Disclosure of sexual assault

Highlights

  • Disclosing sexual assault is a complex and gradual process. It can occur in a variety of contexts and can be deliberate, spontaneous or accidental, especially in the case of children.
  • People who disclose sexual assault usually do so to someone close to them (e.g., family member, friend, intimate partner).
  • Few people report the event to the police or professional help services.  
  • The majority of sexual offences reported to the police are reported more than a month after the event.
  • There are many obstacles to disclosing sexual assault, such as guilt or shame about the event, fear of not being believed, fear of negative consequences for oneself, loved ones or the perpetrator, and fear of the legal process and contact with the police.
  • The way in which someone reacts when a victim, whether a child or an adult, discloses sexual assault is important, as it influences their recovery. Negative reactions are likely to hinder recovery and prevent victims from seeking help, while positive reactions promote recovery and coping.

In Quebec, any adult who has reasonable grounds to believe that a child (under the age of 18) is being sexually abused is required to report the situation immediately to their local Director of Youth Protection (DYP). It is not necessary to be certain that the sexual abuse has taken place. The DYP will take the report, evaluate it, and ensure that the child has the necessary support.

To report a situation, you can contact your local DYP, 24/7. In case of emergency, call 911.

Introduction

Disclosure is when a victim of sexual assault shares their experience with another person, whether formally, informally, deliberately, spontaneously, or in response to an invitation to do so.1 A victim may disclose to someone close to them (e.g., friend, intimate partner, family member), to the police, to a professional (e.g., doctor, nurse, psychologist, social worker), or to anyone else. However, many victims choose not to disclose their experiences, for a variety of reasons.

It is common for a victim who discloses the sexual assault to someone close to them to decide not to report the event to the police. It is estimated that only one sexual assault in twenty (5-6%) is reported to the police each year2,3, so police data are not representative of the actual number of sexual assaults occurring in a population. In Quebec, 5,747 sexual assault offences were reported by police in 2020. Women accounted for 88.9% of victims and men for 96.8% of alleged perpetrators4.

Distribution of victims of sexual offences, by time taken to report to the police, 2020a

 

aUpdated data
Source: Ministry of Public Security. Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR)

Of all police-reported sexual offences (including sexual assault and other sexual offences), just over half of victims reported the event more than a month (30 days) later. Of these, a significant proportion did so more than a year after the event5. Even in cases where the sexual assault is reported to the police, reporting it does not always put an end to it, nor does it necessarily lead to a formal investigation6, which explains, for some, their decision not to report the event or events to the police.

Reasons given for not reporting to the police include not wanting to deal with the police or the legal process, not wanting others to know about the event, or having concerns about the formal complaint process, the police and the legal process (e.g., believing that reporting would not make a difference, that the police would deem the incident not important enough, or that the perpetrator would not be convicted or appropriately punished)2,3,7,8.

The disclosure process

Disclosure is a complex, interactive and gradual lifelong process, not a single event9-12. For victims who disclose sexual assault as adults, this process involves weighing the risks and benefits associated with disclosing sexual assault11, deciding whether or not to tell another person about what they have experienced for the first time, and then, depending on how the first disclosure was received, deciding whether or not to tell other people. Although the decision to disclose sexual assault is a personal choice, several factors influence the likelihood of disclosing to someone close to the victim or to the police13. For example, minimization of the event or events experienced, fear of not being believed, feelings of shame and guilt, fear of negative consequences for oneself or others, and fear of the legal process or contact with the police are all factors that can influence disclosure2,3,14,15.

The disclosure of sexual assault, whether made in childhood or adulthood, can provoke reactions in those who receive it. The nature of these reactions has an important impact on victims, since receiving positive reactions can promote recovery and coping16,17, while negative reactions can hinder recovery, increase feelings of shame, and prevent victims from seeking help18,19.

Disclosure of childhood sexual abuse

It is important to be cautious before interpreting as a lie, and therefore as false allegations of sexual abuse, the fact that a child victim of sexual abuse recants their disclosure. The decision to recant can be a normal part of the disclosure process. For more information, consult the False allegations of child sexual abuse fact sheet.

