Trends in sexual offences

Quantifying sexual assault continues to be a challenge, since the large majority (91%) of these crimes are not reported to police. According to self-reported victim data from the 2004 GSS on Victimization, approximately 512,200 Canadians aged 15 and older1 were the victims of a sexual assault in the 12 months preceding the survey.2 Expressed as a rate, there were 1,977 incidents of sexual assault per 100,000 population aged 15 and older reported on the 2004 GSS; a rate not statistically different from that of the 1999 GSS (2,058 per 100,000 population).

Fewer than one in ten sexual assault victims report crime to the police

Of the three types of violent offences recorded by the GSS, sexual assault was the least likely to be reported to the police. Less than one in ten incidents of sexual assault were reported to the police, a proportion significantly lower than that for the other violent offences, robbery (47%) and physical assault (40%).

Incidents of sexual touching were less likely to be reported to police than incidents of sexual attack, with 94% incidents of sexual touching going unreported versus 78% of sexual attacks. This may be due to the fact that incidents of sexual touching are considered less serious and less likely to result in physical injury, and research suggests that less serious forms of crime and those not involving physical injury are less likely to be reported to the police (Gannon and Mihorean, 2005).

Victims of both forms of sexual assault generally had similar reasons for not reporting the incident to the police. The most commonly stated reason why victims of sexual assault did not report the incident to the police was because they felt it was not important enough (58%). Victims also stated that they did not report to police because the incident was dealt with in another way (54%); they felt that it was a personal matter (47%); or they did not want to get involved with the police (41%).3 Previous research has also shown these sentiments to be common barriers to reporting sexual crimes (Sable et al., 2006). Generally, the reasons for not reporting to police given by sexual assault victims were similar to those offered by victims of other violent crimes. However, a significant difference was found between the proportion of sexual assault victims (47%) and those experiencing other forms of violent crime (39%) who indicated that they did not involve the police because they felt the incident was a personal matter.

Police-reported data show lower sexual assault rates compared to victimization data

A small fraction of sexual assaults are reported to police. Hence, as expected, the numbers for sexual offences according to police-reported data are markedly lower, compared to figures from victimization surveys. Police-reported data indicate that in 2007, an estimated 24,200 sexual offences were brought to police-attention. At a rate of 73 per 100,000 Canadians, police-reported sexual offences were down 3% over the previous year, but still accounted for 8% of all police-reported violent crime in 2007.

Looking back over the past 25 years of police-reported data, rates of sexual offences have fluctuated; rising notably for about the first decade, and then declining steadily thereafter. After the amendments to the Criminal Code in 1983, there was a steady rise in the overall rate of police-reported sexual offences, which continued until 1993; during this time, rates for police-reported sexual offence nearly doubled, rising from 59 per 100,000 Canadians to 136 per 100,000 (Chart 1). After peaking in 1993, the overall rate for sexual offences reported to police declined, paralleling the downward trend for violent offences in general (Kong et al., 2003). This trend was largely influenced by level 1 sexual assaults (the category with the least physical injury to the victim), as they account for the majority of sexual offence incidents reported to the police. Compared to level 1 sexual assault rates, rates for level 2 and level 3 sexual assaults, as well as other sexual offences were relatively stable throughout the period from 1983 to 2007.

Chart 1 Rates of police-reported sexual offences decline steadily after 1993 peak. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 1
Rates of police-reported sexual offences decline steadily after 1993 peak

While a notable increase in police-reported sexual offences did follow the 1983 changes to the Criminal Code, research has found that these legislative amendments alone were insufficient to explain the increase, and that other social change during this time period also contributed to the rise (Roberts and Gebotys, 1992; Roberts and Grossman, 1994; Department of Justice, 1985). Among these social changes, contend Clark and Hepworth (1994), were improvements to the social, economic and political status of women; a heightened focus on victims of crime and a growth in victim's services such as sexual assault centres; as well as special training of police officers and hospitals staff to respond to victims of sexual assault and gather evidence to be used at trial (Kong et al., 2003).

Rates of sexual offences reported to police vary widely across the provinces and territories4

According to police-reported data, in 2007, there was considerable variation in the overall rates of sexual offences reported to the police across Canada (Chart 2). Among the provinces, Saskatchewan (138 per 100,000 population) and Manitoba (113) had the highest rates, while Ontario (61) and Prince Edward Island (58) had the lowest. Total sexual offence rates for Quebec (69) and Alberta (70) were also below the national average of 73 sexual offences per 100,000 population. Overall, rates of sexual offences were highest in Nunavut (746), followed by Northwest Territories (518) and Yukon (203).

Chart 2 Provincial rates of police-reported sexual offences vary with Saskatchewan the highest and Prince Edward Island lowest. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 2
Provincial rates of police-reported sexual offences vary with Saskatchewan the highest and Prince Edward Island lowest

Because it is the most common of the four different types of sexual offences, level 1 sexual assault drove inter-provincial differences in rates for all sexual offences. Like the overall pattern for rates of all sexual offences combined, level 1 sexual assault rates were highest in Saskatchewan (119) and lowest in Prince Edward Island (51). In comparison, rates of sexual assault with a weapon (level 2) and aggravated sexual assault (level 3) were relatively low across all provinces, ranging from 1 to 3 per 100,000 population, while rates for other sexual offences ranged from a low of 5 per 100,000 population in Ontario to a high of 22 per 100,000 in New Brunswick.

While the occurrence of sexual assaults may vary across the country, there are also other possible explanations for the disparity in police-reported sexual assault rates among the provinces and territories. Such explanations include, for example, variations in public attitudes towards sexual assault which may influence reporting among victims,5 differences in age demographics, the availability of victim services in the area, or police training (Kong et al., 2003).

Notes

  1. The target population for the 2004 cycle of the GSS is all persons 15 years of age and older in Canada, excluding residents of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, as well as full-time residents of institutions.
  2. GSS data on sexual assault exclude incidents of spousal sexual assault. An in-depth module in the GSS addresses the issue of spousal violence separately. Overall, an estimated 653,000 women and 546,000 men (representing 7% and 6%, respectively) reported some type of violence by a common-law or marital partner in the 5 years preceding the 2004 GSS.
  3. Respondents could provide multiple responses. Therefore, percentages will exceed 100% when summed.
  4. For most provinces, incidents of sexual assault were too low to produce reliable estimates using data from the GSS. Therefore, provincial data on sexual assaults from the GSS is not presented in this study.
  5. The 2004 GSS also showed that the proportion of sexual assault incidents that did not come to the attention of police varied by province but, in most cases, these inter-provincial variations were not statistically meaningful. Nevertheless, the proportion of sexual assaults not reported to police was significantly higher in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan in comparison to Ontario. Otherwise, no statistically significant inter-provincial differences in non-reporting were found.