Section 1: Trends in self-reported spousal violence in Canada, 2014

by Marta Burczycka

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Highlights

  • In 2014, 4% of Canadians in the provinces with a current or former spouse or common-law partner reported having been physically or sexually abused by their spouse during the preceding 5 years, according to the General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization. This represents a drop from a decade earlier, when 7% of respondents reported experiencing spousal violence.
  • In 2014, equal proportions of men and women reported being victims of spousal violence during the preceding 5 years (4%, respectively). This translated into about 342,000 women and 418,000 men across the provinces. Similar declines in spousal violence were recorded for both sexes since 2004.
  • According to the 2014 GSS, the most commonly-reported type of spousal violence experienced was being pushed, grabbed, shoved or slapped (35%). A quarter of victims (25%) reported having been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a gun or a knife. A similar proportion (24%) reported having been kicked, bit, hit, or hit with something. As in previous years, women reported the most severe types of spousal violence more often than men.
  • Among victims of spousal sexual assault, over half (59%) reported non-consensual sexual activity that came as a result of being manipulated, drugged, or otherwise coerced, sometimes in combination with sexual assault through physical force.
  • Just under one-third (31%) of spousal violence victims in the provinces reported sustaining physical injuries as a result of the violence. Women were proportionally more likely than men to have reported physical injuries, with 4 out of 10 (40%) female victims reporting injuries compared to just under a quarter (24%) of male victims.
  • Results from the 2014 GSS indicate that psychological effects consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are fairly common among spousal violence victims, with about 16% of victims reporting three or more of the long term effects associated with PTSD. Female victims were more likely (22%) to report these effects than male victims (9%Note E).
  • For the majority of spousal violence victims, the police were never made aware of the abuse (70%). Male victims were more likely to state that the spousal violence had not been brought to the attention of police (76%) than female victims (64%). When police had been made aware of spousal violence, most victims reported that they were satisfied with police response (65%).
  • Findings from the 2014 GSS indicate there may be a relationship between abuse during childhood and spousal violence later in life. More individuals who reported experiencing spousal violence reported having been physically and/or sexually abused as children (48%), compared to those who did not report spousal violence (32%).
  • A history of family violence in the childhood home was notable among those who reported being the victim of spousal violence as adults. Over one in five (21%) spousal violence victims reported having witnessed abuse committed by a parent, step-parent or guardian as a child. This proportion is significantly higher than the 11% of respondents in spousal relationships free of violence who had witnessed violence as children.
  • Data from the 2014 GSS show that individuals self-identifying as Aboriginal were more than twice as likely as non-Aboriginal people to report experiencing spousal violence in the previous five years (9%E versus 4%, respectively). In particular, Aboriginal females were more likely to be victimized by current or former partners, as compared to non-Aboriginal women. Rates of self-reported spousal victimization among the Aboriginal population have not changed in a significant way from 2009 (10%) to 2014 (9%E).
  • Aboriginal people more often reported having experienced abuse as children, a factor shown to be associated with spousal victimization later in life. People identifying as Aboriginal were also more likely than non-Aboriginals to report having witnessed violence committed by a parent, step-parent or guardian as a child.
  • According to the 2014 GSS, many Canadians across the provinces reported having been emotionally or financially abused by a current or former spouse or common-law partner at some point during their lifetime. In total, 14% of those with a current or former spouse or partner reported this kind of abuse. Men were slightly more likely than women to report emotional or financial abuse (15% versus 13%).

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Introduction

The devastating effects of spousal violence on individuals and communities have been well-documented by researchers in Canada and around the world (Sinha 2013 (ed.); World Health Organization et al. 2010). Defined as physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a victim’s current or former legally married or common-law partner, spousal violence has a measurable impact on the health and economic well-being of individuals and society both in the present and for subsequent generations (Zhang et al. 2012; Spatz Widom et al. 2014).

As the understanding of the magnitude of this impact continues to grow, so does the scope and breadth of both domestic and international programs designed to address the roots of this problem and provide remedies to its effects. Spousal violence, as a component of violence against women, was recognized as a priority in the United Nations’ 2000 Millennium Declaration and continues to be a focus of research and policy for international bodies such as the World Health Organization (World Health Organization 2005).

In Canada, the Federal Family Violence Initiative (FVI) has sought to address spousal violence and family related violence against children, youth and seniors, and its impact on Canadian society since its creation in 1988. This collaboration of 15 federal government departments seeks to provide information and solutions related to family violence in Canada, with spousal violence among its key areas of focus. Most recently, in 2014, the Action Plan to Address Family Violence and Violent Crimes against Aboriginal Women and Girls, an initiative led by Status of Women Canada, was introduced and includes in its platform a focus on addressing spousal violence within this particularly vulnerable population (Status of Women Canada 2015).

As a member department of the FVI, Statistics Canada provides measures and analyses of spousal violence in Canada through the publication of reports such as Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. With its specific focus on spousal violence, the present section uses self-reported data collected through the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization to examine recent trends in spousal violence across the provinces, focusing on changes in overall rates over the past decade.Note 1 In 2014, for the first time, the GSS on victimization included questions on victims’ experiences of childhood maltreatment before the age of 15 years at the hand of an adult. These new questions have facilitated the exploration of the potential impact of child maltreatment on spousal victimization later in life.

In addition to this analysis, the section will examine the long-term effects of spousal violence and whether they mirror conditions associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Detailed information on the types of family violence experienced by Canadians, risk factors, and how and where victims seek help is provided. Findings presented in Trends in Self-Reported Spousal Violence inform our understanding of the pervasiveness and effects of spousal violence in the provinces of Canada, with an eye to both its long-term trends and emergent realities.

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Measuring spousal violence through the General Social Survey

Every five years, Statistics Canada conducts the General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization. The victimization cycle of the GSS collects information from a random sample of Canadian women and men aged 15 years and older about their experiences of criminal victimization, including spousal violence.

