The Ending Violence Association of Canada (EVA Canada) was alarmed, though not surprised, to see increases in the rates of police-reported intimate partner sexual assaults in 2021 relative to 2020.
On October 19, 2022 Statistics Canada released the report Victims of police-reported family and intimate partner violence in Canada, 2021. Based on data from the 2021 Uniform Crime Reporting Survey and the Homicide Survey, the report shows modest increases in the rates of police-reported family and intimate partner violence since 2020 across most categories. When looking specifically at rates of police-reported intimate partner sexual violence in 2021 however, there were significant increases compared with 2020. Rates of police-reported level 1 sexual assault (sexual assault violating the sexual integrity of the victim) among intimate partners increased by 22% compared with 2020, while rates of level 2 police-reported sexual assault (with a weapon or causing bodily harm) among intimate partners increased by 6% compared with 2020. Only police-reported level 3 sexual assault (aggravated sexual assault) decreased, with rates 12% lower in 2021 than in 2020.
Advocates working in the field who are on the frontlines of the response to sexual violence are unlikely to be surprised by the reported increases in most types of intimate partner sexual assaults in 2021. Notably, these increases in police-reported intimate partner sexual assault occurred despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its related isolation requirements, as well as a deepening mistrust of the criminal justice system after the murder of George Floyd; factors that likely would have made it more difficult for survivors to report sexual violence to the police.
While the numbers are alarming, they reveal only a partial picture of the crisis around intimate partner sexual violence in this country. It is important to keep in mind that only 5% of survivors of sexual violence and 19% of survivors of spousal violence report the violence they have experienced to the police. Survivors continue to be deterred from reporting to the police due to significant social barriers including:
- A criminal justice system that overpolices, overcriminalizes and overincarcerates certain groups (indigenous people, racialized people, sex workers, people with disabilities, etc.)
- High rates of sexual assault cases being prematurely closed and deemed “unfounded”
- Survivors experiencing revictimization throughout the court process, including intrusive cross-examinations that seek to undermine the victim’s credibility
- Rape culture and rape myths which permeate sexual assault trials and media coverage, further stigmatizing and blaming the victim for the violence that was committed against them
- The overuse of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that stop survivors from speaking out
- Long court wait times and low conviction rates
Increases in the number of police-reported intimate partner sexual assaults may therefore indicate wider-ranging increases in the rates of intimate partner sexual assault within the population.
As EVA Canada emphasized in its submission to the House of Commons’ Committee on the Status of Women, it is crucial for sexual violence to be not only highlighted, but included, within discussions around intimate partner relationships and family violence. Sexual violence is the third most reported type of violence within intimate relationships, and it is often ongoing (monthly or more). Its cumulative impacts on children and adults can be lifelong and devastating, requiring specialized supports and responses.
The rise in police-reported intimate partner sexual assaults speaks to the urgent need for increased support for specialized sexual violence services, something that EVA Canada and their partner organizations have been calling for. Specialized sexual violence services are already struggling to meet demand, with survivors in many regions facing months-long waitlists to access the critical services they need. In addition, there is uneven access to specialized sexual violence services across the country with some survivors of intimate partner sexual violence having no access at all. Bold investments are urgently needed to better equip community-based sexual assault centres who are working tirelessly to meet increasing demand, so that survivors of intimate partner sexual violence can access vital services wherever they are in Canada, and whether they choose to report to the police or not.