Disclosure of childhood sexual abuse can occur in a variety of contexts, at any stage of life, and be voluntary or involuntary. Some victims decide to disclose their childhood experiences for the first time in adulthood9Children are less likely to disclose sexual abuse than adults, which can be explained by a number of developmental factors. For example, children may not have the ability to recognize the nature of the sexual abuse or to communicate it to others (e.g., inability to recount everything that happened to them on the spot or forgetting certain details)21. Children may also decide to keep the event or events to themselves, as they may be ashamed of certain details or feel responsible, particularly in the case of incidents occurring online (e.g., Internet luring or sextortion)21. It is not uncommon for children to have a bond of trust with the perpetrator, which may make them unwilling to report the abuse in order to maintain their relationship. Children may also fear the consequences of disclosure for themselves and their families, especially if the sexual abuse was committed by a family member21

Instead of disclosing the sexual abuse, some children will exhibit certain behaviours (e.g., inappropriate sexual behaviour, aggressiveness, irritability) in order to externalize their emotions or to try, consciously or unconsciously, to get the attention of an adult who can put a stop to the sexual abuse. However, it is not possible to determine whether a child has been sexually abused solely based on their behaviour22. A disclosure from them or a witness is the only reliable indicator23. The fact that many child victims of sexual abuse are slow to disclose or never do disclose their abuse diminishes the chances that they will receive an intervention adapted to their needs that will put an end to the sexual abuse.
In Quebec, just over one in five adults who experienced childhood sexual abuse never disclosed the event to anyone, with men more likely to have never disclosed (34.2%) than women (15.7%)24. Depending on the study, the proportion of people who were victims of one or more incidents of sexual abuse during childhood and never disclosed them ranges from 12% to 52%6,12.

The context in which sexual abuse is disclosed varies greatly from child to child. The disclosure may be12,25,26:
 

Who do children disclose sexual abuse to?

Generally, children disclose sexual abuse to their friends first, before confiding in a parent or trusted adult12. However, younger children (aged 7 and under) are more likely to disclose to an adult, such as their parents27, whereas older children (aged 12 and over) and adolescents are more likely to turn to their peers12.

According to a Finnish study conducted in 2013 among a representative sample of 11,364 young people aged 10 to 17, the majority (80%) of young people who had experienced one or more incidents of sexual abuse said they had disclosed them to someone. Young people who disclosed the abuse did so to:

  • a friend (48%);
  • a parent (20% to the mother, 12% to the father);
  • a person in a position of authority (12%), such as a police officer, a teacher, a social worker, a school counsellor or a school nurse27.

Since many children will not disclose the sexual abuse they have experienced, and the majority of adult victims of childhood sexual abuse will not disclose it to anyone outside their social network, the vast majority of cases of sexual abuse are never reported to professionals or people in positions of authority6,21,27. In Canada, for example, only one adult in ten (10.4%) who was sexually abused as a child reports having been in contact with child protection services28.

Disclosure delays

In Quebec, according to a 2009 representative study of adults in the province, only a quarter (21.2%) of adults reported disclosing childhood sexual abuse within a month of the first event, while almost half (48.8%) said they had waited more than five years before disclosing24.

In Quebec, 2,617 sexual abuse offences and 3,124 other sexual offences committed against minors were reported by police in 20204. Of sexual offences (including sexual abuse and other sexual offences) committed against children aged 11 and under, more than half (51.3%) were reported more than a year after the offence was committed, while only 18.5% of those committed against children aged 15 to 17 were reported within the same timeframe5.

Distribution of child (under 18) victims of sexual offences reported to the police, by age and time taken to report to the police, 2020a

 

aUpdated data
Source: Ministry of Public Security. Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR)

In Canada, among sexual abuse offences committed against children aged 13 and under reported by police from 2009 to 2014, nearly half (48%) were reported more than a week after the event, and nearly a third (29%) more than a year after they occurred. These delays are longer than those reported for sexual abuse offences committed against victims aged 14 and over29. Sexual assaults against boys and men take longer to be reported to the police than those against girls and women29. In fact, according to a study conducted in Canada and the U.S. among 253 men who had been sexually abused before the age of 16, men disclosed childhood sexual abuse on average 15.4 years after the event30.