To gather information on spousal violence, respondents who are legally married, living in a common-law relationship, or who are separated or divorced from a legal or common-law partner and have had contact with their ex-partner within the previous five years, were asked a series of 11 questions. The questions measure both physical and sexual violence as defined by the Criminal Code, and that can be acted upon by the police. This includes acts such as being threatened with violence, being pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, kicked, bit, hit, beaten, choked, threatened with a gun or knife or forced into sexual activity.

Respondents are also asked about emotional and financial abuse that they had experienced at the hands of a current or ex-partner. While incidents of emotional and financial abuse are not used to calculate the overall proportion of spousal violence victims, information about these other forms of abuse help to create a better understanding of the context in which physical or sexual violence may occur.

Unless otherwise stated, the differences reported in this report are statistically significant. For more information, see the “Survey description” section.

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Self-reported spousal violence declined since 2004

Results from the 2014 GSS show that rates of self-reported spousal violence across the Canadian provinces declined over the previous decade. In 2014, there were about 19.2 million Canadians in the provinces who had a current or former spouse or common-law partner. Among them, about 760,000 or 4% reported having been physically and/or sexually abused by their partner during the preceding five years. This was significantly fewer than the proportion who had reported in 2004 (7%) and 2009 (6%) that they had been victimized by a spouse (Table 1.1).

Equal proportions of men and women with current or former spouses or partners reported being victims of spousal violence (4%, respectively). This translated into about 342,000 women and 418,000 men across the provinces. Moreover, similar declines in spousal violence were recorded for both sexes since 2004 (Table 1.2).

When asked about their experiences during the past year, 1% of respondents with a current or former spouse or partner reported that they had been sexually or physically abused by that person in the past 12 months. This proportion was the same for males and females. As with five year rates, reported rates of spousal violence within the previous 12 months were lower in 2014 than in 2004 (Table 1.3).

According to the 2014 GSS on victimization, almost half of spousal violence victims reported that they had been abused one time during the 5 years preceding the survey (49%).Note 2 Those that reported between 2 and 10 incidents of violence made up over a third (35%) of spousal violence victims. However, about one in six victims (17%) indicated that they had been abused by their current or former partner on more than 10 occasions.Note 3 No significant differences were reported between male and female victims with respect to the number of incidents of abuse they reported.

Most provinces reported significant 10-year declines in self-reported spousal violence

Across the provinces, rates of self-reported spousal violence measured by the 2014 GSS were generally similar to the Canadian provincial rate (4%). Only Newfoundland and Labrador (2%E,Note 4) recorded a significantly lower proportion of spousal violence victims (Table 1.4).

Since 2004, most provinces have recorded significant declines in self-reported spousal violence. The provinces of Alberta and Manitoba recorded the largest declines in self-reported spousal violence rates over the past decade (down 4 percentage points each), followed by Saskatchewan and British Columbia (down 3 percentage points) (Chart 1.1).

Chart 1

Description for Chart 1.1

The title of the graph is "Chart 1.1 Percent of individuals reporting spousal violence, by province, 2004 and 2014."
This is a bar clustered chart.
This is a horizontal bar graph, so categories are on the vertical axis and values on the horizontal axis.
There are in total 11 categories in the vertical axis. The horizontal axis starts at 0 and ends at 10 with ticks every 2 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The horizontal axis is "percent of people in spousal relationships reporting spousal violence."
The vertical axis is "Province."
The title of series 1 is "2014Note 1."
The minimum value is 2E and it corresponds to "Newfoundland and Labrador."
The maximum value is 5E and it corresponds to "Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island."
The title of series 2 is "2004."
The minimum value is 5E* and it corresponds to "Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador."
The maximum value is 9* and it corresponds to "Alberta."

Data table for Chart 1.1
Table summary
This table displays the results of 2014 and 2004 (appearing as column headers).
  2014Note 1 2004
Provincial total 4 7Note *
British Columbia 4 7Note *
Alberta 5 9Note *
Saskatchewan 5Note E: Use with caution 8Note *
Manitoba 3Note E: Use with caution 7Note *
Ontario 4 6Note *
Quebec 3 5Note *
New Brunswick 5 6
Nova Scotia 5 8Note *
Prince Edward Island 5Note E: Use with caution 5Note E: Use with caution
Newfoundland and Labrador 2Note E: Use with caution 5Note E: Use with cautionNote *

More victims self-reported spousal violence in former relationships than in current unions

According to the 2014 GSS on victimization, spousal violence was more frequently noted among ex-partners or spouses within relationships that have since ended, than among individuals currently in a marriage or common-law relationship. While 2% of those in a current relationship reported being victims of spousal violence, the proportion rose to 13% for those who were separated or divorced from a spouse or common-law partner and had contact with that person in the previous five years. Of note, most victims (78%) that reported having been abused by a former partner indicated that the violence had taken place while they were still living together, while 16% reported that they had only been subjected to violence after they had separated from their partner.Note 5

Furthermore, many victims indicated that they had suffered violence after their relationship with their ex-spouse or partner had ended. Among those who had been victimized by a former partner, 41% reported violence had occurred following the breakup, with no significant difference recorded between males and females. Among those who reported abuse that happened after they separated from their partner, almost half (48%) reported that the violence occurred more than 6 months after the separation.Note 6 Almost half (49%) of spousal violence victims who had reported that violence occurred after their breakup stated that the severity of the abuse had increased after the relationship ended. Men and women were equally likely to report this escalation following the end of their relationships.

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Violence in dating relationships

Several studies on intimate partner violence have noted a number of similarities between experiences of victimization in the context of dating relationships and spousal victimization (Shorey et al. 2008). The General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization introduced a series of questions on experiences of abuse within dating relationships for its 2014 cycle. These dating questions were asked only of those individuals who indicated that they were either not in a current spousal relationship, or that they were, but had been living together for less than 5 years.

