Shedding Light On Sexual Abuse - What Are A Survivor’s Options

a potential survivor of sexual abuse wearing a grey sweater stands with their palms together as they contemplate their options moving forward

Sexual abuse and sexual assaults are crimes where one or more perpetrators engage in unwanted sexual activity with a person who does not or cannot consent to it.

It can happen to anyone. And it does happen to far more people than you might think.

One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. The majority of these children and youth will know their abuser. Adults who experience a sexual assault also frequently know the perpetrator - it may even be their own spouse. Yet whether you’ve been hurt by someone you know or a stranger, it can be a traumatic and life-shattering experience.

You may be reading this post because you are thinking about what has happened to you. Perhaps it is still happening to you. And, you may be thinking about what you can do about it.

It’s very important to remember that every survivor’s story and circumstances are different, and each survivor must be empowered to choose what, if anything, they want to do about the harm they suffered. Whether you are considering taking steps now or at some point in the future to address what occurred, this blog post will give you some general information about sexual abuse and sexual assaults, and outline some of the options you have.

For a more detailed guide, please visit our website and download A Guide for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors. While it is focused on sexual abuse of children, many of the same principles apply for adult sexual assault survivors.

What Is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault?

Sexual abuse and sexual assault are crimes of power and control. An abuser’s non-consensual, unwanted sexual contact with another person is a violation of that person’s bodily autonomy.

Canada’s Criminal Code (sections 271-273) defines sexual assault as “an assault committed in circumstances of a sexual nature such that the sexual integrity of the victim is violated.” The penalties for sexual assault vary depending on the type and extent of a person’s injuries and whether the person harmed is under the age of 16.

Establishing whether there is consent for sexual activity, whether consent was given but is later withdrawn, or whether there are circumstances that make it impossible for a person to consent are critically important elements for understanding how the law applies.

For example, implied consent (from silence or not saying “no”) is not considered a valid defence.

Moreover, consent cannot be given if a person is unconscious, incapacitated, will suffer bodily harm from the sexual activity, or if consent has been obtained through an abuse of power or authority. Finally, generally the age when a person is deemed capable of consenting to sexual activity is 16 years, but there are exceptions which raise the age of consent (prostitution, pornography, a relationship of authority/trust/dependency) or lower it (consensual relationships involving people close in age).


Often a person who has been sexually abused or sexually assaulted will not immediately disclose what happened to them. There can be many reasons why a person would want or need to wait before coming forward, including:

  • Being dependent on the abuser (financially, physically, emotionally)
  • Needing time to reflect on what happened and to begin processing their trauma
  • Self-medicating to escape from the physical and/or psychological pain that prevents sustained sobriety
  • Fear of not being believed by authorities, family, and/or religious or cultural communities
  • Threats or fear of reprisals from the abuser
  • Fear of being labelled or outed

It is essential to understand that deciding when and if to come forward is entirely up to a survivor. There are no statutory limitations for sexual abuse and sexual assaults. In other words, generally there are no laws that prevent a survivor from seeking criminal charges or advancing a civil lawsuit after a certain period of time has passed. This means that even if the abuse or assault you suffered was months, years, or even decades ago, it may still be possible to seek justice from the courts.

If the sexual abuse or assault happened very recently or is ongoing, however, you should consider going to a doctor as soon as possible. Even if you have no intention of reporting the assault to the police at the time, the evidence a doctor collects may be extremely important if you change your mind in the future.

As a sexual abuse and sexual assault lawyer, when survivors first contact me for a free, no obligation, confidential initial consultation, I make a point of informing people about their ability and right to take the time they need to prepare themselves if they plan to disclose their story. Many services are available to survivors who are still processing what happened to them, including support groups, private or publicly funded therapy, and emergency shelters. Other financial support may be available upon disclosure to authorities.

What Are My Options?

