It’s time for a better response to sexual assault

Sexual assault is a complex issue, but the best first response is surprisingly simple

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CALGARY, AB Aug 31, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Sexual assault is a severely under-reported crime. Up to 97n per cent of assaults in Canada are never reported to police.Survivors sometimes even keep the assault secret from their friends or family members. Some never tell anyone.

This low rate of reporting dramatically affects the safety and health of our entire community – because people who need help don’t get it, and because offenders are able to keep offending.

The most common reason that survivors don’t tell is that they don’t feel safe to tell. They aren’t sure how people will respond. You only need to look at media reports around various cases to realize that sexual assault survivors are often afraid to disclose what has happened to them.

Unsure how to respond to a survivor

At the same time, average people (even those who teach or who are in the medical field) are unsure about how to respond to a survivor. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, and possibly causing more harm with their words. Our province-wide polling, conducted by Leger Research, found that only 15 per cent of Albertans were confident that they would know what to say if someone disclosed a sexual assault.

Sexual assault is a complex issue, but the best first response is surprisingly simple. Knowing that there are simple things to do and say is very empowering for the average person. Some of the things we encourage responders to keep in mind: It’s not your job to be the judge and jury. It’s your job to listen and empathize. Phrases like I’m sorry that happened, it’s not your fault, and I believe you are incredibly powerful. I’ve seen survivors dissolve into tears of relief when someone says, “I believe you.” These three simple words are easy to remember, and easy to use. And they help open the door to healing and justice because survivors who get a positive response are significantly more likely to reach out for help and report the assault to police.

We often get asked about due process in the context of sexual assault. Due process and due diligence are extremely important. These are the rights of both parties – alleged victim and offender. In fact, with a better and more consistently positive response to victims of sexual assault, we believe justice will be better served. More survivors will feel safe coming forward, and offenders will be less likely to get away with a crime. Believing isn’t the only step, but it’s an important first step toward healing, finding the truth, and determining guilt or innocence.

Over 800,000 incidents per year

According to 2009 data, there are an estimated 24 sexual assaults a year for every thousand people in Canada. That’s over 800,000 incidents per year. Sexual assault can have long-term effects on a person’s life, including issues related to mental and physical health, education, income, and work. The direct costs of sexual assault are estimated to be close to $550 million a year. That number rises to nearly $2 billion if pain and suffering are also calculated.[1]

Sexual assault and its consequences are not something we can keep avoiding. It’s an all-too-common crime that is often kept secret out of fear and shame. We can change the numbers by understanding the power of a consistently positive and simple response toward victims.

Together, we can help heal and stop sexual assault – creating safer and healthier communities for everyone. After 25 years as a social worker in the field, I’d say it’s about time.

Deb Tomlinson is the Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS), an umbrella body of sexual assault centres throughout Alberta. AASAS is leading the #IBelieveYou campaign to help the public understand the powerful role they can play in the life of a sexual assault survivor and our community. Learn more, spread the word, and join the movement at

[1] McInturff, K. (2013). The Gap in the Gender Gap. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Ottawa, ON.

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