Respondents were asked:

In the past 5 years, has anyone you were dating tried to limit your contact with family or friends, called you names to make you feel bad, or threatened to harm you or someone close to you?

In the past 5 years, have you experienced physical violence by someone you were dating?

In the past 5 years, have you experienced sexual violence by someone you were dating?

Just under one in ten (9%) individuals who had dated during the previous 5 years reported that they had experienced at least one of these types of abuse. The most common type of dating abuse reported to the 2014 GSS involved limiting the victim’s contact with family or friends, name calling, or threats (7% of individuals who had dated during the past 5 years). Women were more likely than men to report this kind of abuse (8% compared to 6%, respectively).

Physical violence was reported by 4% of those who had dated in the previous 5 years, with more women (4%) than men (3%) reporting this kind of abuse. Comparatively, reported sexual violence was less common (1%) among individuals who had dated.

Self-reported data from the 2014 GSS show that dating relationships are most common among those in their 20s. Those aged 20 to 24 years represented the age group that most frequently dated (20% of all dating relationships), while those aged 25 to 29 were the second largest age group to report having dated (16%).

While those aged 20 to 29 reported being in dating relationships more often than other age groups, they were not more likely to report being the victim of violence in those relationships. No statistically significant differences were observed among those in age groups under 49 years when it came to the likelihood of experiencing violence in a dating relationship. The proportions of people in dating relationships reporting this kind of violence ranged from 7% to 13% among five year age groups including and under age 49, and between 0.4% to 8% for age groups above 49 years.

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Women more likely to experience severe spousal violence compared to men

In 2014, many victims of spousal violence reported the most severe types of abuse, with women reporting severe violence more often than men. A quarter of victims (25%) overall reported having been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a gun or a knife. A similar proportion (24%) reported having been kicked, bit, hit, or hit with something. According to the 2014 GSS, the most commonly-reported type of spousal violence experienced was being pushed, grabbed, shoved or slapped (35%) while the least prevalent was being threatened or having something thrown at oneself (17%). These proportions have remained relatively stable over the previous 10 years (Table 1.5).

As was the case a decade earlier, in 2014, there were notable differences between the severity of violence experienced by women compared to men. Women were twice as likely as men to experience being sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or a knife (34% versus 16%E, respectively). Conversely, men were more than three and one-half times more likely than women to be the victim of kicking, biting, hitting or being hit with something (35% versus 10%, respectively) (Chart 1.2).

Chart 1.2

Description for Chart 1.2

The title of the graph is "Chart 1.2 Victims of self-reported spousal violence, by most serious form of violence and by sex, 2014."
This is a bar clustered chart.
This is a horizontal bar graph, so categories are on the vertical axis and values on the horizontal axis.
There are in total 4 categories in the vertical axis. The horizontal axis starts at 0 and ends at 45 with ticks every 5 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The horizontal axis is "percent of spousal violence victims."
The vertical axis is "Most serious form of violence."
The title of series 1 is "Males."
The minimum value is 16E* and it corresponds to "Sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or knife."
The maximum value is 35* and it corresponds to "Kicked, bit, hit or hit with something."
The title of series 2 is "Females1."
The minimum value is 10 and it corresponds to "Kicked, bit, hit or hit with something."
The maximum value is 40 and it corresponds to "Pushed, grabbed, shoved or slapped."

Data table for Chart 1.2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1.2 Males and Females (appearing as column headers).
  Males FemalesNote 1 for chart 1.2 1
Threatened to hit, threw something 18 16
Pushed, grabbed, shoved or slapped 31Note 1 for chart 1.2 * 40
Kicked, bit, hit or hit with something 35Note 1 for chart 1.2 * 10
Sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or knife 16Note E: Use with cautionNote for chart 1.2 with asterisk * 34

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Changes to how the General Social Survey measures sexual assault

Recent years have seen a shift in the discourse surrounding sexual assault, highlighting the reality that there are means other than physical force that can be used to commit sexual assault (Belknap and Sharma 2014). Sexual assaults can take many forms, including situations where a victim is unable to consent to sexual activity because of being manipulated, drugged, or coerced in some manner. In 2014, the General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization added a new question which specifically asks victims if they were forced into sexual activity through these non-physical means.

Results from the 2014 GSS show that spousal sexual assault through means other than physical force is common for those reporting sexual assault perpetrated by either a current or former partner. Spousal sexual assault was reported by 7% of spousal violence victims. Among them, over half (59%) reported non-consensual sexual activity that came as a result of being manipulated, drugged, or otherwise coerced, sometimes in combination with sexual assault through physical force. Among victims who reported sexual assault that resulted from being manipulated, drugged or otherwise coerced, 74% reported having suffered both this type of sexual assault as well as sexual assault with physical force.

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Four in ten female victims of spousal violence reported physical injuries

Results from the 2014 GSS show that just under one-third (31%) of spousal violence victims in the provinces reported sustaining physical injuries such as bruises, cuts or broken bones during the previous 5 years as a result of spousal violence. Overall, this proportion has remained steady over the past decade.

Women were proportionally more likely than men to have reported physical injuries in 2014. According to the 2014 GSS, 4 out of 10 (40%) women who had reported being the victim of spousal violence in the preceding five years reported physical injuries. Among male victims of spousal violence, just under a quarter (24%) reported that they had sustained injuries as a result of the abuse. These proportions remained unchanged from a decade earlier.

Bruises were the most common injury reported by victims of spousal violence, reported by 82% of those who had been injured. This type of injury was very common among female victims (92% of females reporting injury) and also prevalent among male victims (69%).

