For many, the word “rape” conjures up images of a stranger behind a bush in a dark place with no one else around. In school we are taught to recognize stranger danger and how to say no to a mysterious figure. However, the reality of rape is very different and far more disturbing. Rape is most likely to occur, not with a stranger, but with someone you know and trust. According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 55% of sexually assaulted women know their attacker. Acquaintance rape is a forced sexual assault committed by an individual whom you know: someone you just met, dated a few times, are in a committed relationship with, or are related to. The force involved can be physical, or implied with threats. Acquaintance rape is a violation of body and trust, but above all it is an act of violence – and it is wrong.

What differentiates acquaintance rape from stranger rape is the relationship between the victim and the offender. The circumstances and impact of sexual assault change dramatically when victims know their attacker. A victim may trust their acquaintance and therefore let down their guard. It also has a great effect on how the victim feels and reacts to the attack. They may be less likely to come forward because of their relation to their attacker, or they may downplay what actually happened, believing that rape as such only involves strangers.

One victim of acquaintance rape, a second year Carleton University student, reports that her experience does not match the common image of rape. She knew her attacker, he was in her home with her consent, they had both been drinking, and there was nothing about him that made her suspicious. She went to bed and woke up with him beside her. He was all over her and she was barely awake. She said “NO”, they had intercourse, and he got up and went home.

Victims of acquaintance rape are further traumatized with feelings of confusion that someone they know and trust could commit such an assault. Victims sometimes question their own actions and, as a result, can develop feelings of guilt. These feelings of confusion, disbelief, guilt, and doubt may prevent a victim from reporting the assault. If a victim does decide to report the assault, she may face barriers with the police and courts. Due to these factors, very little is known about acquaintance rape. The goal of this paper is to raise awareness of a victim’s experience with acquaintance rape.

Since the majority of victims of sexual assault are women, this paper will refer to victims in the feminine. However, this does not imply that men cannot fall victim to this crime. It is important to recognize that some men have experienced sexual assault by an acquaintance, either by another man or a woman.

Sexual Assault Laws

Sexual assault laws apply across the board to incidents involving strangers, acquaintances, and family members. They are designed to protect a person’s freedom of consent over engaging in sexual conduct. There are three classifications of sexual assault:

  1. Sexual Assault – This first category is not clearly defined in the Criminal Code. This leaves it to the discretion of police, prosecutors, and the courts as to what constitutes a sexual assault. It need not necessarily involve penetration, as was the case with early “rape” laws. A person can be charged for an act which was not completed. Furthermore, the Crown may proceed either by way of indictment or a summary conviction. Conviction by way of indictment carries with it a maximum sentence of ten years; a summary conviction offence carries with it a sentence not to exceed eighteen months.
  2. Sexual Assault with a Weapon, Threats to a Third Party or Causing Bodily Harm – This offence involves the accused threatening the victim with a weapon, or threatening to injure another person. This provision states that if the victim submits because harm may come to another person (child, husband, wife or even a total stranger), this cannot be viewed by the courts as consent. An accused can also be charged under this part of the Criminal Code if they have injured a victim, or if they were a party to a victim being sexually assaulted. The maximum sentence permitted under this section is fourteen years.
  3. Aggravated Sexual Assault – An accused can be charged under this section of the Criminal Code if a victim has been disfigured or maimed during s sexual assault. A person who is convicted under this section can face a term of life imprisonment.

Often women are considered not to have been raped if they gave consent due to extenuating circumstances. A victim’s consent cannot be obtained, and is invalid, if:

  • the agreement is expressed in the words or conduct of a person other than the victim;
  • the victim is incapable of consenting to the sexual activity;
  • the offender uses his position of trust or authority in order to coerce the victim into engaging in the sexual activity;
  • the victim displays a lack of agreement through words or conduct; or,
  • the victim upon engaging in the sexual activity expresses through words or conduct a desire to stop the activity

Acquaintance Rape Verses Stranger Rape

While both acquaintance rape and stranger rape are forms of violence, there are several legal distinctions between the two.

