Let’s start with sexual assault.

Sexual assault is a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada. Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact that happens without your consent. It also includes situations in which a person has threatened you to convince you to have sexual contact with them.

There are three degrees of sexual assault

  • Level 1: Touching, kissing, intercourse, penetration and any other sexual activity that is done without the consent of the other person.
  • Level 2: When the accused has a weapon, or threatens to use a weapon, when the accused threatens to cause physical harm, causes physical harm, or if the affected person has been sexually assaulted by more than one person in the same incident.
  • Level 3: Also known as aggravated sexual assault, this occurs when the person who has been sexually assaulted is wounded, maimed, or their life has been endangered. It is also a Level 3 sexual assault if the accused has a gun and threatens to use it.

So it’s sexual assault if:

  • A co-worker kisses you without your permission.
  • You get drunk at an office party and wake up realizing someone you work with has had sex with you when you were too intoxicated to consent.
  • A customer at the restaurant where you work slaps your ass.

But it’s not sexual assault if:

  • Someone insults you or calls you names.
  • Someone leers at you, catcalls you, or propositions you.
  • Someone hugs you or touches you non-sexually.
  • Someone yells at you or chases you.

It’s important to know that, even if someone’s behaviour meets the legal definition of sexual assault, that doesn’t necessarily mean the police will take it seriously. The police are likely to take action if they think what happened to you was serious. If they think it was trivial or unimportant, they may not.

Should you go to the police if you’ve been sexually assaulted?

Most people don’t. Only about 5% of people who were sexually assaulted go to the police.

Why? Many people believe the police won’t take them seriously. Some are afraid of being judged. Some feel ashamed or guilty, as if what happened was their fault. If they know the assaulter, they may be afraid of retaliation. And some—especially Indigenous, racialized and 2SLGBTQIA+ people—just don’t trust the police at all.

This isn’t unjustified. The police have a really lousy record of handling sexual assault cases. To begin with, they refuse to believe 10% of the people who report assault, and classify their cases as “unfounded.” They’re more likely to believe you if you’re white, if you were injured, if the person who assaulted you was a stranger, if they used a weapon, if you fought back hard, and if you were sober.

A police investigation itself can be traumatizing. Some people have described their experience with the police as so bad it was like a “second rape.” Officers can be rude, abrupt, and judgmental, and some believe outdated rape myths and stereotypes.

Common rape myths:

  • If it didn’t end in sex, it’s not really rape.
  • Women “ask for it” by the way they dress or behave.
  • If someone is drunk or high, it’s their fault.
  • Women lie about being raped because they regret having sex.
  • If someone didn’t scream and fight, it wasn’t really rape.
  • Men don’t get raped.

Even though many people have bad experiences with the police, people who work at sexual assault crisis centres say they would never advise someone not to go the police. They believe it’s important for the person who was assaulted to make their own decision about what to do.

Some people who have been assaulted say publicly seeking justice is a way for them to regain control. Some say that, even though they were pretty sure that the perpetrator wouldn’t be punished, going to the police still made them feel better.

Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA) has created this list of questions to ask yourself when you’re deciding what to do:

  • What’s my motivation for reporting to the police?
  • What will it be like to share detailed information about a traumatic event?
  • How will I feel if the person who hurt me is not found guilty?
  • Am I willing to wait for one to two years for the process to be over?
  • Do I know how to access support if and when I need it?
  • How will I feel if I don’t report?
  • How will reporting impact my relationships with my family and friends?

If you go to the police

If you’ve been assaulted and go to the police, you might decide to undergo a medical exam to collect evidence from your body and your clothing. This is called a rape kit, and it has different formal names. It could be a sexual assault evidence kit (SAEK), or sexual assault nurse examination (SANE). The results and any clothing you were wearing could be essential evidence for a later prosecution.

If you decide to go through with a rape kit procedure, experts say you should try to do it within 72 hours of the assault, and you shouldn’t shower first.

The procedure is done at a hospital, and the people there won’t report what happened to the police. You can have the evidence gathered and decide later what you want to do. In some places, you can contact a local sexual assault centre and they will send someone to be with you during the process. You can call 211 to see if there’s a centre close to you.

CCASA has produced a document called Navigating the Criminal Legal System that includes a clear, straightforward guide about what to expect if you go to the police. The details may be different depending on where you live, but overall you can expect the process to be pretty similar to what CCASA describes.


If you go to the police, you don’t have any control over what happens afterward. You don’t get to make the decisions about whether there’s an investigation or prosecution. Those decisions are made by the police and by prosecutors. If the case goes to court, you’ll just be a witness.