Half (51%) of spousal violence victims who had been injured reported injuries such as cuts, scratches and burns.Note 7 Males were more likely to report these types of injuries (76%) than females (33%). Smaller proportions of victims reported injuries such as bone fractures or internal injuries (9%E). Hospitalization was required by 16% of spousal violence victims who reported an injury.Note 8

Female spousal violence victims more likely to experience long-term PTSD-like effects

In the provinces, most spousal violence victims reported suffering emotional consequences as a result of the abuse. The most common emotional response reported by spousal violence victims was feeling upset, confused or frustrated (37%). Many also reported feeling angry (30%), hurt or disappointed (22%), depressed (18%), fearful (17%) and shocked (17%).Note 9

Another significant consequence of spousal violence is the disruption it causes to victims’ lives. Just over a third (34%) of those who had reported being injured as a resultNote 10 of spousal violence during the past 5 years indicated that they had to take time away from normal activities such as work or school because of the abuse they had suffered. Women were more likely than men to report having to take time away from regular activities (41% versus 25%E, respectively).

Results from the 2014 GSS indicate that psychological effects consistent with the Primary Care Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PC-PTSD) guidelines for PTSD screening are fairly common among spousal violence victims in the provinces (see Text box 4). About 16% of spousal violence victims reported three or more of the long term effects outlined in the PC-PTSD, with female victims more likely to report these effects (22%) than male victims (9%E).Note 11

Victims who reported having experienced the most severe types of spousal violence—sexual assault, beating, choking, or being threatened with a gun or knife—often reported at least three of the psychological effects consistent with PTSD (32% of those reporting the most severe violence). Furthermore, reported PTSD-consistent effects were more common among those victims of spousal violence who reported multiple incidents of abuse than among those who reported single incidents. These effects were reported by 36% of victims who indicated they had experienced spousal violence more than 10 times and by 19%E of those who had reported 2 to 10 incidents, compared to the 4%E of those who reported one incident of spousal violence.

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Spousal violence and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

For the first time in 2014, the General Social Survey on victimization asked spousal violence victims about the longer term effects experienced as a result of their victimization. Some research to date has found that victims of violence may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect individuals that have experienced physical and/or psychological trauma, and is characterized by feelings of detachment, being constantly on guard, nightmares and avoidance behaviors. Studies of those affected have found that PTSD is associated with impaired physical health, decreased quality of life and increased mortality (Prins et al. 2003). Elsewhere, research has suggested that victims of spousal violence are often diagnosed with this disorder (Jones et al. 2001; Dutton et al. 2006).

Victims were asked whether they had experienced the following as a result of their victimization:
In the past month have you:

  1. Had nightmares about it or thought about it when you did not want to?
  2. Tried hard not to think about it or went out of your way to avoid situations that reminded you of it?
  3. Felt constantly on guard, watchful or easily startled?
  4. Felt numb or detached from others, activities or your surroundings?

These new questions are from the Primary Care PTSD Screen (PC-PTSD) tool, a front-line assessment tool used to identify individuals who should be referred to further psychological and psychiatric treatment for the disorder (Prins et al. 2003). The tool is designed to assess whether an individual demonstrates key effects related to the core PTSD symptoms of re-experiencing, numbing, avoidance and hyperarousal. If an individual answers ‘yes’ to any three of the four questions, the presence of PTSD is suspected. It is crucial to note that the PC-PTSD is not a diagnostic tool, and a suspicion of PTSD is not the same as a diagnosis. In a clinical setting, a positive score on the PC-PTSD would indicate that the patient should be referred for more in-depth assessment and possible diagnosis.

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Less than one in five spousal violence victims reported abuse to police

According to the 2014 GSS, just under one in five (19%) victims of spousal violence contacted the police themselves to report their victimization. A minority (10%) reported that the police became aware of the violence in some other way. For the majority of spousal violence victims, the police were never made aware of the abuse (70%). Male victims were more likely to state that the spousal violence had not been brought to the attention of police (76% of male victims) than women (64%). The proportion of spousal violence brought to the attention of police has not changed in a significant way from a decade ago (Table 1.6).

Among victims of violence by a current partner who did not report the abuse to the police, the most common reason for not reporting was the belief that the abuse was a private or personal matter (cited by 35% of victims). This reason was equally prevalent among women and men. Another 28% perceived that the crime was not important enough to report. Men were twice as likely as women to report this as their main reason for not contacting the police (34% versus 17%E, respectively). Other victims (12%E) who did not report their experience of violence to police cited their belief that no harm had been intended.Note 12 Those who had been abused by a former spouse or partner also indicated that they did not report the violence because they saw the situation as a private or personal matter (29%) or because they didn’t see the violence as being important enough to contact the police (18%E).Note 13

Most victims of spousal violence reported to police for protection or because of duty

Among those victims who did report the violence to the police, the most common reason for doing so was to stop the violence and receive protection (cited by 82% of those who reported to police). The vast majority of female spousal violence victims who reported to police (90%) and almost three-quarters of male victims who reported to police (72%) gave this reason. A feeling of duty was the second most common reason for reporting abuse to police (61%), given by similar proportions of male and female victims.Note 14

Just under one-third (30%) of victims who reported spousal violence to police said they did so on the recommendation of someone else. A desire for their partner or ex-partner to be arrested or punished was among the reasons provided by 28% of those who had reported the spousal violence to police.Note 15

Two-thirds of spousal violence victims reported satisfaction with police response

Two-thirds of spousal violence victims whose abuse had been reported to the police were satisfied with how the police handled their situation, according to the 2014 GSS. A ‘very high’ level of satisfaction with police action was reported by 37% of victims, especially among women (48%) when compared to men (25%E). A further 28% of victims reported being ‘somewhat satisfied’ with the actions taken by police. The remainder of victims reported being ‘somewhat dissatisfied’ (15%E) or ‘very dissatisfied’ (17%E) with how the police responded.Note 16 Men were more likely than women to report being ‘very dissatisfied’ with how the police handled their situation (25%E versus 11%E, respectively). Overall, the levels of satisfaction with police response reported to subsequent cycles of the GSS on victimization have remained stable over the past ten years (Chart 1.3).

