Myths and stereotypes about sexual abuse and violence are harmful because they lead to victim-blaming, and dismissing or minimizing a person’s experience. They can also intensify a survivor’s shame and guilt, increase their feelings of isolation, and make it less likely that they will receive the help they need to begin to heal.

MYTH: Sexual assault is a crime of passion or uncontrollable urges

Rape is about one person exerting power and control over another. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way someone is dressed, whether they were drunk, or walking in a dark area, whether you bought them dinner, or whether they consented to sexual activity before. Using those excuses blames the victim for something that the abuser is responsible for. Each of us has control over our own self, and we can choose how we respond in any situation.

MYTH: It’s not rape if a person is married or in a relationship and has given consent before

Sexual assault within a dating, common-law, or married relationship is in the continuum of domestic violence, which includes a range of abusive and controlling behaviours. Just because you’ve had sex before or consented to other sexual acts doesn’t mean that it’s ok this time. Enthusiastic consent is about asking for consent every step of the way, even if you’re married. This is true for both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

MYTH: Sex workers can’t get raped

Just because a man or woman turns tricks, appears in a porn film, or has had a lot of sexual partners doesn’t mean they can’t be forcibly raped. Myths that only nice girls get raped, or that sex workers are sluts and bad people and therefore deserve what they get, helps to perpetuate this belief. It also suggests that sex workers don’t deserve the same treatment and respect as other people, which becomes a justification for abuse.

MYTH: Gay men, lesbians and transgendered people deserve to be raped

Like sex workers, some people believe that gay men, lesbians and transgendered people are inhuman abominations and therefore deserve to be disrespected in all ways. There’s also the prevalent belief that lesbians can be cured of their sexual orientation by forcing them to have sex with a real man. This can also happen with gay men. No one deserves to be raped. Ever.

MYTH: If a victim withdraws a rape charge it means that they weren’t raped or abused

Victims of sexual violence can withdraw a rape charge for many reasons including pressure from family, friends, or police, fear of the abuser, or a belief that they aren’t strong enough to endure the re-traumatization of the legal proceedings. While there are a small number of false allegations – with few victims ever reporting abuse – the vast majority of sexual assault and abuse crimes reported to police are legitimate.

MYTH: Abusers are monsters and low-lifes and you can identify them easily

While it would be helpful if this were true, it simply is not. Sexual abusers come from all walks of life, including all economic, social, religious, and cultural groups. Many abusers are in positions of power, authority and privilege, which is the reason that they often get away with the abuse for a long time. It also makes it hard for the victim to come forward because they’re afraid that no one will believe them. Abusers take advantage of that to ensure the silence of their victim.

MYTH: Survivors usually disclose abuse right away and remember all the details

Humiliation, shame and fear often stop victims from disclosing sexual abuse. Abusers can use the victim’s shame and fear to isolate and silence them. This can last for decades. Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse wait until well into adulthood to share their secret. Sometimes people will wait until the death of the abuser, if it was a family member, before they feel free to talk about the abuse. For male victims, telling their story can be more complicated, and compounded by fear about their sexuality or what others will think. Survivors can also repress memories as a way of coping with the trauma of the abuse. Memories can return in bits and pieces, so accounts of the abuse may not be complete at any given time. Survivors can also feel deeply ashamed that they didn’t know how to stop the abuse, and are afraid of how people will view them. Child victims may also be confused about the abuse if it’s ongoing, as abusers may use games or care- taking activities to create a bond with the child. Children are often sworn to silence and may fear that they will be injured, a family member or pet will be hurt, they won’t be believed, or, they don’t want to break up their family, or worry about what will happen to the abuser if they are a family member or trusted friend.

Victims may also try to hide what is happening to them by denying it when asked. They may fear getting in trouble for their behaviour including underage drinking, using drugs, or lying to parents about who they were with. As such they may try to mislead parents or police about what happened. This doesn’t mean that the entire account of their experiences is false. And, abusers may intentionally encourage victims to engage in illegal behaviour, knowing that it provides them with another layer of protection if the victim is considering reporting the abuse.