  1. Consent – The first distinction between stranger rape and acquaintance rape affects the definition of consent. Consent is the voluntary agreement of one person to engage in sexual activity with another. While one individual might seem to agree to sexual activity with another, the scenarios listed above outline when consent is considered to be invalid.However, it can be very difficult to prove there was an assault because the question of consent often comes down to the victim’s word against that of the accused. In court one must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty and, since the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, the question of consent often leads the judge to rule for the accused. In cases of stranger rape, it is often much easier for the victim to illustrate that she did not know the accused, and would thus likely not engage in a consensual sexual relationship with him.
  2. The Previous Relationship – Acquaintance rape is further complicated by the variables present in the victim/offender relationship. Historically, society has designated set roles for men and women. These roles were presented in what we may have called the “dating etiquette.” Traditionally, men would initiate the date, pay all expenses, drive women home, and perhaps give them a good night kiss. Sex role stereotyping has different expectations for males and females. This has created confusion and misunderstanding as gender roles persist in a changing world. Misconceptions frequently contribute to acquaintance rape. According to the 1991 study “Misconceptions as an Antecedent to Acquaintance Rape” by Antonio Abbey, men were more likely than women to misperceive friendly behaviour as indicative of sexual interest. Moreover, some men find it sexually exciting to have a woman struggle. If a woman protests only mildly, the man may think he is merely “persuading” her, not forcing her to have sex.In addition to the physical and emotional difficulties that stem from any sexual assault, victims of acquaintance rape must also cope with the psychological problems of encountering their attacker every day. Many women who are assaulted have to work with, go to school with, or share the same social circle as, her attacker. In contrast, a woman who is randomly selected by a stranger may never see her attacker again. Women who have to see the assailant every day may not report the crime to the police for fear that they will be harassed, beaten, raped again or killed by their assailant. Acquaintance rape victims have tremendous sexual and emotional problems after the attack because they were victimized by someone they knew and trusted. After all, if you could not trust them, who can you trust? Victims of this crime are afraid of trusting the wrong person again and tend to put up barriers or guards that may take years of work to break down.
  3. The Role of Alcohol – The third and most significant distinction between stranger rape and acquaintance rape is the role that alcohol can play in this crime. There have been many explanations for the relationship between alcohol and date rape. Many men may feel more confident, powerful, or aggressive after drinking. This mindset can easily lead to verbal or physical confrontations and to sexual assault. Alcohol reduces a person’s ability to think clearly and rationally. This may lead to the increased likelihood that a misunderstanding may occur about a woman’s behaviour. For example, simple friendly behaviour on the part of a woman may be interpreted by an intoxicated man as sexual interest.Alcohol serves to justify the perpetrator’s actions and others may accept this excuse. Many accept the argument that, “He was too drunk to know what he was doing.” This allows people who have committed a criminal act to be excused based on their intoxicated state. Alcohol impairs cognition and motor ability when large amounts are consumed. Women thus inebriated may fail to recognize the signals that indicate an assault is likely to occur, making effective reaction to a threatening situation all the more difficult. Most insidiously, women who drink are often perceived as sexually available. Men may encourage drinking in order to facilitate an assault. Women who were drunk when raped are often viewed by others as partially responsible.These findings indicate how alcohol can influence a person’s behaviour and how they perceive the behaviour of others. It can be difficult enough to read what the opposite sex wants when sober, let alone with the distortion of alcohol. It is very important to be aware of these findings when in an environment where alcohol is consumed. Even though one may not intend to act in a suggestive way when drunk, it is very important to be aware that others may misinterpret one’s behaviour. By recognizing the relationship between alcohol and acquaintance rape, women can be more aware of the increased risk of sexual assault. This can help women to use preventive steps such as going to parties with a friend, or limiting the amount of alcohol consumed. In no way is the victim ever responsible for the crime committed against her because she was intoxicated. No person ever does, regardless of the misconception of others. Alcohol consumption cannot excuse the crime of rape. The Supreme Court has in fact ruled that the defence of intoxication cannot be used in cases of sexual assault.
  4. Seduction – In many cases of date rape men do not actually perceive the incident as rape, casting it instead as seduction. However, the difference between seduction and rape is that seduction involves no force, implied or otherwise. Seduction attempts to secure a woman’s consent, but consent is still required. Acquaintance rape often occurs when seduction fails. Many women fail to set their sexual limits beforehand. Men often believe that women will not say when they are willing to have sex, and feel that a woman needs to be “seduced.” This is the “no” means “yes” scenario. It is important that men and women communicate their intentions in advance. Women must be assertive rather than passive or unsure if they do not want to engage in intercourse. Many attempted rapes have been prevented because a woman has yelled, screamed or fought her assailant. If a woman fights her assailant, the chances are greater that he will stop the attack. However, if a woman fails to stop her attacker this does not make her responsible for the incident.Many women enter a state of shock when they are attacked. It is important that victims of rape understand that if they have been forced against their will to submit, is not their fault. Simply saying “no” should be enough to prevent unwanted sexual relations. When a woman says no to sexual intercourse and force is applied, it should not be viewed as a successful seduction but should be understood as rape.