If you plan to pursue justice through the courts or professional regulatory bodies, it’s advisable to first contact a lawyer with a practice focused on personal injuries. Some lawyers or firms, such as ours, deal exclusively with sexual abuse and sexual assault cases.

Take the time you need to speak with multiple lawyers or firms if necessary. If you proceed with legal action, it is important to choose a lawyer whom you feel you can trust, work with, and who demonstrates they understand and respect you.

At Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein, our sexual assault and sexual abuse lawyers practice trauma-informed lawyering. We take an approach designed to support and advise our clients while ensuring they are always empowered and in control of all decision-making. Also, our firm does not represent perpetrators, employers, or institutions who are being sued - only survivors.

Once you have received independent legal advice, depending on the facts in your case and your own level of comfort, you may have several options available. These include:

Reporting the abuse or assault to the police - The standard of proof required for a criminal conviction is high. If the police do not lay charges against a perpetrator, it does not necessarily mean they don’t believe you; rather, they may decide they will not have enough evidence to make a case that is likely to result in conviction (proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt). If charges are brought and there is a conviction or guilty plea, you will have the opportunity to make a victim impact statement.

Once a report is made to the police, a survivor assumes the role of a witness in any investigation or court case. This means the police and/or Crown prosecutors will manage the case. Your ability to control the matter will be limited.

Filing a civil claim for damages - Unlike the high standard of proof required for conviction in criminal cases, a civil lawsuit must only prove the claim on the balance of probabilities (in other words, your case is stronger than the person you are suing). A civil claim against the person who abused or assaulted you (or, in the case of institutions, permitted the acts to occur through negligence) will aim to prove they are liable for causing you harm. You may seek general damages (pain and suffering) and/or special damages (past and future income loss, costs related to therapy, and medication and rehabilitation costs).

Many sexual abuse and sexual assault lawyers work on a contingency basis, meaning you will only pay legal fees if you receive compensation from the defendant.

While obtaining compensation is one of the aims of this type of action, no amount of money will ever truly compensate a survivor for the harm done to them. Rather, many people consider whatever compensation they receive (from a settlement or court judgement) as symbolic recognition that they have been wronged.

Making a report or complaint to a professional body - If the person who abused or assaulted you belongs to a profession which has a regulatory body (for example, medical practitioners, lawyers, educators, clergy, etc), you may be able to file a report or make a complaint with it. If this regulatory body or an independent person assigned to investigate your allegations finds them to be credible, the abuser may be sanctioned, fined, or even have their professional credentials revoked.

Finding closure - In some cases, survivors who hear about these options elect not to pursue any of them. The knowledge that they could take these actions is enough for them. In other cases, none of these options will apply to your case for a variety of reasons - none of which negates or diminishes your experience as a survivor.

While this news may be disappointing or painful to hear, it need not dissuade you from becoming more informed about your rights and options. There are many paths a survivor can take as they heal. Discovering that there are no or limited legal avenues available to you can be a form of closure in itself. Coming to this conclusion can free you to pursue other ways of acknowledging how abuse or assault has impacted your life.

When You’ve Been Hurt.

Sexual abuse and sexual assaults are the most personal of all personal injuries. As individuals, every survivor’s experience, needs, and wants will be different. Understanding that there is no wrong way to move forward is critically important. When someone has committed an act that takes away your sense of control and autonomy over your body, it is essential to make your own decisions about the process you will take to heal.

At Jellinek, Ellis, Gluckstein Lawyers, we are committed to full-circle care that supports and empowers survivors to regain control over their lives. We are humbled when a survivor chooses to share their story with us. We always work diligently to show them that we are trustworthy, sensitive to their needs, and can be effective advocates for them.

If you or a loved one has suffered from sexual abuse or a sexual assault and you would like to understand what legal options you may have based on your unique circumstances, please contact our firm to speak our team of personal injury lawyers for a no cost, no obligation consultation. Knowledge is power, and it’s time to take back power over your life.


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