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Mythbusting Monday – Sexual Assault is not as Serious as Physical Assault

Most Canadians are confused about our sexual assault laws. Even our politicians seem unsettled about them. Federal Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews recently stated that he would like to see the return of rape laws in Canada. His intent is to differentiate between sexual assaults such as in the news story, and “real” rapists.

Underlying this idea are the misconceptions that other forms of sexual assault are not traumatizing to victims, that perpetrators of these kinds of assaults are somehow less violent, or that the crime was committed in error instead of with intent.

We respectfully disagree with Minister Toews. While the current laws are imperfect, they are better than the law that preceded them. Our current sexual assault laws address those “lesser” crimes where all violent rapists begin their criminal careers, and they address the complexity of sexual crimes and their victims.

The rape laws which existed before our current sexual assault laws were introduced in 1983 had a very narrow definition of what could be considered criminal sexual conduct:
• Only penile penetration was recognized
• Only men could be rapists and women victims
• Only women not married to the perpetrator could be victimized
Criminal sexual activity is rarely so stereotypical when it is committed. Denying that sexual violence can look differently than this also denies the trauma experienced by victims of these less “textbook” sexual crimes.

Sexual assault laws in Canada are founded on the same principles as physical assault laws. The more violence used during the assault, the more serious the offense. There are three escalating levels of physical assault:
1. Simple assault
2. Assault causing bodily harm
3. Aggravated assault
Sexual assault also follows this same pattern:
1. Simple sexual assault
2. Sexual assault with a weapon
3. Aggravated sexual assault
The only difference between these laws is that assault addresses physical violence, while sexual assault addresses violence where sex is used as the weapon.

Simple physical assault covers everything from threatening force to the showing of a weapon to intimidate. If someone threatens you and it scares you because you think that person is capable of harming you physically, that person is guilty of simple assault. Simple sexual assault covers the experience of the woman in the news story, and other violating acts.

Different people will respond differently to these kinds of experiences. Some people will become fearful and compliant; some will fight; and some may seek help from friends or the justice system. These are all natural and reasonable responses by victims. Few people would condemn someone for turning to the police when they have experienced an assault, but as soon as we put the word “sexual” before “assault”, the issue appears complex or vague.

Someone who turns to police for help when they have experienced a simple sexual assault that hasn’t left a mark on their body may be viewed as “over-reacting.” Some people even think that without physical damage no “real” crime has occurred. Many people still refuse to see all manner of sexual assault as the harmful, humiliating and frightening assault it is.

Calgary Police Service is investigating an incident that took place on June 15 in Taradale where a stranger forcibly removed a woman’s pants. This incident has been reported in the media as an “attempted sexual assault.”

Attempted sexual assault does not exist as a crime under Canadian law. If unwanted sexual behaviour contains no physical contact, it is called sexual harassment. If unwanted sexual behaviour contains physical contact, it is sexual assault. The victim of this incident was sexually touched, and exposed, against her wishes – she was sexually assaulted.

Imagine how vulnerable you would feel to suddenly find yourself exposed like the woman in the news story – what is so complex or vague about that?

Police Investigate Attempted Sexual Assault

Read the Edmonton Journal editorial: Renaming ‘sexual assault’ won’t fix problem

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