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People who experience sexual assault—often called “survivors”—have many options for going forward. Survivors find support from many sources, including informal resources, such as family and friends, as well as professional resources, like crisis centres, hospitals, law enforcement officers, and campus authorities. All these options offer different services and work in different ways. These options aren’t mutually exclusive, and there is no one “right” course of action.

Our purpose here is to give you an overview of the professional support services available to you. There’s a lot of information in this article, but the most important message is very simple: There are many people who can help survivors find support and take action. If you (or a friend) have any questions or need a safe person to talk to, a sexual assault response centre is a great place to start. Find an Anti-Violence Centre near you on the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres website.

While this article focuses on sexual assault, there are also resources available for students who have experienced sexual harassment, stalking, or intimate partner violence (also known as dating violence or domestic violence), and for those who aren’t sure how to categorize their experiences.

Sexual assault response centres

On many campuses and in communities, professionals at sexual assault response centres (sometimes called “rape crisis centres” or “anti-violence centres”) can help survivors explore their options, connect them with further resources, and provide support.

You can contact your campus counselling services or find your local sexual assault centre phone number (scroll to “SEXUAL ASSAULT CENTRES/SUPPORT”).

Services may include:

  • Counselling, both in times of crisis (e.g., through a hotline or at a walk-in centre) and ongoing support.
  • Help deciding on immediate steps, such as whether to report to the police and connecting to health care.
  • Assistance with disciplinary and legal processes, such as explaining the criminal justice process, understanding your rights, and accompanying you to court.
  • Support groups, education, and sometimes, political action.
  • Medical advocates who can accompany survivors to medical appointments and help coordinate follow-up care.

Privacy and confidentiality

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  • Most hotlines are confidential and can be anonymous.
  • Victim advocates are not usually required to report assaults to the police, unless the victim is under 18, although policies may vary by province, territory, city, and campus. Staff can explain their confidentiality policies and help survivors make choices about disclosure.
  • Like any mental health professionals, victim advocates may share information with authorities if they believe that a client is at imminent risk of harm. 

Immediate steps

Advocates can help in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault. They can provide a safe place to talk, safety planning, and connections to medical care. They can also help explain options for reporting a sexual assault.  

Next steps

Advocates can be very helpful in the long term. Many offer counselling, support groups, case management, and support during disciplinary and legal processes. They can also provide referrals to sources of ongoing support, such as campus counselling centres or faith-based services.

  • The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres has a list of Anti-Violence Centres across Canada.
  • Anyone can contact an advocate, even if they haven’t personally experienced sexual assault. You can call a hotline for advice on supporting a friend or loved one, or if you have questions about sexual assault.
  • Advocates work with a broad range of experiences. Sometimes people contact advocates to talk about experiences that happened years before, to process a friend’s struggles, or even to discuss upsetting events on the news.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology may vary by province, territory, city, and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

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Campus sexual assault services

Campus services relating to sexual assault are highly variable. Many colleges and universities have sexual assault policies, guidelines, and services. Some campuses are collaborating with specialized sexual assault programs in the community. “Being proactive and taking responsibility shows that colleges and universities recognize these issues can exist and are willing to do something about them,” says Jackie Stevens, Executive Director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Your campus

  • To find out whether your campus has sexual assault support and counselling services, search your college or university website or contact your student union.
  • If there are no sexual assault support services on campus, contact your local Sexual Assault or Anti-Violence Centre.
  • Before disclosing an assault to a professional, ask whether you are entitled to confidentiality and what processes your disclosure could initiate. Disclosing an assault on campus does not mean it will be reported to the police.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology may vary by province, territory, city, and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

Sexual assault services at the hospital

Medical professionals can provide support after a sexual assault. Some nurses have specialized training to provide services in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault. They are often called SANEs (sexual assault nurse examiners), but can go by other names, such as forensic nurse examiners.

clip board with stethoscopeSANEs can explain medical options and conduct forensic exams (a medical exam to collect and preserve evidence of a sexual assault). They provide any other needed medical care, such as preventative treatment for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. In some cases, SANEs testify as a witness if a criminal case goes to trial. Not all hospitals have SANEs on call, so sometimes emergency room nurses and/or doctors complete the exam.

Privacy and confidentiality

  • Usually, SANEs and other nurses or doctors are not mandated to report the assault to the police, unless the victim is under 18 (although laws vary).
  • SANEs make physical evidence available to the police. Survivors 18 and older can choose to have a “John/Jane Doe rape kit,” which allows them to have evidence collected without revealing their identity. This way, survivors can have evidence collected and decide if they would like to report to the police at a later time.
  • Like any medical professionals, SANEs may share information with authorities if they believe that a patient is at imminent risk of harm.

