Section 1: Self-reported spousal violence, 2009

Spousal violence is a devastating reality for many Canadian families that cuts across all social, economic and cultural groups (Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, n.d.). This form of violence encompasses physical and sexual violence, as well as emotional and financial abuse, perpetrated by a current or former legal or common-law spouse.

Statistics Canada collects information about spousal violence using two different, yet complementary, data sources: police statistics and victimization surveys. While police-reported statistics are useful for understanding the nature and extent of spousal violence that comes to the attention of police, we know through self-reported victimization surveys that less than one-quarter of spousal violence victims report the incident to police (22% in 2009). The General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization captures information on people's experiences of spousal violence regardless of whether or not the incident was reported to police.

Using data from the 2009 GSS on Victimization, this section examines the prevalence and nature of self-reported physical and sexual spousal violence in the 10 provinces. Data from the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut was collected as part of a separate survey and will be published at a later date. Looking specifically at Canadians who were married or living in a common-law relationship, or who had contact with an ex-partner within the previous five years, this study examines the frequency of spousal violence, the socio-demographic risk factors associated with spousal violence, the impact and consequences on victims and police reporting behaviour. Where applicable, data from previous GSS cycles (1999, 2004) are included to provide comparisons and to identify trends in self-reported spousal violence.

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Measuring spousal violence through the General Social Survey

Every five years Statistics Canada conducts a General Social Survey cycle on victimization that 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.

All respondents who are married or living in a common-law relationship at the time of the survey, or had contact with their ex-partner within the previous five years, are asked a series of 10 questions about spousal violence. This includes legally married, common-law, same-sex, separated and divorced spouses.

The questions measure both physical and sexual violence as defined by the Criminal Code that could 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 within the previous five years. 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 "Data Sources" section.

Spousal violence stable since 2004

Of the 19 million Canadians who had a current or former spouse in 2009, 6% reported being physically or sexually victimized by their partner or spouse in the preceding five years. This proportion was lower than that reported in 1999, but has remained stable since 2004 (Table 1.1). Overall, a similar proportion of males and females reported having experienced spousal violence in the previous 5 years (Table 1.2).

When asked about their experiences within the preceding 12 months, the proportion of Canadians who reported spousal violence dropped to 2% (Table 1.3). Again, the finding was similar for males and females.

As in previous cycles of the GSS, many victims of spousal violence reported recurring incidents. Just under one-half of victims who had experienced an incident of spousal violence in the previous five years stated that the violence had occurred on more than one occasion. Females were more likely than males to report multiple victimizations, at 57% and 40% respectively.

Spousal violence was more likely to occur between ex-spouses or partners than current spouses or partners (Table 1.1, Table 1.3). For example, in 2009, 17% of Canadians who had contact with an ex-spouse or partner in the previous 5 years reported that they had been physically or sexually assaulted by their partner at least once during that time. This proportion fell to 4% when looking at Canadians who were victimized by a current spouse or partner.

Proportion of spousal violence similar across majority of provinces

Self-reported victimization data indicate that in 2009 the proportion of Canadians who experienced spousal violence was similar among the provinces. The only exceptions were in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec, where the proportions of spousal violence victims were significantly lower than the national average. The proportion of Canadians who reported at least one incident of spousal violence in the previous five years ranged from 4% 1  in Newfoundland and Labrador to 8% in Saskatchewan and Alberta 2  (Table 1.4, Chart 1.1).

Reflecting the overall national trend, provincial proportions of spousal violence have remained stable since 2004.

Females report more serious violence than males

Similar to previous GSS victimization cycles, females continued to report more serious forms of spousal violence than males. For example, in 2009, females who reported spousal violence were about three times more likely than males (34% versus 10% 3  ) to report that they had been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or a knife by their partner or ex-partner in the previous 5 years (Chart 1.2).

Overall, the proportion of victims who reported the most severe form of spousal violence has remained stable since 2004. In 2009, 22% of spousal violence victims stated that they had been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a gun or a knife, a proportion that did not differ significantly from 2004 (29%) (Table 1.5).

Socio-demographic risk factors associated with spousal violence

The GSS gathers information on the socio-demographic risk factors associated with spousal violence. This information is based upon spousal victimizations that occurred within the previous 12 months.

Spousal violence highest among younger Canadians

Similar to previous GSS victimization cycles, the 2009 data indicate that younger Canadians were more likely to report being a victim of spousal violence than older Canadians. Canadians aged 25 to 34 were three times more likely than those aged 45 and older to report being physically or sexually assaulted by a current spouse in the previous 12 months (Table 1.6).