Reasons for not disclosing

Victims of childhood sexual abuse report a number of reasons for not disclosing or for delaying disclosure. These reasons include31,32:

  • Fear of not being believed or taken seriously;
  • Feelings of shame;
  • Feelings of guilt about the sexual abuse or about not having disclosed it yet;
  • Threats and attempts at manipulation by the perpetrator of the sexual abuse;
  • Fear of being held responsible for the events;
  • Fear of the consequences of disclosure for oneself, loved ones and the perpetrator of the sexual abuse;
  • Mixed feelings towards the perpetrator.

Facilitators and obstacles to the disclosure of sexual abuse

The number of factors or characteristics associated with the victims or the context of sexual abuse can facilitate or hinder the disclosure of the abuse. In recent years, obstacles, whether individual, relational or societal, have continued to be identified more frequently than facilitators in scientific studies9.

Age and gender are two characteristics that can influence the disclosure of sexual abuse; trends show that younger children and boys disclose less, later or are more reluctant to disclose sexual abuse, while conversely, older children and girls are more likely to disclose or disclose more quickly9,12,21,24,33–35. Indeed, men may be less inclined to disclose sexual abuse during childhood, adolescence or even adulthood, due to fears associated with being considered a victim and being stigmatized, in addition to fearing the negative reactions of others9. Social norms related to masculinity, taboos and negative stereotypes (e.g., being labeled as less “manly”, “weak”, or homosexual in the case of a male perpetrator) can be major barriers to disclosure and seeking help for many men9,11,36,37. Women also encounter issues related to social norms reinforcing certain stereotypes, such as the objectification of girls and women and the normalization of sexualization. They are also more likely than men to be afraid, to expect to be blamed for the disclosed sexual abuse, and to not be believed9.

The following table shows: 1) the factors that facilitate the disclosure of childhood sexual abuse (facilitators), i.e., elements that increase the likelihood of disclosing sexual abuse or are associated with quicker disclosure, and 2) the factors that hinder or delay disclosure (obstacles). The facilitators and obstacles presented are drawn from both quantitative and qualitative studies, conducted with children or adults who have experienced at least one instance of sexual abuse during childhood.

Individual characteristics
Facilitators Obstacles
  • The need to talk about the sexual abuse38
  • The realization that the event experienced is not normal38
  • The difficulty of managing emotional distress38
  • The feeling that one will be believed38
  • Identifying as a victim of sexual abuse6
  • Fear of disclosing sexual abuse and not being believed14,21,39
  • Feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment9,11,14,21,40
  • A feeling of being responsible for the sexual abuse11,20,40
  • Low self-esteem14
  • Fear of negative consequences for oneself (e.g., safety), for family9,20 or for the perpetrator of the sexual abuse14,21,40
  • Mixed feelings (both positive and negative) towards the perpetrator of the sexual abuse14
  • Fear for personal safety and the safety of others9,14
  • Not viewing the experience as sexual abuse or as serious enough to be disclosed27
  • Acceptance that unwanted sexual experiences are inevitable20
Characteristics of the sexual abuse
Facilitators Obstacles
  • Having experienced a higher frequency of sexual abuse (acts as a facilitator or an obstacle)3,35
  • Having feared injury or death during the sexual abuse6
  • If the perpetrator does not live with the victim9 or is not part of the immediate family24
  • If the perpetrator is over 30 years of age27
  • Having experienced more severe sexual abuse (e.g., with physical contact)34,35
  • If the perpetrator is a family member or has a close relationship with the victim9,33,35
  • Attempts at manipulation and threats on the part of the perpetrator (e.g., blackmail, gifts, lies)32
Social and relational context
Facilitators Obstacles
  • Support from parents, a caregiver (i.e., the person who regularly looks after the child), or peers9,35
  • The opportunity to disclose the sexual abuse, such as:
    • access to a trusted person38
    • being asked, questioned or encouraged to talk about the experience of sexual abuse or sexual abuse in general14,40
    • in a therapeutic context9
    • during sexuality information sessions or sexual abuse prevention programs9
  • Having a low level of social or family support33,40 or a weak social network20
  • Having a family that strongly adheres to traditional gender roles9
  • The presence of violence (e.g., intimate partner violence) and dysfunction in the family9,20
  • A lack of discussion about sexuality, especially in a family context9
  • Lack of school involvement in creating a positive and supportive environment9
  • Lack of education and information on the resources available to victims20
Societal context
Facilitators Obstacles
  • A societal context that promotes open discussion of sexuality9
  • Taboos about sexuality, the stigma surrounding sexual abuse, patriarchal attitudes, and the devaluation of women9,20