MYTH: Victims don’t have ongoing relationships with their abusers

Though it may be difficult for others to understand, it’s common for survivors of sexual abuse to continue relationships with their abusers after the abuse has stopped. People react to trauma in different ways. Survivors might maintain contact with their abusers because they may still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse. This is especially normal when the abuser is a member of the family or a close family friend. Sometimes survivors maintain contact in an attempt to regain control over their assault, or to feel normal again. Abusers often intentionally build a connection that isn’t broken as a result of sexual abuse. The abuse is often one element of an otherwise loving or fun relationship. Offenders may intentionally maintain the non-abusive parts of the relationship to keep victims feeling close to them, and therefore less likely to report the prior abuse.

MYTH: If the person didn’t want to participate they would fight off their abuser

When faced with imminent threat, most humans will freeze as opposed to fighting or running away. This is a hard-wired, automatic response, designed to help improve the odds of surviving a dangerous situation. This is true with sexual abuse and sexual violence, with victims often too shocked or confused to know how to respond. No victim should be expected to prevent or stop their abuse even as an adult, and especially if they are a child. The abuser is the one responsible for the abuse. Blaming the victim just serves to internalize the shame they feel.

MYTH: If you can’t see physical evidence of sexual assault or abuse then it didn’t happen

This is an extension of the previous myth and supports the idea of the compliant victim. The belief is that if there is no physical evidence, and you didn’t try to fight off your abuser, then you must have wanted it. However many sexual abuse situations are not violent. They may instead involve inappropriate touching or fondling, rubbing up against a person in a sexual way, having someone expose themselves to you, a verbal threat to sexually assault you, or an abuser forcing you to touch them, among other things. Violent or not, all sexual assault and abuse is serious and can have damaging results. Survivors – or the people around them - sometimes minimize this by saying but it was only touching so why do I feel so bad? Sexual abuse is a violation of body and soul, and individuals who have experienced this deserve to be believed and supported.

MYTH: If a man or a woman is kissing or coming on to another person that means they have given consent to sexual activity

Consent cannot ever be assumed. Consent needs to be sought at every step of sexual activity. Just because you were kissing someone doesn’t mean that you want to have sex with them. Even if you said yes but then changed your mind, that decision deserves to be respected. Consent is not present if you were physically forced into sex acts by the use of strength, violence, or coercion, if you were drunk or high, if you were threatened, or even if you were into it. And you don’t need to say no for it to be sexual assault. The absence of no is not a yes. The onus is on the person initiating sex to ensure that they have consent. And, children can never consent to sexual activity with an adult.

MYTH: If a person experiences pleasure during the rape or abuse, this means that they were a willing participant or enjoyed it

This is another common myth that abusers use to their advantage, to keep their victims silent and mired in shame. Survivors have had orgasms in the course of being raped or sexually abused. The fact is that men and boys especially, but also women and girls, can respond physically to stimulation even in traumatic or painful sexual situations. This is a basic physiological response. Just because you experienced arousal while being abused doesn’t lessen the impact. Survivors who experienced pleasure during their abuse or assault often feel tremendous guilt and shame, in addition to believing that they were responsible for their abuse. But while abusers may use their victim’s arousal as an indication that they liked it or wanted it, the fault always lies with the abuser, especially in the victimization of children and youth, where there is a huge violation of trust, in addition to a power differential.

MYTH: Survivors of childhood sexual abuse need to forgive their abuser in order to heal

Sometimes forgiving an abuser is equated with healing, especially in circumstances where the abuser is a family member or trusted friend. People may want the survivor to forgive and forget and immediately be fine again, even before the survivor has had the time to release their own anger about what happened to them.

Emotions and memories that have been stuffed down in the rush to forgive can manifest later in the form of addictions and other destructive coping mechanisms. Survivors of abuse by a family member or friend often bow to this pressure and embark on a path of superficial forgiveness that doesn’t honor the depth of the injury or enable authentic healing.

