Canada’s approach to sexual assault could hold lessons for U.S.
MONTREAL – As reports of celebrity sexual assaults escalate in the United States, Americans might want to look to its northern neighbor for clues as to why it’s less of a problem in Canada.
The rate of reported sexual assaults and rapes in Canada is roughly half that in the U.S. There were 431,840 such reports in the United States in 2015, according to a Justice Department survey. By contrast, Statistics Canada showed that 22,000 assaults were reported to police that year in a country with one-tenth the population of the USA.
University of Victoria sociology professor Cecilia Benoit said a lower
number of sexual assaults in Canada fit into a larger trend of fewer violent crimes in the country in general.
“It’s partly cultural and partly the way the rules and regulations and social policy work in Canada,” she said. “The social net is a little bit tighter in Canada. Guns laws are very different. Community cohesion is stronger with less individualism. We’ve seen that before when we do comparisons on murder rates and those kinds of things.”
Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said the country has made strides in teaching lessons about sexual consent.
In addition, “sex education is on average likely better than what it is in American schools because it tends to be less ideologically driven,” said McKay, who added that Canada has a more progressive attitude toward sexuality.
Holly Johnson, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the justice system’s response to sexual violence, notes that the definition of sexual assault is different in each country.
In the United States, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” according to the Justice Department website. It can include “forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.”
In Canada, sexual assaults are divided into three categories, with the vast majority classified as those that leave little or no physical injury to the victim. In 2015, just over 400 reported incidents were classified as assaults that result in bodily harm, maiming, disfiguring or involved the use of a weapon.
Johnson warned against reading too much into the disparity in numbers, however, because many assaults go unreported, in Canada and in the United States alike.
“You’re talking about police reports, you’re not talking about victimization,” she said. “Only 5% of Canadian women who were sexually assaulted report it to police.”