Reactions to the disclosure of sexual abuse

The disclosure of sexual abuse can provoke a wide range of reactions in those who receive it, and in the victim’s loved ones. The nature of the resulting reactions, whether positive or negative, has a significant impact on the recovery, coping, and psychological health of those who disclose the sexual abuse17,41–43.

The following table presents a few examples of positive and negative reactions and their impact on victims, drawn from the results of scientific studies on the subject.

To find out more about how to help a victim and receive their disclosure, consult the Helping a victim section.

 

The impact of disclosing sexual abuse

For a child, disclosing sexual abuse can be very difficult, and not disclosing can be detrimental to their physical safety and psychological well-being, as well as increase the likelihood of revictimization13. Never disclosing sexual abuse or disclosing more than a month after the event is associated with higher levels of psychological distress and post-traumatic stress, compared to those who disclose within a month of the event24. Conversely, a quicker disclosure may have a positive impact on the child’s safety and protect them from psychological distress35,45.

For parents who did not commit the sexual abuse, their child’s disclosure can be traumatic and upsetting, affecting their mental and physical health and leading to significant levels of post-traumatic stress, psychological distress, and physical problems46,47. Mothers tend to blame themselves for the event, to be blamed by others, to feel ashamed, and to be angry48. This can create different support needs for parents to cope with the situation. Since they are important support figures for their child following the disclosure, their needs must be considered in the services available to them46.

Disclosure of adult sexual assault

The disclosure of a sexual assault experienced in adulthood can represent the culmination of a long decision-making process during which the person assesses the risks and benefits associated with disclosure. Despite social movements such as #MeToo and the increasing media coverage of allegations by adult victims of sexual assault, many victims choose not to talk about their experiences for various reasons. For some people, however, not disclosing a sexual assault can have a negative impact on their health and lead to significant consequences, including a higher likelihood of sexual revictimization49.

According to the results of a Quebec survey conducted in a university setting,a over a third (35.9%) of people who reported experiencing at least one form of sexual violence committed by someone affiliated with the university, since arriving at the institution never disclosed the situation to anyone. Men were less likely to disclose (50.2%) than women (67.4%) and gender diverse people (70.8%). At the collegiate level,bmore than half (53.8%) of people who have experienced a form of sexual violence in CEGEP never disclosed the situation to anyone51.

Other studies conducted among student populations also reveal that a significant proportion of those who reported having experienced one or more sexual assaults did not disclose their experience to anyone, ranging from 25% to 55%49, and that women are more likely to disclose a sexual assault than men52.

Surveys conducted in Quebec CEGEPs and universities

a The study Enquête sexualité, sécurité et interactions en milieu universitaire (ESSIMU) was carried out in 2016 with a sample of 9,284 people working or studying at one of the six Francophone Quebec universities included in the survey.  

b The study Projet intercollégial d’étude sur le consentement, l’égalité et la sexualité (PIECES) was conducted in 2019 with a sample of 6,006 people working or studying at one of the five CEGEPs included in the project.

Who do adults disclose sexual assault to?