Chart 1-3

Description for Chart 1.3

The title of the graph is "Chart 1.3 Self-reported spousal violence victims' level of satisfaction with police performance, 2014."
This is a column clustered chart.
There are in total 4 categories in the horizontal axis. The vertical axis starts at 0 and ends at 45 with ticks every 5 points.
There is 1 series in this graph.
The vertical axis is "percent of victims who reported police involvement."
The horizontal axis is "Level of satisfaction."
The minimum value is 15E and it corresponds to "Somewhat dissatisfied."
The maximum value is 37 and it corresponds to "Very satisfied."

Data table for Chart 1.3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1.3 percent of victims who reported police involvement (appearing as column headers).
  percent of victims who reported police involvement
Very satisfied 37
Somewhat satisfied 28
Somewhat dissatisfied 15Note E: Use with caution
Very dissatisfied 17Note E: Use with caution

One in five female spousal violence victims obtained restraining orders

Most victims of spousal violence for whom the police had been made aware of the abuse reported that no charges had been laid against their partner or ex-partner (71%). A smaller proportion of spousal violence victims reported that they themselves had been charged by police (13%E).Note 17

Restraining or protective orders can be available for victims of spousal violence, in order to provide a degree of protection from abusive partners or ex-partners. These orders can be issued by criminal, civil or family courts, and provide safety through restricting the contact and communication an abuser can have with the victim and people under the victim’s care.

According to the 2014 GSS, 11% of victims of spousal violence reported that a restraining or protective order had been enacted at some time against their current or former partner, a similar proportion to what was reported in 2009 (10%).Note 18,Note 19 Data from 2014 show that women were almost four times as likely as men to report having a restraining order enacted against their current or former spouse (19% versus 5%E respectively). These findings did not change in a significant way from 2009.

The type of abuse that victims of spousal violence were subjected to had an impact on whether or not they obtained restraining orders, according to the 2014 GSS. A quarter (25%) of victims who reported that they had experienced the most severe types of violence—that is, they had been beaten, choked, threatened with a gun or a knife, or forced or manipulated into sexual activity—said that they had obtained an order against their abuser. For victims that reported violence that was less severe, smaller proportions reported obtaining a restraining order.Note 20,Note 21

Results from the 2014 GSS show that victims of spousal violence who sustained injuries were more likely to report having obtained a restraining order against their abuser. Almost a quarter (23%) of victims who reported being injured went on to obtain a restraining order, compared to the 6%E who obtained an order without having sustained injuries.

Just over one-third of spousal violence victims used formal support systems

In addition to the support and protection available to victims through police and the courts, individuals who experience spousal violence can look to other formal services that may exist in their communities to provide assistance to victims. These include crisis centres or telephone lines, shelters and transition homes, counsellors, and social workers. According to the 2014 GSS, 36% of spousal violence victims contacted or used such formal victims’ services. This proportion was higher than the 28% reported to the 2009 GSS. In 2014, female victims were more likely to report using these services (56% of female victims) than males (20%).

The most frequently reported type of formal victims’ service that spousal violence victims used was that of a counsellor, psychologist or social worker (32%). Women were much more likely than men to report visiting these types of professionals (49% compared to 17%, respectively). The next most frequently-reported formal services were crisis centres or phone lines, victims’ services or witness assistance programs, and women’s, men’s or senior’s centres or support groups (7% each) (Chart 1.4).

Chart 1-4

Description for Chart 1.4

The title of the graph is "Chart 1.4 Formal supports used by victims of self-reported spousal violence, by sex, 2014."
This is a bar clustered chart.
This is a horizontal bar graph, so categories are on the vertical axis and values on the horizontal axis.
There are in total 6 categories in the vertical axis. The horizontal axis starts at 0 and ends at 60 with ticks every 10 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The horizontal axis is "percent of spousal violence victims."
The vertical axis is "Formal support."
The title of series 1 is "Males."
The minimum value is 2E* and it corresponds to "Women's/men's/seniors' centre/support group."
The maximum value is 17* and it corresponds to "Counsellor/psychologist/ social worker."
The title of series 2 is "Females1."
The minimum value is 6E and it corresponds to "Community/family/ cultural centre and Halfway house/shelter."
The maximum value is 49 and it corresponds to "Counsellor/psychologist/ social worker."

Data table for Chart 1.4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1.4 Males and Females (appearing as column headers).
  Males FemalesNote 1 for chart 1.4 1
Community/family/ cultural centre Note F: too unreliable to be published 6Note E: Use with caution
Halfway house/shelter Note F: too unreliable to be published 6Note E: Use with caution
Women's/men's/seniors' centre/support group 2Note E: Use with cautionNote with asterisk for chart 1.4 * 12Note E: Use with caution
Victim services/witness assistance Note F: too unreliable to be published 13
Crisis centre/crisis line 3Note E: Use with cautionNote with asterisk for chart 1.4 * 13
Counsellor/psychologist/ social worker 17Note with asterisk for chart 1.4 * 49

Most spousal violence victims talked to family and friends about the violence

Aside from reporting the violence to the police or seeking help from formal victims’ services agencies, many victims confided in one or more informal sources of support (68%). Informal sources include family and friends, as well as health care practitioners, lawyers, and others.

Speaking with a family member was the most common source of informal support reported by victims of spousal violence (55%). Women were especially likely to speak with a family member about the abuse (66%), though this source of informal support was also the one most often turned to by male victims (46%). Victims of spousal violence also reported speaking to friends and neighbours (49%), another source of informal support more frequently looked to by women (61%) than men (40%).

Women were also considerably more likely than men to report speaking to a doctor or a nurse about their experience of spousal violence (27% compared to 10%E). There was no statistically significant difference between women and men in the proportion who turned to coworkers (26% of women and 20% of men), lawyers (18% of women, 14% of men) and ministers or priests (8%E of women, 7%E of men).