Spousal violence was also higher among common-law couples. Canadians living in common-law relationships were approximately three times more likely than their married counterparts to report having experienced at least one incident of spousal violence in the previous 12 months. Canadians living in blended 4  families were also three times more likely than both intact families and families without children to report experiencing spousal violence (Table 1.6).

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5-year socio-demographic characteristics of spousal violence victims, 2009

There are other socio-demographic characteristics of spousal violence victims that can be examined based upon victimizations that occurred within the past five years. These include sexual orientation, presence of an activity limitation, Aboriginal identity, visible minority status and immigrant status. 5 

Those who self-identified as gay or lesbian were more than twice as likely as heterosexuals to report having experienced spousal violence, while those who self-identified as bisexual were four times more likely than heterosexuals to self-report spousal violence.

Of those who reported having an activity limitation (such as a physical or mental condition or health problem), 8% reported having been a victim of spousal violence in the previous 5 years, compared to 6% who did not have an activity limitation. 6 

Aboriginal identity was another socio-demographic factor associated with spousal violence. 7  The results of the 2009 General Social Survey indicated that those who self-identified as an Aboriginal person were almost twice as likely as those who did not to report being the victim of spousal violence (10% versus 6%).

On the other hand, those who identified themselves as a visible minority or an immigrant were not found to be associated with increased levels of spousal violence. A similar proportion of visible and non-visible minorities self-reported experiencing spousal violence (5% versus 6%), while people who identified as an immigrant were less likely to report being a victim of spousal violence than non-immigrants (4% versus 7%). These findings are consistent with those for victimization in general (Perreault and Brennan 2010).

Other socio-demographic factors, such as household income and education levels, were found to have had little impact on experiencing spousal violence. Victims and perpetrators of spousal violence were no more likely to be university graduates than to have dropped out of high school. Similarly, there was little difference in the proportions of spousal violence victims across various income groups. Regardless of whether Canadians belonged to the highest or lowest household income category, the proportion of victims of spousal violence was between 1% to 2%.

Reporting victimizations to police and use of restraining orders

Spousal violence victims less likely to report incidents to police than in the past

In each victimization cycle of the GSS, victims are asked whether or not the incident came to the attention of police. In 2009, less than one-quarter (22%) of spousal violence victims stated that the police found out about the incident, down from 28% in 2004 (Table 1.7). The decline in reporting occurred primarily among female victims.

Most incidents of spousal violence that were brought to the attention of police were reported by victims themselves. While female victims were about three times more likely than male victims to state that they had reported the incident to police (23% versus 7%), the reasons for choosing to report were similar for both groups.

Overall, the most common reason for reporting incidents of spousal violence to police was a desire to stop the violence and to receive protection (89%). Other reasons included: a sense of duty (49%), wanting their partner arrested and punished (31%) and someone else recommending that they report the incident (26%). Of those victims who did report the victimization to the police, over 6 in 10 stated that they were satisfied with the police response.

For a variety of reasons, some people choose not to report incidents of spousal violence to police. Among those who did not report such incidents in 2009, the most common reason was the belief that the incident was a personal matter that did not concern the police (82%). Other reasons included dealing with the situation in another way (81%), and feeling that the incident was not important enough (70%) (Chart 1.3).

As in previous victimization cycles, the 2009 GSS found that many victims of spousal violence had been victimized multiple times before they turned to the police. For example, almost two-thirds of spousal violence victims (63%) said that they had been victimized more than once before they contacted the police. Nearly 3 in 10 (28%) stated that they had been victimized more than 10 times before they contacted the police.

One in ten spousal violence victims obtained restraining orders

Some victims of spousal violence, primarily women, reported having obtained a restraining or protective order from a criminal or civil court. These orders are intended to protect victims who fear for their safety or the safety of their children, through a number of means including removing the abuser from the home, giving the victim exclusive occupation of the home or placing restrictions on the abuser's communication with the victim.

In 2009, one in ten victims of spousal violence (10%) stated that they obtained a restraining or protective order against their abuser. Females were three times more likely than males to state that they had obtained a restraining order against their spouse or ex-spouse (15% versus 5%).

Of those who had obtained a restraining or protective order, nearly one-third of victims (30%) reported that their abuser violated its terms. Over two-thirds (67%) of these victims stated that they reported this violation to the police.