Several pernicious myths surround sexual assault and too often serve to excuse rape and deny support to victims. It is important to recognise that these are myths and not fact.

Some of these myths include:

  1. “It barely happens” – As with any act of violence, society often wants to believe that sexual assault is an infrequent crime. Society may want to believe that sexual assault is not a serious problem and that, when it does occur, the victims were ‘bad’ girls. Many people still believe that if women really want to avoid sexual assault, they should not go to certain places with men or dress a certain way. This attitude is often expressed in phrases such as: “Why did she go out drinking with him?” or “She should not have worn that short skirt.” Such attitudes are damaging to the victim and can result in a victim feeling as though she is to blame for the crime.
  2. “The dark alleyway” – In movies or on television, the setting of a sexual assault is usually a dark alley and the assailant a ‘lurker’ who pounces on his victims. To most, the rapist is always a stranger acting on deviant or uncontrollable sexual impulses. It is these images in popular culture that have made the term ‘acquaintance rape’ foreign to most people. These images also bring doubt and questions into the mind of the victim as to whether she has truly been victimized under the law, as her situation may not match this stereotyped image.
  3. “She was asking for it” – Society often assumes that victims of sexual assault would be white, middle or upper class, married or virginal women. If a victim does not fit this description, she is seen as less innocent, or somehow ‘loose’ or ‘asking for it’. This myth often aims at blaming the victim for the attack through their social or economic class. If a woman falls outside of the idealized image, people may suspect that she is crying rape for reasons of revenge.
  4. “It was only sex” – Often, when discussing acquaintance rape, the offender will claim that the sexual assault was merely sex. There are some offenders who feel that they are releasing their victims from their sexual inhibitions or ‘teaching’ them. Also, offenders may rationalize their behaviour by claiming that the victim ‘enjoyed it.’ It is common in situations of acquaintance rape for the rapist to tell the victim to ‘relax and enjoy it.’ These attitudes stem from a belief that sexual assault is a sexual activity and not an act of violence.
  5. “He couldn’t stop” – Some people believe or argue that because a man is sexually aroused, he is unable to control himself. This puts the blame on the woman for changing her mind before the sexual offence. If a woman says yes, but changes her mind just before sex, blame is often placed on the victim. Men are capable of controlling their sexual impulses and suggesting that since the accused was aroused he could not stop himself is not a justifiable excuse.

These myths simply do not stand up to scrutiny, as this paper will demonstrate. These myths are rooted in sex role stereotyping and the acceptance by society of interpersonal violence. Such beliefs are deeply held by many people and may be difficult to change.

Rape Statistics

This section presents statistics on the prevalence of sexual assaults, how often they are reported, where the assaults are likely to take place, and who is likely to be assaulted.

  • 4 out of 5 female undergraduates surveyed at Canadian universities claim to have been victims of violence in dating relationships
  • The 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization indicated that victims were most likely to be between 15 to 24 years old. However, in 2007 the majority of offences reported were against children and youth under 18.
  • It is estimated that a sexual assault occurs every seven minutes in Canada.
  • In one study of male rape in universities, 48% of men felt they had been verbally pressured by a female dating partner to have sex and 6% had been physically forced to have intercourse. Most said that they had sex due to verbal pressure such as pleading, demands or blackmail. Some said they were pressured by verbal coercion and physical restraint, and some were too intoxicated to consent.
  • 9 out of 10 sexual assaults are never reported to the police; sexual offences are the least likely violent crime to be reported
  • The annual number of sexual assaults has remained level over the years, although the number of offences brought to the police has steadily declined over the past decade.
  • 68% of aggravated sexual assaults occur in private homes.
  • 99% of women are raped by male offenders.
  • 95% of men are raped by male offenders.
  • Women are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than men.
  • All women are at risk of sexual assault; however, young females are at a greater risk of date-rape from boyfriends, dates or male classmates.
  • The majority of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance that uses tricks, verbal pressure, threats, or mild force during an assault.
  • One study in Winnipeg found that 87% of sexual assault victims did not report the crime to the police and 12% told no one at all.
  • According to Canadian Crime Statistics (1994), 35% of sexual assault victims were assaulted by a casual acquaintance, 8% by a close friend, 6% by a business acquaintance, 11% by a parent, 13% by another family member, and 22% by a stranger. All in all, 73% were assaulted by someone they knew.
  • Date rape can occur when a woman is alone with a man or when others are close by.
  • In 1985, Mary Koss, a professor at Kent University, surveyed approximately 7,000 students on 32 campuses and found that one woman in 8 had been the victim of rape. One in 12 men admitted to having forced a woman to have intercourse or tried to force a woman to have intercourse through physical force or coercion. Virtually, none of these men, however, identified themselves as rapists. Similarly, only 57% of those women who have been raped labelled their experience as rape, the other 43% had not even admitted to themselves that they had been raped.

