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Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is not rare and can happen regardless of income level, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, culture or religion. It can happen to anyone of any gender, and occurs more often than we would like to think.
Many people have false ideas about what sexual assault is, and what motivates it. For example, many people believe sexual assault is when a man forces penile-vaginal penetration onto a woman because he wants sex. The belief that sexual assault is motivated by sexual desire or arousal is false, and is one myth among many regarding sexual assault. Sexual assault is a crime. It is an act of power and control that does not always involve forced penetration. Offenders of sexual assault can be any gender. It is important to learn the facts about sexual assault.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any form of sexual contact without voluntary consent

This includes forced oral contact ("kissing"), fondling, grabbing, groping, sexual rubbing, oral-genital contact ("oral sex"), vaginal penetration and anal penetration. Basically, any physical contact, that is sexual in any way, done without a person's voluntary consent is sexual assault.

For more information about child sexual abuse, click here.

What is consent?

Consent is a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual contact.

Voluntary means a person freely agrees to the sexual act because they want to. Whether it is kissing, sexual touching, oral sex, and/or penetrative sex, everyone involved must give voluntary consent.

Because sex* involves more than one person (with masturbation being the exception), consent must be communicated; it cannot be assumed. While phrases like "yes means yes" and "no means no" are helpful, they can be misleading and do not fully explain all the ways a person can communicate voluntary consent. For example, sometimes a person might say yes because they are scared to say no – that would not be voluntary consent. They did not freely say yes because they wanted to; it was forced. Sometimes people do not say "No." They might simply be quiet and are not saying anything, and that is okay.

*When we use the word "sex," we mean all forms of sexual activity, including kissing, sexual touching, oral sex, and/or penetrative sex.

Consent in Canada is:

  • Affirmative, meaning people are not required to say "No."

Consent is something all participating individuals actively communicate to each other, not something someone assumes is there unless told otherwise. Nobody has any obligation to say "No." Rather, the responsibility lies with each of us to pay attention to our sexual partner, and find out if they are giving voluntary consent or not. Pay attention to their body language and listen. Unless they communicate voluntary consent, assume that consent has not been given.

  • Continuously communicated during sex.

Everyone must pay attention to their sexual partner during sex, and maintain continuous communication that all parties are consenting. People can change their minds. Once someone changes their mind and withdraws consent, that needs to be respected and the sexual act must stop.

  • Act-specific, meaning past consent does not imply future consent.

Consent must be communicated each time people have sex, and for each sexual act they engage in. Just because someone has in the past agreed to a sexual act, for example oral sex, does not mean they will automatically consent to it in the future.

Voluntary consent ultimately means both people are comfortable, happy, and enthusiastic about the sex. People can communicate voluntary consent verbally, and/or with their body language.

For information about the age of consent in Canada, visit our child sexual abuse section.

When is consent not given?

Below are five ways the Criminal Code of Canada states that consent has not been given.

Consent is not given if:

  1. It is given by someone else. We can only consent for ourselves, never for other people.
  2. A person says or implies, "No," through their words or actions (i.e. body language). People do not need to say "No," to not give consent. They might freeze up, be silent, attempt to keep their clothing on, come up with an excuse, say they would rather be doing something else, etc. Unless they have actively communicated voluntary consent in some way, they have not given consent.
  3. A person is abusing a position of power, trust or authority. See Sexual Exploitation to learn how this applies to individuals under the age of 18.
  4. A person is incapable of giving consent (i.e. unconscious, impaired by alcohol or drugs, sleeping).
  5. A person withdraws consent or changes their mind.

What is coercion?

Coercion is using words or actions to make people do things they do not want to do. When coercion is used to make someone engage in sexual contact when they do not want to, voluntary consent has not been given.

A few examples of sexual coercion might be:

  • Pressuring – Constantly asking for sex, so that each time the person has to communicate no. Pressuring is an attempt to wear a person down so they will finally "give in."
  • Guilt – Trying to make a person feel guilty for not giving consent. This tactic might sound like, "I thought you loved me. I thought you were serious about our relationship." "You've had sex before. What's wrong with right now? Don't you like me?" "Come on. Are you angry with me or something? Do you not want to be with me anymore?"
  • Threats – Threats can be physical or non-physical. The person using coercion might threaten to hurt an individual's family, their pets, or threaten them directly, "I will hurt you if you don't." They might threaten to self-harm, for example, "I'll kill myself if you leave right now." "I'll hurt myself if you don't come over tonight." Non-physical threats might sound like, "I'll tell everyone we did it anyways, so you might as well." "I'll break up with you if you don't." "I'll tell everyone you're gay."

Coercion is often used when the two people know each other, for example, in child sexual abuse, and acquaintance or intimate partner sexual assault.

If someone is coerced into sexual activity, that person has NOT given voluntary consent.

Coercion takes a lot of work. The person using coercion is saying and doing things, making an effort, to get the answer they want to hear. Clearly, when someone uses coercion they know what the other person wants – they are just choosing to ignore it.

