and education records. Many of the participants did not know whether the third party records were ultimately released; only two participants in the female sample were certain that the records were released.

All of the participants, including those whose cases did and did not go to trial, were asked to rate their level of confidence in the police, the court process, and the criminal justice system in general. As shown in Table 1 below, few participants stated that they were very confident. Indeed, approximately two-thirds of the participants stated that they were not confident in the police, the court process, or the criminal justice system in general. A higher percentage of participants in the male and female samples stated that they were confident in the police in comparison to participants in the Northern sample.

Table 1. Confidence in the Criminal Justice System

Male Sample (N=59)
  Very Confident Fairly Confident Not Very Confident Not Confident At All Don’t Know
Police 11 (19 %) 20 (34 %) 22 (37 %) 5 (9 %) 1 (2 %)
Court Process 17 (29 %) 17 (29 %) 19 (32 %) 16 (27 %) 3 (5 %)
Criminal Justice System in General 1 (2 %) 25 (42 %) 24 (41 %) 9 (15 %) 0 (0 %)
Northern Sample (N=30 to 34)
  Very Confident Fairly Confident Not Very Confident Not Confident At All Don't Know
Police 2 (7 %) 5 (16 %) 15 (48 %) 6 (19 %) 3 (10 %)
Court Process 3 (9 %) 3 (9 %) 12 (36 %) 10 (30 %) 5 (15 %)
Criminal Justice System in General 1 (3 %) 5 (17 %) 6 (20 %) 13 (43 %) 5 (17 %)
Female Sample (N = 114)
  Very Confident Fairly Confident Not Very Confident Not Confident At All Don't Know
Police 13 (12 %) 37 (33 %) 37 (33 %) 22 (20 %) 4 (4 %)
Court Process 4 (4 %) 17 (15 %) 40 (35 %) 35 (31 %) 17 (15 %)
Criminal Justice System in General 5 (4 %) 26 (23 %) 38 (33 %) 36 (32 %) 9 (8 %)

What Survivors Suggested

What Survivors Need to Know about the Criminal Justice System

Many participants in the three groups stressed the importance of gaining a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system and preparing for participation in the process by asking questions and becoming informed of their rights. The participants also noted that it is important to understand the adversarial nature of the justice system and the potential negative impact participating in the process may have on the survivor (e.g., feeling re-victimized, feeling as if they are not believed). Participants also encouraged survivors to seek help and to know that there are services available and that these services are helpful. A number of participants also encouraged survivors to come forward and report their abuse and not give up.

How the Criminal Justice System Can Better Meet the Needs of Survivors

The participants provided suggestions on how the criminal justice system can better meet the needs of survivors of sexual violence. These suggestions fall under three overarching themes: making survivors feel safe and comfortable; providing information and education; and making changes to the criminal justice system as a whole.

1. Making the Survivor Feel Safe and Comfortable

Four interconnected sub-themes emerged which reflected the need for survivors to feel safe and comfortable: enhancing support for survivors; helping survivors navigate the criminal justice process; treating survivors with respect; and educating criminal justice professionals.

While the participants indicated they were grateful for the services they were provided, especially the sexual assault centres with whom they were working, many participants said that more supports are needed for survivors. Participants in the male sample stressed that more male-specific support services are needed. A number of participants also indicated that support in all forms needs to be provided to survivors throughout the entire criminal justice process, that is, from the time the incident occurs through to the court process and after the trial has ended.

Participants also provided suggestions that centered on ensuring that survivors have the help and information they need to navigate the criminal justice system. Suggestions included providing a support or advocacy person to work with the survivor throughout the process, using basic language to explain legal terms, and providing translation to those who need it.

Several participants voiced concerns over how survivors are treated in the criminal justice process. A number of participants indicated that officials need to be more sensitive when interviewing survivors, as they often feel as if they are not believed. In addition, some indicated that survivors are treated as if they are somehow to blame or are the perpetrator. Many participants also indicated that they believed that professionals within the criminal justice system would benefit from training on working with survivors of sexual violence, including sensitivity training.

2. Information and Education

Numerous participants indicated that survivors need to be provided with more information, including on victims’ rights, the services available to them, and the criminal justice system in general. Many also indicated that survivors need to be kept up-to-date on their case and that information needs to be provided in a timely manner and throughout the entire process.

In addition, a number of participants suggested that education on the criminal justice system and on sexual violence needs to be provided to everyone, especially children through schools and those working with children. The participants in the male sample also stressed the importance of raising awareness, for example through awareness campaigns, about sexual violence toward males, including its nature and its prevalence, in order to address the myths and stigma associated with male sexual abuse.

3. Changes to the Criminal Justice System

There were also several suggestions that pertained to overall changes to the criminal justice system. For example, some participants stated that they felt that the police did not put enough effort into investigating their case or providing follow-up on their case. In addition, a number of participants stated that more timely processing of cases is required, since for many, the criminal justice process was long. Moreover, various participants expressed frustration with the perceived unfairness in the way the survivor is treated compared to the accused. There was a perception among some that while the survivor must cope with the traumatic experience, the accused is not punished, or when there is punishment, it does not reflect the gravity of the crime. This perception led many to suggest that longer sentences be imposed in order to send a strong message about the impacts of sexual violence on survivors.


Interviewing three different groups of survivors of sexual violence revealed that, although there were some differences among the groups, the overall experiences of the survivors were very similar. Most survivors who had experienced an adult sexual assault had also been the victim of child sexual abuse, and in the majority of cases, the offender was a person known to the victim. Most participants described the experience as having multiple and ongoing emotional and psychological effects. Survivors use various mechanisms to cope with these effects, including negative mechanisms, like using drugs and alcohol.

The interview participants provided a number of suggestions on what would be most helpful for survivors of sexual violence as they navigate the criminal justice process. Knowledge of the criminal justice system and of one’s rights is seen as an important preparation for participating in the justice process. In addition, survivors consider that the criminal justice system can better meet the needs of survivors by increasing support and by providing this support throughout the process. Many survivors also indicated a need for timely, up-to-date information on their case. Male participants suggested raising awareness about sexual violence toward males and highlighted a need for male-specific support services. The interviews also revealed the perception among some of the participants that more effort is needed on the part of the police in the investigative process, that the criminal justice process is very long, and that, at times, survivors appear to be treated less fairly than the accused. Survivors also often feel they are not believed and are somehow to blame. Many suggested providing sensitivity training to justice system professionals, particularly with regard to working with survivors of sexual violence, and sending a strong message about the impact of sexual violence on survivors by imposing longer sentences on accused. It is hoped that by better understanding these experiences and needs, victim service providers and the justice system as a whole can be in a better position to support survivors of sexual violence.