- A number of studies have focused on the most widely held myths about sexual assault.1 Acceptance of these myths either by individuals or society as a whole has certain consequences, in particular:
- Individuals are:
- less inclined to identify a situation as being an instance of sexual assault, even if it meets the applicable legal criteria;
- more likely to have a negative perception of victims of sexual assault; and
- more apt to discourage a victim of sexual assault from filing a complaint.
- Decision makers may be:
- prone to enact inappropriate legislation.
- Individuals are:
- Therefore, information transmitted by the media should be free of such myths. This is no easy task given that they can be spread in a number of subtle ways; for example, by drawing attention to certain aspects of a case of sexual assault, choosing inappropriate wording or making flawed interpretations. Here are several myths and misconceptions about sexual assault that have been tested against the facts.
Myth: Sexual assault is a serious problem, but it affects only a small number of people
Fact: Population surveys show that sexual assault is a widespread problem, especially in the case of minors, both in Québec and North America. To learn more
A 2006 study conducted on a representative sample of the Québec adult population showed that about one male out of 10 (9.6%) and almost one female out of four (22%) reported having been a victim of at least one sexual assault with physical contact before the age of 18, which is equivalent to 16% of the Québec population.2 These rates are comparable to those obtained in other North American studies.3,4Based on the 2009 General Social Survey (GSS), it was estimated that 677 000 Canadian adults aged 15 or more (of which 472 000 were female) had been victims of at least one sexual assault, solely in the year prior to the survey, which corresponds to a rate of 24 incidents of sexual assault per 1 000 population aged 15 or more.5
Myth: Children who are victims of sexual abuse will suffer the effects of this trauma for the rest of their lives
Fact: Sexual abuse can have serious short- and long- term consequences for children who have been victimized, but certain conditions, such as the support of family and friends, are known to help victims cope. To learn more
Many studies have shown that childhood sexual abuse can have a wide range of consequences that carry into adulthood and across multiple spheres of functioning. In other words, not only can childhood sexual abuse have lasting effects throughout adulthood, but the effects can take new forms in adulthood, affecting marital and parental life as well.
However, it has also been shown that a number of victims of child sexual abuse have few sequelae once they reach adulthood. In fact, because a large proportion of children have protective factors that help them cope with trauma (e.g. personal skills, strategies for dealing with traumatic events, a quality relationship with a parent, the support of family and friends), they do not have affective problems that will be found to be serious enough to impair their functioning when they are assessed by professionals.7Many experts believe that parental support is the single most important factor in helping sexually abused children adjust following the abuse and in reducing the risk of their developing symptoms, regardless of the characteristics of the abuse experienced. Parental support includes, in particular, believing the child and taking action following the disclosure of abuse.8,9
Myth: Many children make up stories of sexual abuse, as shown by the fact that many charges result in an acquittal
Fact: It is rare that children deliberately make false allegations of sexual abuse. In addition, since the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, an acquittal in the course of judicial proceedings does not necessarily mean that a crime has not been committed or that a victim has made untruthful accusations. To learn more
The number of false allegations of child sexual abuse is lower than the number of children who do not disclose such abuse or who lie by saying that it did not occur. In fact, intentionally fabricated false allegations by a child are very rare.10 For more information, see the fact sheet on false allegations of child sexual abuse.
Furthermore, it should be noted that in a criminal prosecution, the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt rests with the criminal and penal prosecutor. The accused does not have to demonstrate that he or she is innocent.11 Therefore, an acquittal does not necessarily mean that a crime has not been committed or that a victim has made false allegations of sexual abuse. Such a verdict can result from a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused, even if the victim has been deemed to be credible.
