Definitions of sexual violence

Learn more about the different terms and language related to sexual violence.


The definitions and ideas included are not meant to ignore or challenge your descriptions and how you want to talk about your life experiences. Sharing definitions give us a way to talk together about sex and what is not sex.


Sexual violence is a widespread and deep-rooted problem. It crosses all social boundaries. It is experienced by women, girls, men and boys of every age and culture. It can occur anytime, anywhere, anyplace. It is a crime.

Ontario’s Sexual Violence & Harassment Action Plan

Sexual violence is a big umbrella term that describes a range of sexual behaviour and actions that are aggressive, abusive and violent. It is any unwanted, forced, tricked or coerced sexual activity. Different forms of sexual violence include sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, incest, childhood sexual abuse and rape during armed conflict. It also includes sexual harassment, stalking, indecent or sexualized exposure, degrading sexual imagery, voyeurism, cyber harassment, human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

  • Sexual violence is rooted in gender inequality. Although it affects both men and women, 92% of reported adult victims are female and 97% of those accused are men.[1]
  • Sexual violence is about power and control, not sexual desire or lust. It is an act of aggression against another person.[It’s Never Okay: Ontario’s Sexual Violence & Harassment Action Plan]
  • In many cases, no overt physical force is used. Instead, the person being victimized may be threatened with words, manipulated or pressured into doing something they don’t want to do.
  • Sometimes alcohol and drugs are used on purpose to make someone unable to give consent or fight back.
  • Sexual violence happens in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.[This is a footnote for Margaret.]
  • Sometimes sexual violence is used as an expression of racism, homophobia or other forms of discrimination.
  • In conflict and war zones, sexual violence is used as a weapon to erode the very fabric of a community. Rape is described as the most intrusive of traumatic events.[Unicef: Sexual violence as a weapon of war]

Forms of sexual violence further described:

Acquaintance sexual assault, sometimes called “date rape,” is sexual contact that is forced, manipulated, or coerced by a partner, friend, or acquaintance.

Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse. It happens when an adult who is a caregiver or in a position of trust and authority engages a child in any sexual activity. Child sex abuse includes:

  • Obscene phone calls or text messages
  • Exposing genitals to a child
  • Masturbation in the presence of the child or forcing the child to masturbate
  • Intercourse (penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of the child)
  • Producing, owning or sharing of pornographic images or movies of children
  • Sex trafficking
  • Any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child’s mental, emotional or physical welfare

Cyber harassment / bullying can be a form of sexual violence when the targeted person is photographed or pressured to take sexual photos that are then shared on the internet to shame or further exploit. Victims of sexual assault can also be shamed and blamed online.

Date rape is interchangeable with “acquaintance sexual assault”. It is sexual contact that is forced, manipulated, or coerced by a partner, friend or acquaintance in a casual or dating relationship.

Drug-facilitated sexual assault involves the perpetrator making use of alcohol and/or drugs (prescription or non-prescription) to control, overpower or subdue a victim for purposes of sexual assault.

Incest is sex between family members. When children are sexually abused, they may respond by being sexual with other children in the home. If left untreated, they may also grow up to become adults with confusion about what is sex and what is abuse. This is why understanding consent and the impact of trauma is so important.

Luring describes the criminal actions of an adult who communicates with minors over the internet to persuade or invite the child/youth to meet in person, provide nude photographs or engage in sexual activity online.

Sexual abuse is not a legal term but can be used to describe ongoing relationships in which sexual violence is occurring.

Sexual assault describes any event of unwanted sexual touching and/or physical force.  It is the legal term for rape in Canada. Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining. It goes far beyond the impact on survivors and their families. Sexual violence costs Canadians billions of dollars every year.[4]

Sexual coercion is when tactics like pressure, trickery or emotional force are used to get someone to agree to sex, when they want to say no.

Sexual exploitation is the sexual abuse of children and youth through the exchange of sex or sexual acts for drugs, food, shelter, protection, other basics of life, and/or money. Sexual exploitation includes involving children and youth in creating pornography and sexually explicit websites.

Sexual harassment refers to unwanted sexual activity, including touching and attacks. It can encompass discriminatory comments and behaviour, as well as touching. Sexual harassment may take the form of jokes, threats, comments about sex, or discriminatory remarks about someone’s gender.[5]

Sex trafficking is the trade of human beings as sexual slaves who are forced to perform sexual services for paying customers.

Workplace sexual harassment is sexual harassment that takes place at work. It is an Occupational Health and Safety hazard. Your employer has a legal obligation to protect you from being harassed or hurt in any way. A 2014 study showed that 43% of women have been sexually harassed at work. Women are twice as likely as men (20% compared to 9%) to experience sexual contact while at work.[6]

Stalking / criminal harassment (the legal term for stalking) is defined as repeatedly following a person, or repeatedly communicating with a person, in a way that could have that person fearing for his or her security or someone else’s. Offences commonly associated with criminal harassment include uttering threats, threatening or harassing phone calls, common assault and mischief. Stalking is a red flag that can be an indication that a situation is escalating. It is against the law to stalk someone.

[1] ibid

[2] It’s Never Okay: Ontario’s Sexual Violence & Harassment Action Plan

[3] Unicef: Sexual violence as a weapon of war

[4] Canadian Women’s Foundation: Fact Sheet: Sexual Assault and Harassment

[6] ibid

Further Reading & Resources