Start of text box 5

Text box 5

Childhood maltreatment and spousal violence

Current research on the lifecycle of family and spousal violence has found a strong link between maltreatment during childhood and spousal victimization later in life (Gilbert et al. 2009; Spatz Widom et al. 2014). For the first time in 2014, the GSS asked respondents about their experiences of childhood maltreatment including both physical and sexual abuse. Detailed information on the type and frequency of any abuse people may have experienced before the age of 15 years at the hands of an adult was collected, along with information about the relationship between the child and their abuser. Together with self-reported information on spousal violence, these new questions shed light on possible relationships between childhood maltreatment and experiences of violence in adulthood.

Findings from the 2014 GSS indicate there may be a relationship between abuse during childhood and spousal violence later in life. More individuals who reported experiencing spousal violence reported having been physically and/or sexually abused as children, compared to those who did not report spousal violence. Almost half (48%) of spousal violence victims stated that they had been subjected to childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. In comparison, under a third (32%) of those in non-violent spousal relationships reported having been victimized as children. Male and female victims of spousal violence reported similar rates of childhood victimization (Text box 5 chart).

Chart of text box 5

Description for Text box 5 chart of text box 5

The title of the graph is "Text box 5 chart Victims of self-reported spousal violence, by history of childhood physical and sexual abuse, 2014."
This is a column clustered chart.
There are in total 2 categories in the horizontal axis. The vertical axis starts at 0 and ends at 70 with ticks every 10 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The vertical axis is "percent of spousal violence victims."
The horizontal axis is "Abuse."
The title of series 1 is "Reported spousal violence1."
The minimum value is 47 and it corresponds to "Not physically or sexually abused as a child."
The maximum value is 48 and it corresponds to "Physically and/or sexually abused as a child."
The title of series 2 is "Did not report spousal violence."
The minimum value is 32* and it corresponds to "Physically and/or sexually abused as a child."
The maximum value is 65* and it corresponds to "Not physically or sexually abused as a child."

Data table for Text box 5 chart
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Text box 5 chart Reported spousal violence and Did not report spousal violence (appearing as column headers).
  Reported spousal violenceNote 1 for text box 5 chart 1 Did not report spousal violence
Physically and/or sexually abused as a child 48 32Note with asterisk for text box 5 chart *
Not physically or sexually abused as a child 47 65Note with asterisk for text box 5 chart *

Among individuals with current or former spouses or partners, those who reported having been physically abused by an adult before the age of 15 years were twice as likely to report experiencing spousal violence in the five years preceding the survey compared to those who were not victimized as children. Among those that had suffered childhood physical abuse, 6% reported violence by a current or former spouse or partner in the previous five years. This compares to 3% of those who had not reported childhood physical abuse.

Among individuals with current or former spouses or partners, those who suffered sexual abuse as children more often reported having experienced spousal violence as adults. For those who had been subjected to childhood sexual abuse before the age of 15, 7% reported spousal violence later in life, compared to 4% of those who had not reported being sexually abused as children.

The highest prevalence of spousal violence was reported by those individuals who had experienced both physical and sexual abuse as a child. The 2014 GSS found that among individuals with current or former spouses or common-law partners, those who reported having been both sexually and physically abused during childhood were more than twice as likely to report spousal violence (8%) than those who had not experienced abuse as children (3%).

A history of violence in the family home was notable among those who reported being the victim of spousal violence. Over one in five (21%) people who experienced spousal violence in the previous five years reported having witnessed abuse committed by a parent, step-parent or guardian as a child. This proportion is significantly higher than the 11% of those in spousal relationships free of violence who had witnessed violence as children.Note 22

Of those who witnessed violence as children and who had current or former spouses or partners, 7% reported spousal violence in their adult relationships. Comparatively, among those who did not witness violence in their family home, 3% reported having been abused by their spouse or partner.

According to the 2014 GSS, many people who had been the victim of spousal violence during the past 5 years and who had children aged under 15 years in the home reported that the children had witnessed the violence.Note 23 Over half (51%) of victims with children in the home stated that they believed the children had seen the spousal violence take place, a proportion that was similar for male and female victims. Child protective services were contacted in almost one-third (31%) of situations where a child witnessed the spousal violence.

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Spousal violence among those identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual decreased

Results from the 2014 GSS show that individuals who described themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual were twice as likely as heterosexuals to report having been the victim of spousal violence during the previous 5 years (8%E versus 4%, respectively).Note 24 This difference was particularly pronounced for lesbian or bisexual women compared to heterosexual women (11%E versus 3%).Note 25

The proportion of individuals identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual who reported spousal violence in 2014 was markedly lower than what was reported in 2004.Note 26 In 2004, 21%E of those who reported that they were homosexual reported having been the victim of spousal violence during the previous 5 years—a proportion almost 3 times as high as what was reported in 2014. For females identifying as lesbian or bisexual, the proportion reporting spousal violence dropped from 26%E in 2004 to 11%E in 2014.Note 27

Visible minorities and immigrants report slightly lower rates of spousal violence

Individuals who self-identified as members of a visible minorityNote 28 were less likely to report having suffered spousal violence than non-visible minorities. According to the 2014 GSS, spousal violence was reported by 3% of individuals who identified as visible minorities, compared to 4% of those who were not members of a visible minority group.

Rates of self-reported spousal violence among those identifying as visible minorities showed no statistically significant difference between 2004 and 2014. In contrast, reported spousal violence declined for those who were not members of a visible minority, from 7% in 2004 to 4% in 2014.

Immigrants were less likely to report having experienced spousal violence during the past 5 years than non-immigrants.Note 29,Note 30 About 3% of immigrants reported having been abused by a current or former spouse or partner, compared to 4% of non-immigrants. Both groups saw statistically significant declines in rates of self-reported spousal violence since 2004. Among immigrants, the proportion who reported spousal violence declined by one percentage point from 4% in 2004. For individuals born in Canada, the rate of spousal violence declined in a more pronounced way, down 3 percentage points from 7% in 2004.