Myth: Individuals who commit sexual abuse against children are pedophiles
Fact: The term “pedophile” is often mistakenly used in the general population to refer to any person who sexually abuses children, whereas, in reality, only a minority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse meet the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia.12 To learn more
In fact, a sexual abuser of children may or may not meet the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia. The term pedophile is used, following a clinical diagnosis by a qualified professional, to refer to an individual who is 16 years of age or older, who has an exclusive or non-exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children (usually under 13 years of age) and who meets a specific set of criteria.13
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are not a homogeneous group. They can be male or female; heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual; in a couple or single; from any ethnic background; or from different socio-economic backgrounds.12
Myth: An individual can have sexual relations with a person who is intoxicated by alcohol and not be accused of sexual assault
Fact: According to the Canadian Criminal Code, a person cannot consent to sexual activity if he or she is unable to express such consent, particularly when he or she is intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. To learn more
Consent is the voluntary agreement of a person to engage in sexual activity and it must be clearly demonstrated by words or conduct. A person cannot give consent, particularly if he or she is incapable of expressing it (e.g. because of a disability or intoxication); if he or she is in a situation where a position of trust, power or authority is being abused (e.g. by the use of threats); if he or she is in a relationship of dependency; or if he or she is under 16 years of age, except in certain specific cases. In addition, consent must be expressed by the person concerned; it is not valid when given by a third party.It is important to note that the mere fact that a person accused of sexual assault says that he or she believed that the person had given his or her consent is not sufficient evidence to raise a defence of belief in consent.
Myth: An adult who suspects that a child has been a victim of sexual abuse should question the child about this
Fact: An adult who suspects a case of sexual abuse must be careful not to ask the child leading questions that might upset him or her further or contaminate the child’s testimony. Any instance of suspected child sexual abuse must be reported to the Director of Youth Protection. To learn more
In such circumstances, the adult should avoid certain phrases, but at the same time, tell the child what he or she observes, such as changes in behaviour, and remain open and receptive. If the information confided to the adult suggests that sexual abuse is taking place or has taken place or if the adult has reason to believe that the child’s security or development is in danger, he or she must report the situation to the Director of Youth Protection. It is not necessary to be certain that one’s concerns are founded when reporting a case of suspected child sexual abuse. An adult who has doubts about whether the child’s allegations are true must not attempt to obtain more information before notifying the authorities. It is not the adult’s responsibility to make sure the child is telling the truth, but simply to report the situation.
Myth: Males are more biologically predisposed to committing sexual assault because they have a greater need to satisfy their sexual urges
Fact: The act of committing sexual assault is influenced by a number of factors, but it is not due to uncontrollable sexual urges. The reality is that many perpetrators of sexual assault are motivated by a need for power, dominance and control. It is also true that women are capable of committing sexual offences. To learn more
The wide variety of sexual assault behaviours and the different underlying motivations make it difficult to establish a typical sexual assault perpetrator profile. Males who sexually assault adult females are driven mainly by a desire for power and control rather than by their sexual impulses, especially in situations where the victim is their spouse or an acquaintance.14
Similarly, a large majority of sexual offences against children (between 70% and 80%) are premediated, which runs counter to the notion that uncontrolled impulses are what drive perpetrators of child sexual abuse.12Lastly, it is estimated that females are responsible for about 5% of all sexual assaults.15
Myth: Males who are sexually abused as children will commit sexual assault when they reach adulthood
Fact: Even though about 25% of perpetrators of sexual assault were victimized as children, most victims of child sexual abuse will not go on to commit sexual assault themselves. To learn more
There is a firmly held belief in the general population that most perpetrators of sexual assault experienced sexual abuse as children and, therefore, that males who were sexually abused in childhood are more likely to commit sexual assault when they grow up. This belief feeds the theory that there is a “victim-to-perpetrator cycle.” Current data suggest that childhood sexual abuse is more prevalent among sexual assault perpetrators than among the general public; however, the reality is that most victims of child sexual abuse do not go on to commit sexual assault. While a history of sexual victimization seems to be one of the risk factors that predisposes an individual to commit sexual assault, it does not provide sufficient explanation for most instances of this type of assault. In other words, having been sexually abused as a child does not seem to be either a necessary or a sufficient condition to sexually offend later on in life.16
This notion of the “victim-to-perpetrator cycle” should be treated with caution because a child who has been sexually abused could be stigmatized if it is claimed that he or she may go on to become a perpetrator of sexual assault.
There are many factors that can lead a person to commit sexual assault.3 For example, personal and family factors have been identified as increasing the risk that a sexually abused child will go on to perpetrate sexual assault. At the same time, these factors suggest that children who have received specialized treatment for abuse and have had sufficient support from their family and friends are less likely to develop sexually aggressive behaviour.