This is a process that may, or may not, involve forgiving the person who abused you. As many survivors blame themselves for the abuse, a more important part of personal restoration may be in forgiving yourself for the blame and shame you’ve carried, and for the ways that you coped even if they were self-destructive. Loving yourself is foundational to the restoration of health and wholeness. Giving yourself permission to feel angry, to mourn, and to process the pain and trauma of the abuse is important in the process of healing. After time and hard work, some survivors may choose to forgive their abuser. This doesn’t mean that you excuse what happened, or minimize, justify or forget it. It may not mean trusting that person again or feeling especially safe with him or her. However, it can allow survivors to let go of the resentment and burden, and find peace. Sometimes it can allow you to see your abuser as a human being who has also suffered. This doesn’t justify the abuse, it only allows us to see the complexity of cycles of violence and abuse.

Forgiveness is a highly personal choice. Survivors who can’t or won’t forgive their abuser should be supported in this decision. That may mean that they choose not to have contact with their abuser even if they are a family member. Forgiving the person who abused you is not a requirement for healing or for living a full and contented life. By eventually letting go of the full weight of our story it is possible to come to a place of peace, even without forgiveness.

MYTH: If I charge my abuser and go to court that will help my healing

The decision to charge your abuser is an intensely personal one. It’s not right for everyone, and it’s not necessary in order to find some peace. Yet for some survivors it is integral to their healing journey. Talking through your options with another survivor or a sexual abuse or legal professional can help provide perspective. It can also give you a sense of whether it’s right for you, in addition to finding out what you can expect. Some survivors feel so strongly about ensuring that their abuser doesn’t hurt anyone else that they decide to press charges and go to trial. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, you may consider having some or all of a rape kit collected, which helps with the evidence-gathering process. If you were sexually abused as a child and decide to bring charges as an adult you may do this at any time, as there is no statute of limitations. However, parents, caregivers, and professionals have an obligation to report child sexual abuse immediately and the more information you provide the greater the chances of an effective investigation.

Court cases can be extremely difficult for survivors. Many individuals who have gone through the criminal justice process report feeling re-victimized by the system due to invasive questioning on the witness stand, and attacks on their credibility. If you make the choice to pursue charges against your abuser it’s really important to have strong support from family and friends, peers or professionals. And, even if you decide not to charge your abuser, you may still want to consider formal avenues of complaint. For example, if you were abused by a doctor, you can report their behaviour to the governing body or association. This can be beneficial to protecting others, as sanctions may be placed on the abuser limiting, or eliminating, their ability to hurt someone else.

MYTH: It’s impossible to be healed from sexual abuse

While the healing from sexual abuse can be a lifetime process, the good news is that it is possible to find peace and contentment, and live a purposeful life after abuse. Many survivors need help from professionals or peer supports in order to begin to put the pieces back together. With time, daily self-care, a good support system, and body work to help release trauma, many survivors can find happiness and serenity. Survivors can also lend their experience, strength and hope to others who have endured sexual abuse and violence. For some people this is critical in their healing journey and integral to their well-being. Finding a community of people who understand and can provide reciprocal support can help survivors heal and grow, so that they are no longer defined by what happened to them.

MYTH: Childhood Sexual Abuse

MYTH: Childhood sexual abuse is uncommon

In fact, childhood sexual abuse is very common. Statistics show that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 18 years old. This increases when considering abuse over the course of a lifetime to 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men (see sexual violence statistics). This is a staggering truth, and it encompasses a wide range of victims who have experienced abuse by a family member, trusted family friend, coach or clergy, or by someone who they’ve dated.

MYTH: Childhood sexual abuse only happens in poor, uneducated families

Unfortunately child sexual abuse can happen in any family, regardless of income, social status, ethnicity or culture. Sometimes too, there is generational sexual violence, which makes it even harder for victims to come forward, due to an accepted code of silence.

MYTH: Children are usually molested by strangers

While parents may work hard to educate and protect their children from sexual abuse by a stranger, these incidents are relatively rare. Research shows that 90% of child victims are molested by someone they know. This could be a family member, a trusted friend, neighbour, coach, clergy, or another person known to the child.

