Defining Sexual Violence

Illustration about Defining Sexual ViolenceSexual violence is an umbrella term for any sexual act or acts targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature. These acts can be committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent, and include sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.

Sexual violence can be experienced by anyone regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. However, it is important to understand that sexual violence affects different communities and individuals in various ways based on the identities they hold within society. Approximately 1 in 3 Canadian women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, but due to the intersection of sexism and racism, some individual groups are 3 times more likely to experience violence. Women who experience high rates of sexual violence include immigrants, visible minorities, sex workers, trans women, women with disabilities, and First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women.

The physical locations in which sexual violence can happen are infinite. However, due to the systemic and societal nature of sexual assault, there are places where one may be at a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence. For example, a significant amount of sexual assault occurs across university and college campuses, oftentimes in residence buildings or fraternity houses. According to Statistics Canada, 71% of students at Canadian post-secondary schools either witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in 2019. Despite the common narrative that sexual violence is random and happens in dark, isolated, and unpopulated areas, evidence demonstrates that this is rarely the case. In Canada, the vast majority of assaults (over 80%) are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor and commonly occur in locations that are familiar to the survivor, such as their home or place of employment.

A significant amount of sexual violence can and does occur in public and online spheres. Evidence demonstrates that 45% of people have experienced inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour in a public space on at least one occasion. While 32% of people reported experiencing inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour in digital forms, such as cyberstalking, cyber harassment and revenge porn. Sexually violent behaviour can occur in various places and in numerous forms. All experiences of sexually violent behaviour are valid and serious, and all survivors deserve support and empathy.

There does appear to be an effect of time of year as well as year of study on the prevalence of sexual violence on campus. Research in the United States has shown that first-year women are at higher risk for unwanted sexual contact than second-year women, particularly early in the fall semester. This is often referred to as the “red zone” of sexual violence in the research. Previous research has highlighted the role of parties in the increased risk of sexual violence for first-year students, but more recent evidence, also from the United States, found that this red zone effect exists regardless of whether there were parties, suggesting that the red zone cannot be attributed to partying but likely to more generalizable factors.

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