Myth: Most perpetrators of sexual assault are predators who are mentally disturbed and unlikely to be rehabilitated
Fact: Individuals who commit sexual assault are usually known to the victim, premeditate the crime, and in most cases, function normally in society. Following treatment, only a minority will reoffend. To learn more
The improper use of the term “sexual predator” can result in the mistaken belief that most sexual assaults are committed by people who are not known to the victim and who seek out and choose their victim at random. In reality, however, this is the case of only a very small proportion of perpetrators. In fact, child sexual abuse is almost always committed by individuals known to the victim, including family members and minors. (See the Statistics section To learn more about the prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault).
In addition, even though many perpetrators of sexual assault are more likely to have a number of personal and interpersonal problems, such as mental health issues like depression, anxiety or a personality disorder, most are people who function normally in society.Lastly, it is difficult to determine the recidivism rate for sexual assault perpetrators, particularly because a large number of offences are not reported to the police. Nevertheless, several studies have indicated that less than 25% of people who commit sexual assault reoffend after a period of 15 years. These studies show that treatment may lower the risk of reoffending among perpetrators of sexual assault.
Last update: September 2017
- For a review, see: Lonsway, K.A. and Fitzgerald, L.F. (1994). Rape Myths. In Review. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18(2): 133-321.
- Tourigny, M., Hébert, M., Joly, J., Cyr, M. and Baril, K. (2008). Prevalence and co-occurrence of violence against children in the Quebec population. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 32(4): 331-335.
- Tourigny, M. and Baril, K. (2011). Les agressions sexuelles durant l’enfance : Ampleur et facteurs de risque. In M. Hébert, M. Cyr, and M. Tourigny, eds., L’agression sexuelle envers les enfants Tome 1 (pp. 7-42). Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec. (Available in French only)
- Gorey, K.M. and Leslie, D.R. (1997). The prevalence of child sexual abuse: Integrative review adjustment for potential response and measurement biases. Child Abuse & Neglect, 21(4): 391-398.
- Statistics Canada. (2010). Criminal victimization in Canada, 2009. S. Perreault and S. Brennan. Juristat, 85-002-X.
- Cyr, M. and Payer, M. (2011). Les interventions curatives auprès des adultes ayant été victimes d’agression sexuelle pendant leur enfance. In M. Hébert, M. Cyr, and M. Tourigny, eds., L’agression sexuelle envers les enfants Tome 1 (pp. 303-332). Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec. (Available in French only)
- Thibodeau, C. and Lavoie, F. (2012). Influence d’une agression sexuelle vécue pendant l’enfance sur la santé physique à l’âge adulte. In M. Hébert, M. Cyr, et M. Tourigny, eds., L’agression sexuelle envers les enfants Tome 2 (pp. 225-258). Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec. (Available in French only)
- Hébert, M. (2011). Les profils et l’évaluation des enfants victimes d’agression sexuelle. In M. Hébert, M. Cyr, et M. Tourigny, eds., L’agression sexuelle envers les enfants Tome 1 (pp. 149-204). Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec. (Available in French only)
- Wolfe, V.V. (2007). Child Sexual Abuse. In E.J. Mash and R.A. Barkley, eds., Assessment of Childhood Disorders (4th ed.) (pp. 685-748). New York: Guilford Press.
- Trocmé, N. and Bala, N. (2005). False allegations of abuse and neglect when parents separate. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(12): 1333-1345. In Cyr, M. and Bruneau, G (2012). Les fausses allégations d’agression sexuelle chez les enfants. Trousse média sur les agressions sexuelles.
- Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Appendix B, Part I of The Constitution Act, 1982.
- Hall, R.C.W. and Hall, R.C.W. (2009). A profile of pedophilia: Definition, characteristics of offenders, recidivism, treatment outcomes, and forensic issues. Focus: The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry, 7(4): 522-537.
- American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text revision). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- Robertiello, G. and Terry, K.J. (2007). Can we profile sex offenders? A review of sex offender typologies, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12: 508-518.
- See the fact sheet on sexual assault by women.
- Whitaker, D.J., Le, B., Hanson, R.K., Baker, C.K., McMahon, P.M., Ryan, G., et al. (2008). Risk factors for the perpetration of child sexual abuse: A review and meta-analysis. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32: 529-548.