Immediate steps

A specially trained medical professional may complete a sexual assault examination kit, commonly called a “rape kit.” The process can include:

  • A full-body physical examination and collection of medical history.
  • Collection of blood, urine, hair, semen, and other body secretion samples.
  • Collection of the survivor’s clothes.
  • Photos to document any injuries.

Next steps

Medical professionals can give survivors referrals to counselling, follow-up medical care, and other resources. Sexual assault examination kits may be turned over to local police as evidence. Medical professionals should inform survivors of how long the kit will be stored, as this varies.

Time frame

Survivors can seek medical care at any time. The sooner survivors seek care, the greater the likelihood of preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. The guidelines for collecting forensic evidence vary, but the RCMP recommends collecting evidence within five days.  

  • If possible, survivors should avoid any activities that might disrupt evidence, such as showering, brushing hair, or changing clothes; however, a sexual assault examination kit can still be completed.
  • Survivors can refuse any part of the exam, although this may impact what evidence is collected.
  • Survivors can bring a friend, family member, or victim advocate to the exam if they wish.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology may vary by province, territory, city, and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

Police

Sexual assault and consent are defined by the federal Criminal Code. The police can explain survivor’s legal options, investigate the incident, and potentially prosecute the perpetrator. In some cases, survivors can work with a sensitive crimes officer, who is specially trained to handle sexual assault.

Privacy and confidentiality

  • Confidentiality laws vary. Law enforcement officers can explain these laws to survivors.
  • If charges are pressed, survivors should discuss privacy and disclosure concerns with the prosecutor and/or legal counsel.

Time frame

There is no time limit for reporting a sexual assault to the police. In general, it’s easier to report earlier. Sexual assault response centres can help answer questions about reporting to the police.

Immediate steps

The police interview the survivor about what happened. They can help the survivor connect with a health care provider for a medical examination and the collection of physical evidence.

Next steps

Police can help survivors make a safety plan, such as requesting a restraining order.

Survivors can decide to what extent they participate in the investigation and what information to disclose. In many places, the police or district attorney decides whether or not to press charges. While survivor wishes are considered, the choice ultimately rests with the police or the district attorney. After an investigation, the case may be dropped, there may be a plea bargain, or the case may be decided in court. Survivors are usually called to testify in court; the police or a victim advocate can explain how court processes work.

  • Survivors are not required to report a sexual assault to the police.
  • Survivors can bring a friend, family member, or victim advocate with them.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology may vary by province, territory, city, and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

Ultimately, the support a person chooses to get after an incident of sexual assault or harassment is completely up to them. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault or harassment, it can be very helpful to talk to someone. You can find your local sexual assault centre phone numbers (scroll to “SEXUAL ASSAULT CENTRES/SUPPORT”).

Learn more about sexual assault prevention, support, and consent here.

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Article sources

Jackie Stevens, Executive Director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. (2019). Confidentiality and privacy. Retrieved from https://barcc.org/help/confidentiality

Break the Cycle. (2014). Reporting sexual assault to the police. Retrieved from https://www.breakthecycle.org/blog/reporting-sexual-assault-police

British Columbia Ministry of Justice. (n.d.). Information on Sexual Assault https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/criminal-justice/bc-criminal-justice-system/if-victim/publications/hsh-english-sexual-assault.pdf

Brown University: Title IX and Gender Equity. (2019). I am a responsible employee. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/title-ix/get-help/i-am-responsible-employee

Forensics for Survivors. (2015). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.surviverape.org/forensics/sexual-assault-forensics/answers-to-faq

Harvard University. (2019). Title IX coordinators. Retrieved from https://titleix.harvard.edu/links/title-ix-coordinators

Institut national de santé publique Québec. (n.d.). Judicial Proceedings for Sexual Offences. Retrieved from https://www.inspq.qc.ca/en/sexual-assault/law/judicial-process

Michigan Tech Title IX. (2019). Responsible employees/mandated reporting. Retrieved from https://www.mtu.edu/title-ix/policy/responsible-employees/

National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2018). Find help. Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/find-help

Northeastern University Office for University Equity and Compliance. (2019). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.northeastern.edu/ouec/frequently-asked-questions/

RAINN. (2019a). Reporting to law enforcement. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/articles/reporting-law-enforcement

RAINN. (2019b). What is a rape kit? Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/articles/rape-kit

RAINN. (2019c). Aftermath: Working with the criminal justice system. Retrieved from https://rainn.org/get-info/legal-information/working-with-the-criminal-justice-system

Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (2018, July). Information for sexual assault survivors: Retrieved from http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/information-sexual-assault-survivors

United States, Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2017, September). Q&A on campus sexual misconduct. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-title-ix-201709.pdf

University of Washington. (2019). Making a report to police. Retrieved from https://www.washington.edu/sexualassault/reporting/police/

Yale University Office of the Provost. (2019). When to contact a coordinator. Retrieved from https://provost.yale.edu/title-ix/when-to-contact