MYTH: Women don’t sexually abuse children

While men account for the majority of perpetrators of sexual abuse, women have, and do, sexually abuse children. It can be especially damaging when women are the abusers, and victims can be even more reluctant to tell someone, as they think no one will believe them. Women who were sexually abused as children by their mothers or another female figure often fear hurting their own children, have troubling bonding with them, and may struggle with anorexia, addictions, or self-harm as a result. Men who were abused as boys by women often have a skewed sense of their own sexuality, may have trouble with intimacy as adults, or may view women as manipulative, abusive and untrustworthy. Many survivors abused by their mothers, or another female figure, feel a profound sadness and emptiness, in addition to anger and self-loathing. While it’s not conclusive, some research has suggested that men who were abused by a woman in childhood have an increased risk as an adult of sexually abusing children, compared with those who were abused by a man. While the impact of child sexual abuse is incredibly damaging for all victims, abuse by a woman can have even more profound effects, given the role that mothers and female role models hold in our society as caretakers and nurturers. Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse by a woman live in shame, isolation, and fear, due to the strong societal taboos around talking about this kind of abuse. Like other survivors, they deserve to be believed and supported so that they too can begin their healing journey.

MYTH: It’s not sexual abuse if the child consented

In 2008 the Criminal Code of Canada was amended, and the age of consent for sexual activity is now 16 years of age. This means that an adult may not legally have any kind of sexual activity with anyone under the age of 16. However, peer group exceptions apply for youth that are close in age. A young person aged 14-15 can consent to sexual activity with someone less than 5 years older. A young person aged 12-13 can consent to sexual activity with someone less than 2 years older. These exceptions are not true if the older person is in a position of authority or trust, or if they use exploitation or coercion. Also, adults may not legally have sexual relations with a person aged 16 or 17 within a relationship of trust, authority, or dependence. This applies to coaches, teachers, and employers among others. And, 16 and 17 year olds may not legally consent to sexual activity that involves prostitution or pornography. The law is also very clear that children under the age of 12 years old can never consent to sexual activity. Ever.

MYTH: Children lie about sexual abuse

While there are cases of children or youth fabricating stories about sexual abuse for revenge or to get back at an adult, this represents a very small percentage of cases of confirmed child sexual abuse. Most children don’t lie or imagine abuse that didn’t happen, and are not manipulative unless they have been coached into making up an allegation of sexual abuse. It’s important for parents or other caregivers to take the matter seriously if a child discloses abuse. And, there is a legal duty to report abuse to the police and Children’s Aid Society if an adult knows, or ought to know, that a child is being sexually abused. Reporting can allow for a full investigation, to determine what happened, and what the child may need going forward.

MYTH: Children are seductive and are responsible for the abuse

Children who have been groomed by sexual predators, and who have come to equate seductive behaviour with love and attention, may engage in sexualized behaviour in order to get their needs met. This can also be a result of ongoing abuse. But, children are vulnerable, and are never responsible for abuse. It is never acceptable for adults to take advantage of children, no matter how they act. The onus for proper and acceptable behaviour is always on the adult, and never the child.

MYTH: Victims can easily get over the effects of child sexual abuse – if they’re not an emotional mess then the abuse must not have been that bad

Trauma impacts people in very different ways, and may manifest in a variety of ways throughout adulthood. The impact of sexual abuse of a child is devastating but not always apparent. There may also be other compounding factors and survivors can struggle with addictions, self-harming behaviours, mental illness, criminal behaviour, inability to keep a job, or have intimacy and self-esteem issues. These may be apparent to others or they may be hidden. Minimizing the impact of sexual abuse does a disservice to survivors and inhibits their ability for authentic healing.

