Gender-based violence and unwanted sexual behaviour in Canada, 2018: Initial findings from the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces by Adam Cotter and Laura Savage
All Canadians have the right to live free from violence. Gender-based violence—defined as violence that is committed against someone based on their gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender (Women and Gender Equality Canada 2018)—can have serious long-term physical, economic and emotional consequences for victims, their families, and for society more broadly.
Measuring gender-based violence is complex. The victims—and even the perpetrators—may not themselves perceive the motivations for the incident as being rooted in social structures and systems, which can serve to produce and reproduce gender inequality and gendered violence across many dimensions. Because of this, asking about gender-based violence directly in a survey may not lead to accurate findings or conclusions. Instead, asking about all experiences of violence and using contextual information—such as the gender of the victim and the perpetrator, the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, and the nature and impact of the incident—allows for an examination of violence where the gender-based nature of an incident and the broader systemic factors underpinning these acts can be considered.
Using this general approach, decades of research and data collection in Canada show that women and girls are at higher risk of certain types of violence—and in many cases, other characteristics intersect with gender to impact the likelihood of experiencing violence. Often, these incidents can be considered gender-based; that is, they are typically committed by men against women, and furthermore, they may have a sexual aspect, may cause physical and/or psychological harm, or may involve a relationship between the victim and the perpetrator that implies an imbalance of power. Factors such as age, race, disability, immigrant status, and sexual orientation all intersect and can impact risk and protective factors, as well as access to support services. Previous research indicates that disabled women, Indigenous women, girls and young women, lesbian and bisexual women, and gay and bisexual men are more at risk of experiencing violence (Boyce 2016; Burczycka 2018a; Conroy 2018; Conroy and Cotter 2017; Cotter 2018; Cotter and Beaupré 2014; Ibrahim 2018; Perreault 2015; Rotenberg 2019; Rotenberg 2017; Simpson 2018).
Gender-based violence comprises a wide range of behaviours, some of which are not defined as criminal under Canadian law (Benoit et al. 2015). In addition to overt acts of violence, gender-based violence also includes behaviours that can be more subtle, yet may cause victims to feel unsafe, uncomfortable or threatened because they were victimized because of their gender.
Unwelcome comments, actions, or advances while in public—despite not meeting a criminal threshold—may cause individuals to withdraw or to not otherwise fully engage in their daily activities or access spaces in which they have the right to freely use and enjoy (Bastomski and Smith 2017). These behaviours can also serve to normalize, create, or support a culture where certain individuals feel targeted and discriminated against. Indeed, while some research suggests that unwelcome gendered behaviours may be considered minor or trivial, especially in comparison to other types of sexual violence, they nevertheless come with their own set of consequences and negative impacts on daily life (Bastomski and Smith 2017; Mellgren et al. 2018). When these behaviours are sexualized and/or gender-based, they can serve to create or reinforce sexist or discriminatory stereotypes or norms that can be harmful to everyone.
In 2018, Statistics Canada conducted the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS) with the goal of advancing knowledge of gender-based violence in Canada by collecting information on experiences and characteristics of violent victimization as well as the continuum of other unwanted experiences while in public, online, or at work. A key contribution of the SSPPS is a measure of the prevalence and nature of unwanted sexual behaviours faced by many Canadians while accessing public spaces, while online, or while in the workplace. This fills a critical gap by measuring behaviours that have previously not been a focus of other nationally representative surveys, given the fact that they tend not to rise to the threshold of criminal behaviour, and would therefore never be reported or included in other official data sources. By also including questions which measure violence that meets the criminal threshold, such as physical and sexual assault, the SSPPS allows for a comparative analysis of the risk factors across the continuum of gender-based violence, while also providing more recent self-reported statistics on violent victimization.