Sources of support for victims of spousal violence

Female victims more likely than male victims to seek support

Many victims of spousal violence, particularly females, choose to seek support from sources outside the criminal justice system. Overall, close to 7 in 10 victims of spousal violence turned to informal sources of support, such as family, friends, neighbours, co-workers and spiritual advisors (Chart 1.4, Table 1.7).

In addition to informal sources, spousal violence victims were also asked to identify whether or not they had used or contacted a formal victim service or program. In 2009, close to 3 in 10 victims (28%) reported contacting or using a formal service, such as a counsellor or psychologist, to help them deal with the violence.

Overall, fewer victims of spousal violence used or contacted formal victim services in 2009 than in 2004 (28% versus 34%). The most frequently cited reason for not accessing victim services was that the victim did not want or need help (54%) followed by the belief that the incident was too minor (29%). This finding held true for both males and females.

Physical and emotional consequences of spousal violence

Bruises most common physical injury

Victims of spousal violence were asked whether or not they had been physically injured as a result of the violence. Similar to 2004, the 2009 GSS found that 3 in 10 spousal violence victims had been injured during the commission of the offence, with females being more than twice as likely as males to report an injury (42% versus 18%).

Among those who stated that they had been injured, bruises were the most common form of injury reported by both female (95%) and male (75%) victims. Male victims were more likely than female victims to report suffering cuts, scratches or burns (59% versus 30%). Just under 1 in 10 females reported bone fractures as an injury. Among victims of spousal violence who reported an injury, 13% 8  stated that they were hospitalized as a result of the violence.

Most victims of spousal violence report emotional consequences

In addition to physical injuries, more than three-quarters of spousal violence victims reported being emotionally affected. The most common emotional reaction reported by spousal violence victims was feeling upset, confused, or frustrated (32%). Other reactions included feeling angry (27%), hurt or disappointed (16%), fearful (15%), and depressed (15%).

Some victims of spousal violence also reported having experienced disruptions to their daily lives as a result of the incident. Overall, close to one in five victims (18%) stated that they had to take time off or away from their daily activity as a result of the spousal violence. Females were three times more likely than males to report that the violent incident had disrupted their daily routine.

Not all victims of spousal violence reported experiencing emotional consequences. In 2009, 30% of males and 9% 9  of females said the violence had not affected them much. The higher proportion of females who suffered an emotional reaction may be partly related to the finding that the frequency and severity of violence perpetrated against females tends to be greater than that experienced by males.

Emotional and financial abuse

Name calling most common form of emotional abuse

In addition to collecting information about physical violence perpetrated by current or ex-spouses, the GSS also asks Canadians whether they had been subjected to other forms of abuse, such as emotional or psychological abuse. In addition, respondents are also asked about financial abuse, namely preventing knowledge or access to the family income.

According to the 2009 GSS, close to 1 in 5 Canadians aged 15 years and older (17%) reported that their current or ex-partner had been emotionally or financially abusive at some point during their relationship, a proportion similar to 2004.

The most common form of emotional abuse reported by victims was being put down or called names by their partner to make them feel bad (53%). Other manifestations of emotional abuse included: having their partner not wanting them to talk to others, having their partner demand to know where they were at all times, and trying to limit their contact with family and friends (Chart 1.5).

Results from the 2009 GSS indicate that emotional and financial abuse often accompanies physical and sexual spousal violence. Close to 7 in 10 respondents who reported being a victim of spousal violence said that they had also experienced emotional and/or financial abuse.

Summary

The incidence of spousal violence, within both current and previous relationships, remained stable between 2004 and 2009 at about 6% of the Canadian adult population. The proportion of Canadians who reported having been victims of emotional and financial abuse also remained stable at about 17% in 2009.

The proportion of Canadians who reported being sexually assaulted, beaten, choked, or threatened with a gun or a knife by a current or ex-spouse remained stable between 2004 and 2009, however females continued to experience more serious types of spousal violence than males.

Demographic characteristics including being younger, living in a common-law relationship, and living in a step-family were associated with increased levels of spousal violence. Other socio-demographic factors, such as household income and education levels, were found to have had little impact on self-reported spousal violence.

Victims of spousal violence continue to rely on informal sources of support, such as family and friends, more often than on formal services or the police. In 2009, fewer victims of spousal violence stated that they contacted a formal service than in 2004. Further, the proportion of victims who reported the incident to the police also declined in 2009.

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