Age, marital status and activity limitations associated with spousal victimization

In addition to providing information on individuals’ experiences of spousal violence during the past 5 years, the GSS asks about spousal violence that occurred during the past 12 months. Looking at this shorter time frame provides insight into certain demographic characteristics that can change over time—things like marital status, physical and mental health conditions, age, income and education—and their relationship to spousal violence.

The 2014 GSS on victimization found that spousal victimization was generally similar across age groups, with about 1%E of individuals in most age groups reporting spousal violence.Note 31 Rates were slightly lower for those aged 55 and older, with less than 1%E reporting violence. Rates of self-reported spousal violence have remained stable for most age groups since 2004. Only those aged 25 to 34 reported a significant decline since 2004, when reported rates were twice those recorded in 2014.

Consistent with previous GSS cycles, in 2014, those living in common-law relationships were more likely to have been victims of spousal violence during the preceding 12 months than those who were legally married (2%E versus 1%, respectively). However, this gap has narrowed from a decade ago. In 2004, 3% of those in common-law unions experienced spousal violence, compared to 1% of their legally married counterparts (Table 1.7).

The fact that the difference in spousal violence rates for those living in a common-law union compared to those in legal marriages is smaller than in the past may reflect the changing profile of marital status in Canada. According to the 2011 Canadian Census of Population, the proportions of people living in common-law unions as opposed to legal marriages has continued to increase for all age groups, except those aged 20 to 25, and especially for those in their late forties or older (Milan 2013). As the mean age of people in common-law unions increases, a corresponding decrease in spousal violence among those in common-law unions could result, since the prevalence of spousal violence decreases as people get older.

The presence of an activity limitation, such as a physical or mental condition or health problem, was also related to spousal violence. According to the 2014 GSS, those who reported a physical limitation or mental condition more often reported having been the victim of spousal violence in the preceding 12 months than those who did not have an activity limitation (2% versus 1%, respectively). There was virtually no difference between men and women when it came to activity limitations and spousal violence.

Factors such as personal or household income, education level, and living in a census metropolitan area did not appear to be associated with experiencing spousal violence. These findings were consistent with findings from 2004. The overall decrease in spousal violence among Canadians in the provinces between 2004 and 2014 was fairly evenly distributed by income, education, and population density of living area.

Aboriginal people’s experiences of spousal violence  

Canada’s Aboriginal people are consistently overrepresented as victims of many types of crime (Brennan 2011b; Perreault 2011). Results from 2014 GSS show that Aboriginal people in the provinces were about twice as likely as non-Aboriginals to experience violent or household victimizationNote 32 (Perreault 2015). Historically, studies of self-reported spousal victimization have also identified this group as particularly vulnerable to this form of violence (Mihorean 2005; Brennan 2011a).

Data from the 2014 GSS show that individuals self-identifying as Aboriginal were more than twice as likely as non-Aboriginal people to report experiencing spousal violence in the previous five years (9%E versus 4%, respectively). In particular, Aboriginal females were more likely to be victimized by current or former partners, as compared to non-Aboriginal women (10%E versus 3%, respectively). When rates of spousal victimization reported by Aboriginal men were compared to those of non-Aboriginal men, no significant difference was found.

While rates of self-reported spousal victimization among the non-Aboriginal population decreased between 2009 (6%) and 2014 (4%), rates for Aboriginal people have not changed in a significant way from 2009 (10%) to 2014 (9%E)Note 33,Note 34 (Chart 1.5).

Chart 1.5

Description for Chart 1.5

The title of the graph is "Chart 1.5 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal victims of self-reported spousal violence, 2009 and 2014."
This is a column clustered chart.
There are in total 2 categories in the horizontal axis. The vertical axis starts at 0 and ends at 12 with ticks every 2 points.
There are 2 series in this graph.
The vertical axis is "percent ."
The units of the horizontal axis are years 2009 and 2014.
The title of series 1 is "Aboriginal people."
The minimum value is 9E* occurring in 2014.
The maximum value is 10* occurring in 2009.
The title of series 2 is "Non-Aboriginal people1."
The minimum value is 4 occurring in 2014.
The maximum value is 6 occurring in 2009.

Data table for Chart 1.5
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1.5 Aboriginal people and Non-Aboriginal people (appearing as column headers).
  Aboriginal people Non-Aboriginal peopleNote 1 for chart 1.5 1
2009 10Note with asterisk for chart 1.5 * 6
2014 9Note E: Use with cautionNote with asterisk for chart 1.5 * 4

Aboriginal people experience more severe types of spousal violence

The severity of spousal violence suffered by Aboriginal victims differs from that reported by non-Aboriginal victims. Aboriginal victims were more likely than non-Aboriginal victims to suffer the most severe forms of spousal violence: 52%E of Aboriginal people who indicated they had suffered spousal violence reported having been beaten, choked, threatened with a gun or a knife or sexually assaulted. This compares to 23% of non-Aboriginal victims.Note 35

The majority of Aboriginal victims of spousal violence reported that the abuse had happened on multiple occasions (67%). This figure was not statistically different from that of non-Aboriginal victims (50%). With respect to multiple incidents of spousal violence, rates were similar among men and women regardless of whether they identified as Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.

Childhood maltreatment and spousal violence among Aboriginal people

According to the 2014 GSS, Aboriginal people reported childhood experiences which may be related to spousal violence in adulthood. Aboriginal people more often reported having experienced abuse as children, a factor shown to be associated with spousal victimization later in life. In 2014, 40% of those who identified as Aboriginal (regardless of marital status) indicated that they had been either sexually abused, physically abused, or both sexually and physically abused as children, compared to 29% of non-Aboriginals. When it came to having experienced both physical and sexual abuse, Aboriginal people were over twice as likely as non-Aboriginals to report having lived through this as children (9% versus 4%, respectively).