MYTH: Male Sexual Victimization

MYTH: Boys and men can’t be victims

A pervasive and damaging myth is that boys and men can’t be victims of sexual abuse and violence. Masculine gender socialization confines men to macho boxes that deny their vulnerability, or that they can be victims at all. Victims are associated with weakness and powerlessness, and men are socialized to seek and use power to their advantage. The reality is that boys and men can be victims of sexual abuse when power is used by someone in a position of trust or authority, and through threats, coercion or bribes. Given that one in six boys will experience sexual abuse by the time they are 18, in addition to others being sexually assaulted as adults, this impacts a huge number of boys and men. Until recently, recognition about sexual abuse of boys and men, in addition to resources for them, has been limited. Fortunately, this is changing as we understand the devastating impact of sexual abuse on both women and men, and we work to develop and create effective supports to help men and boys, and women and girls, to heal from the trauma of abuse.

MYTH: Most abuse is perpetrated by homosexual men

The majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by heterosexual men, who each have their own gender and age preferences for victims. Seeking boys doesn’t make someone homosexual. Most men who prey on children are pedophiles, who use power and control to get their needs met at the expense of the child.

MYTH: Boys who were sexually victimized as children will grow up to be perpetrators or homosexual

This is an especially damaging myth. It raises fear in many men who were abused as children. Research shows that while some pedophiles were sexually abused as children, the vast majority of men who were sexually abused as children will not go on to abuse others. However, some studies indicate that men who were sexually abused as a child by a woman may have a slightly increased risk of sexually offending as an adult, over those who were abused by a man. But, this is far from certain. With support and counselling, if needed, men can go on to have healthy and satisfying relationships.

Sexual orientation is a complex issue, and men who were sexually abused as children by a man may question their sexual identify and orientation. They may also feel shame and guilt about attracting the attention of a man, and come to believe that they are gay as a result. This has more to do with the pedophile’s inability to maintain a healthy sexual relationship with another adult. It has nothing to do with anything his male victim did or didn’t do. Whether a boy grows up to be gay, bi-sexual, transgendered or heterosexual is based on many different factors, not simply that he was sexually abused as a child. Male survivors can benefit from talking to other men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In addition, they can benefit from talking with professionals who can help men work through their emotions and fears.

MYTH: If there is no violence, is it really sexual abuse?

Any sexual activity between an adult and a child, even with an absence of violence, still constitutes abuse. Perpetrators often exploit their position of trust and authority, and may use bribes, coercion, or threats to get children to comply. If the male child or youth experiences pleasure during the abuse the perpetrator can also use this against the child or youth, to ensure their silence. Pedophiles may also groom children to condition a child not to tell. This can happen over a long period of time where the abuser gains access to the child and convinces the parent or caregiver that they are trustworthy. Abusers then work to break down the child’s defenses and get them used to different kinds of touch. This can start out in playful ways, with tickling or wrestling, but will escalate to sexualized touching with the abuser introducing the idea of secrecy. They might let the child or youth engage in activities that wouldn’t be allowed at home – drugs or alcohol, pornography, electronic gifts – which later form the basis of manipulation, along with threats and guilt in order to maintain secrecy.

MYTH: Men enjoy all sex so they must have enjoyed the abuse or rape

This myth is tremendously damaging to men and boys. It causes a huge amount of shame, and serves as a barrier for men in disclosing their abuse to another person. Sexual abuse is about power and control, whether someone is raped or coerced into sex. This can be particularly difficult for gay men, given the stereotype myth that they want lots of sex all the time. This is just not true. Any sexual activity that happens without consent, or in a relationship of trust and authority, is abusive - even if men experienced pleasure as a result.

MYTH: If the perpetrator is female, this causes less trauma and gives the boy some sexual experience

This follows from the myth that men enjoy all sex, in addition to the misconception that if a female initiates sex with a boy or youth he is lucky. It also underscores the myth that if boys or youth enjoyed it, or didn’t stop it, then it wasn’t abuse. The fact is that abuse by a female perpetrator can be equally, if not more, devastating than abuse by a man, given that disclosures are often met with disbelief, are minimized or may even be completely discounted. When they become adults, boys who experienced sexual abuse by a woman may feel deep self-loathing, avoid intimacy, live in a constant state of anger or rage, or abuse substances, in addition to a small number becoming perpetrators themselves. Disclosures about victimization by women need to be taken seriously, and boys and men supported to receive the help they need.