Adult victims of sexual assault are more likely to disclose to informal sources of support, such as friends (or peers), intimate or romantic partners, and family members49,52,53. Disclosure to formal sources, such as the police, health professionals, therapists, and counsellors, is much less common, as these sources are often consulted as a last resort49,53. According to the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization conducted in Canada, those who had experienced a sexual assault in that same year said they had most often told a friend or someone in their neighbourhood (64%), followed by a family member (41%), a work colleague (24%), then a doctor or nurse (6%)7. According to the same survey, 19% of women victims of sexual assault reported having consulted a support service (e.g., a crisis centre, a helpline, a victim assistance service, a psychologist)7. Sexually and gender-diverse people who have been sexually assaulted also disclose more to informal sources of support (from 9% to 44%), compared to formal sources of support (from 4% to 21%)41. Bisexual women are more likely than lesbian or heterosexual women to disclose, both to informal (24% to 77%) and formal (9% to 71%) sources of support41.

In university and college settings, the majority of victims who disclose sexual assault report confiding to someone in their social network or a person affiliated with the university. Few choose to disclose the situation to resources outside the university or CEGEP, or to police authorities50,51.

Sources of disclosure of sexual violence in universities and CEGEPs, Quebec

 

Sources: ESSIMU and PIECES studies
Bergeron, M., A. Gagnon, M.-È. Blackburn, D. M-Lavoie, C. Paré, S. Roy, A. Szabo, & C. Bourget (2020). Rapport de recherche de l’enquête PIECES : Violences sexuelles en milieu collégial au Québec, Montréal, Chaire de recherche sur les violences sexistes et sexuelles en milieu d’enseignement supérieur, Université du Québec à Montréal  (consulted December 5, 2022).
Bergeron, M., M. Hébert, S. Ricci, M.-F. Goyer, N. Duhamel, L. Kurtzman, I. Auclair, L. Clennett-Sirois, I. Daigneault, D. Damant, S. Demers, J. Dion, F. Lavoie, G. Paquette, & S. Parent (2016). Violences sexuelles en milieu universitaire au Québec : Rapport de recherche de l’enquête ESSIMU, [en ligne], Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal (consulted December 5, 2022).

Reporting and formal complaint of adult sexual abuse

In Canada, the proportion of sexual assaults reported to the police is very low, and it is one of the most under-reported violent crimes. According to data from the 2019 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization, 6% of sexual assault incidents that year were brought to the attention of the police2. The incidents, unlike the other types of crime measured in this survey, were just as likely to be brought to the attention of the police by the victim (2.4%) as in some other way (3.3%)2. Data from the 2018 Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS) supports this, revealing that 5% of women reported the most serious sexual assaults to the police3.

In Canada, less than one in ten women (9%) who reported having been sexually assaulted in the workplace said they had filed a formal complaint or grievance54. In the Canadian Armed Forces, one in four victims of sexual assault who are members of the Regular Force reported that the incident was brought to the attention of a person in a position of authority (e.g., a military supervisor or other military person in a position of authority), while just under one in ten (9%) reported that the incident was brought to the attention of the military police or the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service55.

Distribution of adult (18 and over) victims of sexual offences reported to the police, by time taken to report to the police, 2020a

 

aDonnées actualisées
Source: Ministry of Public Security. Data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR)

In the case of sexual victimization in a university context, only 9.6% of victims stated that they had disclosed or reported the situation to their university50. This low use of services was also observed at the college level, with more than nine out of ten (93.5%) victims reporting that they had never reported or disclosed the situation to a CEGEP authority or resource51.

Disclosure delays

In Quebec, 3,055 sexual assault offences and 368 other sexual offences committed against adults were reported by police in 20204. Of these offences (including sexual assault and other sexual offences), over half were reported to the police in less than seven days5.

In university settings, two-thirds (68.1%) of those who disclosed sexual violence did so within a week of the event, followed by 13.3% within a month, 11.6% within 12 months, and 4.6% a year or more later50.

Reasons for not disclosing sexual assault

Victims of adult sexual assault report a number of reasons for not disclosing or for delaying disclosure. These reasons include:

  • Fear of not being believed2;
  • Feelings of guilt or shame2;
  • The desire to stop thinking about the event and move on50;
  • The belief that the sexual assault was not serious enough to warrant reporting, that it was a harmless incident, or that it is a private or personal matter3,7,50;
  • Fear of negative consequences for oneself or the perpetrator3,7,56;
  • Fears and concerns about the police and the legal process2,3,7,56.