If the police decide there’s enough evidence to charge the person who assaulted you, this may eventually lead to a trial, but it could be months or even years before your case comes up.

Court is an adversarial process, and the accused’s lawyer will do what they can to make you seem unreliable and untrustworthy. That could be retraumatizing. It’s important to know that court outcomes are totally discouraging too: Only about one in 10 results in a conviction.

What other types of sexual harassment might break criminal laws

There are other things that harassers do that are illegal under Canadian criminal law and that you might decide to report to the police. Or you might want to tell your HR department, your boss, or your union rep, if you have one. Even if what’s happening isn’t serious enough for you to want to go to the police, your employer may be willing to take steps to protect you. It’s possible to go to the police and raise the issue within your workplace. Doing one doesn’t mean you can’t also do the other.

If you’re considering reporting any of these behaviours, you should collect and save as much evidence as you can. Don’t delete texts or emails. Keep recordings, if you have any. Take screenshots. Take pictures.

Sharing sexual imagery

It’s a crime in Canada to share sexual images of someone without their consent. Under the Criminal Code, this is called “non-consensual distribution of intimate images.”

If someone at work shares sexual pictures or videos of you with other people, they are breaking the law. It doesn’t matter how they got the images, or how they share them.

Indecent communications

It’s a crime for someone to send you sexual images of themselves or other people, including commercial pornography. The Criminal Code prohibits what it calls “indecent communications,” which includes sending sexual communications “with the intent to alarm or annoy.”


If someone lies about you in a way that hurts your reputation, exposing you to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, in Canada that can break both civil and criminal laws.

Defamation can be verbal, or it can happen in other ways such as text messages, emails, or social media posts. If someone falsely tells your co-workers you are a pedophile or a drug addict or an abusive parent, that’s defamation.

If someone falsely tells your boss you lied on your job application or you’re stealing from the company, that’s defamation.

But, it’s not defamation to express an opinion. So if a co-worker says you’re lazy or ugly or bad at your job, that’s probably not defamation. If somebody calls you a slur, that may or may not be defamation.


In Canada, stalking is against the law. It’s called criminal harassment.

If someone from your work repeatedly shows up at your home uninvited, or if a former partner repeatedly shows up at your workplace, that’s stalking. If a co-worker or customer repeatedly texts you, emails you, or phones you, that can be stalking. If someone watches you and tracks where you go, or follows you around, that’s stalking, too.

The Department of Justice has a really good online pamphlet on stalking, Stalking Is a Crime Called Criminal Harassment.

Doxxing and swatting

Doxxing is when someone publishes personal information about you online, like your home address or your phone number. Usually it’s done to encourage or enable other people to harass you. Swatting is when people deliberately trick the police or other emergency services into going to your house or workplace, by pretending there’s an emergency. The purpose of swatting is to annoy, frighten, or endanger you.

Under Canadian law, both doxxing and swatting are considered forms of criminal harassment.


A voyeur is someone who records, photographs, or watches you when you think you’re in a private space. Voyeurism is illegal.

Most workplace voyeurism occurs in places where people may be nude or partly nude, like washrooms, changerooms, or dressing rooms. If somebody sets up a secret camera in a washroom at work, that’s voyeurism. If your employer puts a camera in a changeroom, that could be voyeurism. If somebody secretly watches or records you with their phone when you think you’re alone, or secretly takes invasive pictures of you (like aiming their camera up your skirt), that may be voyeurism.

Voyeurism can happen to anyone, but you might be especially at risk if your workplace is also where you live, if your job requires you to change clothes at work, or if you are breastfeeding or pumping milk at work.

Uttering threats

Under the law, “uttering threats” means that someone is threatening you, your property, or your animals.

The threat doesn’t have to be spoken—it can be emailed, texted, or posted on social media. The threat also doesn’t need to be sent directly to you: If someone tells other people they are going to hurt or kill you, including on social media, they are breaking the law.

Hate speech

In Canada it’s a crime to publicly incite hatred against an identifiable group, which means a group distinguishable by “colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or mental or physical disability.”

So let’s say someone at your work is posting on social media expressing hostility, intolerance, or violent feelings toward women, or trans people, or Muslim people, or some other group. That person may be committing a crime.

So, should you go to the police?

We can’t answer that for you.

If you go to the police, they may not take you seriously. Or they may start an investigatory and legal process that’s long, painful for you, and doesn’t lead to justice.

Even so, experts say there’s no one right answer. The right answer is what’s right for you. It’s a totally personal decision.

What are the alternatives? Many sexual assault centres have group therapy programs and some offer individual counselling also. Attending to your mental health is vital. It’s possible finding support in the community or with a therapist is the right thing for you instead.