People identifying as Aboriginal were also more likely than non-Aboriginals to report having witnessed violence committed by a parent, step-parent or guardian as a child. Over one-fifth (21%) of Aboriginal people stated that they had witnessed this kind of violence as a child, compared to one-tenth (10%) of non-Aboriginal people. Witnessing abuse as a child has been linked to a higher likelihood of spousal victimization in adulthood (Gilbert et al. 2009). No significant differences were noted between the proportions of Aboriginal victims of spousal violence who reported that children in their home had witnessed abuse compared to non-Aboriginals.

Emotional and financial abuse among Canadians in the provinces

In addition to physical and sexual violence, abuse can take the form of emotional and financial abuse. Although emotional and financial abuse is not always criminal in nature, the consequences can be devastating to victims and can be precursors to violent forms of spousal abuse (Mihorean 2005). The General Social Survey on victimization measures emotional and financial abuse committed by individuals’ current and former spouses and partners. These are not included in rates of spousal violence, but are analysed separately in this section.

Emotional and financial abuse by partners reported by more than 1 in 10 people in current or former relationships

According to the 2014 GSS, many Canadians across the provinces reported having been emotionally or financially abused by a current or former spouse or common-law partner at some point during their lifetime. In total, 14% of those with a current or former spouse or partner reported this kind of abuse. Men were slightly more likely than women to report emotional or financial abuse (15% versus 13%, respectively).

The most common form of emotional abuse reported by victims was being put down or called names. This type of abuse was reported by over half (52%) of those who reported having been emotionally abused, with women being more likely than men to describe this form of abuse (65% versus 41%, respectively). Other forms of emotional abuse were also reported, including jealousy/limiting contact with other men or women (47%), which was slightly more common among male victims than females. Other victims reported emotional abuse that took the form of their partner demanding to know who the victim was with or where they were at all times (43%), with similar proportions of males and females reporting this type of abuse. Over the past ten years, emotional spousal abuse overall has declined from 17% in 2004 to 14% in 2014, for women (18% to 13%) as well as for men (16% to 15%).

Financial abuse can involve being prevented from accessing or knowing about family income, or being forced to give money or property over to a spouse or partner. In 2014, 3% of people with a current or former partner reported having suffered this kind of abuse. Women were more likely than men to report financial abuse (3% versus 2%). While overall rates of financial abuse have remained stable since 2004, rates of financial abuse among women decreased slightly between 2004 (4%) and 2014 (3%).

Summary

Results from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization show that self-reported spousal violence has declined over the past decade. However, spousal violence continues to impact the lives of 4% of those with current or former spouses, with serious consequences for victims.

While the most common form of spousal violence reported to the GSS was having been pushed, grabbed, shoved or slapped (35%), a quarter (25%) of victims reported having experienced the most severe types of abuse (sexual assault, beating, choking, or threatening with a gun or a knife). Women were twice as likely as men to report these most severe forms of violence, while men were more than three and one-half times more likely than women to be the victim of kicking, biting, hitting or being hit with something.

Victims of spousal violence frequently sustained physical injuries (31%), with women more likely to report being injured than men. Hospital care was required by 16% of spousal violence victims that reported physical injuries. Aside from physical injuries, most victims of spousal violence reported some form of negative emotional consequences resulting from the abuse. New measures of long-term psychological harm show that 16% of spousal violence victims often suffer symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with women being more likely to report these effects than men.

Analysis of victims’ experiences of childhood maltreatment indicate links between abuse suffered during childhood, abuse witnessed during childhood, and experiences of spousal violence later in life. Among individuals with current or former spouses or common-law partners, those who reported having been both sexually and physically abused during childhood were more than twice as likely to report spousal violence (8%) than those who had not experienced abuse as children (3%). Furthermore, one in five (21%) people who experienced spousal violence in the previous five years reported having witnessed violence committed by a parent, step-parent or guardian as a child, compared to 11% of those in spousal relationships free of violence who had witnessed abuse as children.

While two-thirds of victims of spousal violence reported satisfaction with police intervention, most victims of spousal violence (70%) indicated that police were never contacted. More often, victims turned to other formal sources of support in their communities (36%), such as shelters or social workers, or sought help from informal sources such as family and friends (68%).

Aboriginal people across the provinces reported spousal violence more frequently (9%E) than their non-Aboriginal counterparts (4%) and experienced more severe types of spousal violence. People identifying as Aboriginal were also more likely than non-Aboriginals to report having witnessed violence committed by a parent, step-parent or guardian as a child (21% versus 10%, respectively).

In addition to physical and sexual spousal violence, emotional and financial spousal abuse can have serious consequences of those who are victimized in these ways. In 2014, 14% of individuals with current or former spouses or partners reported emotional and/or financial abuse. Like spousal violence, rates of emotional spousal abuse declined between 2004 (17%) and 2014 (14%). Financial abuse, however, has remained stable over the past decade (3%).

Detailed data tables

Table 1.1 Victims of self-reported spousal violence within the past 5 years, 2004, 2009 and 2014
Table 1.2 Victims of self-reported spousal violence within the past 5 years, by sex, 2004, 2009 and 2014
Table 1.3 Victims of self-reported spousal violence within the past 12 months, by sex, 2004, 2009 and 2014
Table 1.4 Victims of self-reported spousal violence in the past 5 years, by province, 2004, 2009 and 2014
Table 1.5 Victims of self-reported spousal violence within the past 5 years, by most serious type of violence, 2004, 2009 and 2014
Table 1.6 Victims of self-reported spousal violence within the past 5 years, by service contacted or used, 2004, 2009 and 2014
Table 1.7 Victims of self-reported spousal violence in current relationships within the past 12 months, by sex and selected demographic characteristics, 2004, 2009 and 2014

References

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