Facilitators and obstacles to the disclosure of sexual assault

The following table presents: 1) the factors that facilitate the disclosure of adult sexual assault (facilitators), i.e., elements that increase the likelihood of disclosure or are associated with quicker disclosure, and 2) the factors that hinder disclosure or are more likely to delay disclosure (obstacles). The facilitators and obstacles presented are drawn from quantitative and qualitative studies of adults who have experienced at least one sexual assault in adulthood.

Individual characteristics
Facilitators Obstacles
  • Acknowledging that the sexual assault experienced is a crime15
  • Re-experiencing and hyperarousal symptoms37
  • Positive past experiences of sexual assault disclosure41
  • Fear of not being believed54
  • Fear of being blamed58
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment and powerlessness15,49,54
  • Not acknowledging that the event was a sexual assault, minimizing the sexual assault, or believing that the event was not serious enough to be reported3,7,8,15,49,54,57
  • Fear of negative reactions from others41,49
  • Fear of negative consequences for oneself (e.g., on financial security and employment, risk of reprisals) and for the perpetrator (e.g., legal consequences)3,7,54,56
  • Not wanting anyone else to know, or wanting to keep the experience private15,57
  • The belief that sexual assault is a private or personal matter7
  • Avoidance symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder57
  • Past negative experiences of sexual assault disclosure41
  • Experiences of stigmatization and marginalization (e.g., having several marginalized identities)41,58
Characteristics of the sexual assault
Facilitators Obstacles
  • The fact that the victim physically resisted the sexual assault59
  • Having been injured during the sexual assault53
  • The fact that the victim froze during the sexual assault59 
  • The victim’s alcohol consumption at the time of the sexual assault8,53
Social and relational context
Facilitators Obstacles
  • Higher levels of perceived and actual social support60
  • Encouragement from friends and family to utilize health services15
  • A positive response to the first informal disclosure is an incentive to seek help on campus15
  • N/A
Societal context
Facilitators Obstacles
  • Awareness of university policies (e.g., penalties for sexual assault) and available resources41
  • Rigid gender roles, heteronormative stereotypes, taboos and myths about sexual assault41,58
  • Socio-cultural attitudes that minimize the seriousness of sexual assault and expose victims to blame, shame, skepticism, and stigmatization56

While there are many individual factors influencing disclosure, environmental and contextual factors also play a decisive role. On university campuses, a study of 413 universities in the U.S. showed that reporting of sexual assault was influenced more by institutional rather than individual context, such as a strong mobilization against violence, a women’s rights centre, and having a woman as university president61.

Reactions to the disclosure of sexual assault

The way others react to the disclosure of sexual assault has a significant impact on victims, their recovery, and their ability to cope49. One in five victims of sexual assault report that another person made them feel responsible or blamed them for their own victimization, such as by making them feel irresponsible, reckless or that they could have prevented the situation3,50. For some people, the simple act of disclosing a sexual assault can lead to social isolation or other social and health consequences58.

Generally, positive reactions are associated with beneficial effects for people who disclose sexual assault. These reactions can represent a restorative experience, contributing positively to the victim’s recovery process. Conversely, negative reactions have the potential to aggravate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress41,53. Sexually and gender-diverse people are more likely to anticipate a negative reaction to their disclosure and to receive mixed reactions. Bisexual women generally receive more negative social reactions than cisgender heterosexual women, which would have an impact on their feelings of reliving trauma41.

The following table presents a few examples of positive and negative reactions and their impact on victims, drawn from the results of scientific studies on the subject.

To find out more about how to help a victim and receive their disclosure, consult the Receiving a disclosure of sexual assault section.

 

References

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Authors
Maude Lachapelle, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ
Catherine Moreau, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ

Contributor
Dominique Gagné, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ

External review
Roxanne Guyon, Ph. D, Assistant Professor of Sexology, Université Laval
Jacinthe Dion, Ph. D., Full Professor in Psychology, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi

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