We know when people do not want to do something; it is our responsibility to accept their first answer, the first time they give it!

Who is responsible for sexual assault?

There are a lot of attitudes about sexual assault that place blame on the person who was sexually assaulted. For example, attitudes that blame survivors of sexual assault because they were drinking, or they dressed provocatively, or they trusted the wrong person. We tend to forget the offender of the sexual assault. We forget that a person, who makes choices about their own conduct, chose to force sexual contact onto someone who had not given voluntary consent. Offenders of sexual assault are always, 100% responsible for the sexual assault because it is their behavior that is morally and legally wrong.

What can we do to stop sexual assault from happening?

Raise children to be respectful. Educate children and youth about consent.

Many people raise their children (especially their girls) to "avoid" being sexually assaulted, but ignore teaching their children to not sexually assault others. The idea of teaching children and youth to "not sexually assault" might seem silly, but it is really quite simple. Teach children and youth to not sexually assault others by teaching them about consent and boundaries. Often, children and teens receive very little sex education, or if they do, it is typically about topics like anatomy, contraceptive options, STIs and pregnancy. Discussing topics such as consent and respect in relationships will prevent sexual assault by teaching children and teens to respect their partner's right to choose, and to pay attention to their partner during sexual activity to communicate mutual consent.

Learn about what sexual assault is and acknowledge that it happens.

One reason that sexual assault is so rampant is because there is little education given on it. Once people learn what it is, and recognize that it is a prevalent problem, they are able to work towards stopping it. You can learn about sexual assault on our website, or visit other online sources of information, such as ConsentEd, or If you are interested in booking a presentation or workshop for your school or workplace, contact the SACE Public Education team

Many people ignore the subject of sex and/or sexual assault altogether when talking to their children. Being willing to talk to, and teach children about sex and sexual abuse creates an environment where children can feel less afraid to disclose sexual abuse, and helps the caring adults in their lives prevent on-going sexual abuse.

Question the offender's behaviour instead of the survivor's behaviour.

To prevent sexual assaults, we must shift the blame to where it belongs. Offenders of sexual assault are 100% responsible for sexual assaults, because it is their behavior we deem legally and morally wrong. We can hold offenders accountable by challenging myths about sexual assault whenever we hear them come up in the media or in daily conversations. We can let our friends, family, and children know that if they are sexually assaulted or abused, it is not their fault.

Challenge sexism and other forms of oppression.

Sexism creates a culture in which men are told they ought to act big, strong, and powerful, and creates a social environment where men are encouraged to exert power over women and other men. Sexism enables and encourages sexual violence as a means to gaining that sense of power. While sexism is oppressive towards women, it also negatively affects male survivors of sexual assault, because sexist attitudes reinforce the myth that men cannot be sexually assaulted, and if they are, they are not "real" men. When sexism is challenged, when the gender roles which lead to sexual assault happening are challenged, there will no longer be a social environment that encourages sexual assault and dismisses the sexual victimization of men. There are many ways we can challenge sexism in our daily life. For example, by recognizing that not all men and women fit gender stereotypes, nor should they be expected to, and by taking a stand against sexist jokes or remarks.

All forms of oppression contribute to sexual violence, because sexual violence is about power and control. All forms of oppression contribute to divisions of power and encourage people with privilege to exert power over people who experience oppression. To end sexual violence, we must not only challenge sexism; we must also challenge racism, ableism, heterosexism, capitalism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, and classism. We must challenge all social systems that encourage people to exert power and control over others.

Support your local sexual assault center.

Many cities, including Edmonton, have a sexual assault center that supports those who experience sexual violence. See if your community has one and seek out volunteer opportunities. For information about volunteer opportunities at SACE, click here.

How can I support a friend or family memeber who has been sexual assaulted or sexually abused?

Do's and Don'ts

Here are a few suggestions for how to support a survivor of sexual violence. You can click here, for more information on how to support a child who discloses they were sexually abused.


  • Listen

Listening involves a lot of silence. Do not rush in to fill moments of silence. Your friend may be confused and overwhelmed, and may need time to let everything sink in and/or figure out what they would like to share.

  • Believe

It is very rare for people to lie about sexual assault, so take a second and let your friend know you believe them.

  • Explore options

People who have been sexually assaulted may experience a loss of power and control. Because of this, avoid telling your friend what to do. Instead, try exploring options together, and let your friend decide which option is best for them even if it is not what you would do.


  • Do not ask "why" questions

These questions can imply blame towards the person you are asking, even if you did not intend it that way. Before asking any questions, ask yourself whether knowing the answer to your question will help you support your friend, or if it is just because you are curious. Avoid "why" questions as a rule of thumb.

  • Do not judge

Let your friend know that you do not judge however they are feeling, or responding, to the sexual assault. It is likely that the perpetrator is someone both you and your friend know. Your friend might have mixed feelings about the perpetrator. Let them know it is okay.

  • Do not probe for details

Most people who are sexually assaulted do not want to talk about details. If they are vague about what happened, that is okay.

For options, visit our community resources section.

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