These statistics offer some insight into the problem of acquaintance rape. However, there is severe under-reporting in cases of sexual assault, which suggests the actual numbers are more extensive.

Under Reporting

For both stranger and acquaintance rape, many victims are reluctant to report the incident to police. Under-reporting in acquaintance rape is especially prevalent, as many victims are confused and feel violated but are not exactly sure if a crime has been committed. Other reasons for under-reporting include fear of being believed, re-victimization by the justice system, police interrogations, and publicity.

  1. False Accusations
    According to the Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis, 5.7% of sexual assault cases are purposefully falsified. This may seem low, but in 4 years it accounts for 2 235 false allegations. Already biased against the victim, this rise in false claims makes the already sceptical public even harder to face, even if the victim is telling the truth. Some feminists take the position that any declarations of false accusation in fact stem from the police refusing to believe a complainant. It is up to the police to carefully investigate reports of sexual assault to determine whether or not they are true. In cases of dropped charges, they must determine if the complainant dropped the charges due to fear of retaliation or fear of being victimized again by the justice system.
  2. Re-Victimization
    Re-victimization occurs when a victim must go through the Criminal Justice System and retell their story numerous times in a fight for validation from others, be it the police, a jury, or a judge. Re-victimization can occur with police when they are given the discretion to decide whether to press charges or not. If a victim is treated harshly in the justice system or her rape is not validated by the law, she can experience it as an entirely new violation. The majority of sexual assault cases are categorized by police as “unfounded.” An officer considers a case unfounded if the victim is unsuitable as a witness, if there is lack of “hard” evidence, if the victim requests not to pursue an investigation or if the police are unwilling to follow through with an investigation. Police discretion makes it difficult for many victims to come forward. This in turn reinforces the myth that the victim is responsible for the assault. In many acquaintance rape cases, there are no weapons or physical injuries, so the usual tangible evidence required to prove an assault occurred is missing. Thus, those accused of acquaintance rape are less likely to be found guilty than of any other violent crime.
  3. Police Investigations
    Police are less likely to press charges for sexual assault than for any other violent crime. Rather than proceed with the charge of sexual assault, many women withdraw their accusations to avoid the trauma of police investigation. Women fail to report sexual assault cases to the police for a number of reasons: 54% of women revealed that they dealt with it another way; 58% felt that their assault was too minor; 29% disclosed that they failed to report it for fear of revenge; 47% felt that it was a personal matter; 21% felt that nothing was taken; 41% said they did not want to get involved with police; 20% felt that the police would not help; and 28% felt that the police could not do anything. The quality and effectiveness of police response is a major factor in the under reporting of crimes.
  4. Publicity
    Some women decide not to press charges for sexual assault because they do not want their personal lives and rape experience made public. A woman’s anger and desire to act are limited by the time and stamina needed for court prosecution. Certain women do not wish to jail a rapist due to their prior relationship with the offender. They may also fear retaliation. Legal counsel may advise a woman not to press charges due to the difficulties in obtaining a conviction if the rapist was a boyfriend, or if the victim was drunk at the time.In 1992, the Rape Shield law was passed in Canada. This law was enacted to protect the privacy and past sexual history of victims who testify against their attackers. This law outlines the situations where information about a victim and her previous sexual activity would be permitted to be presented to the court. For any evidence about the victim to be presented to the court, that evidence must show that the victim was more likely to have consented to the sexual activity or that the victim is less worthy of belief. Before this law was enacted, any information about the victim or her previous sexual history was presented, usually in hopes that the judge or jury would view the victim as ‘deserving’ or ‘loose.” Despite a steady decline in the number of sexual assaults reported recently, since 1993 there was a definite increase in reported sexual offences. This has been credited to society’s changing views of women’s social, economical, and political roles. Women are accepted as more independent citizens and are therefore more likely to feel confident enough to report crimes than they were 20 years ago. Also, there are more resources available for victims now than ever before. With resources such as sexual assault centres, victims are more likely today to be encouraged to seek justice after an offence. The criminal justice system has progressed in terms of victim support; however there is still more to be done before the majority of sexual assault victims feel confident enough in the system to come forward.

Perpetrators: Danger Signals

There is no narrow definition of a man that can be characterized as a rapist, especially acquaintance rapists. They are not necessarily “crazy” or mentally ill individuals; they are most often “ordinary men”. No set of characteristics such as age, physique, race, or economical elements can predict who an acquaintance rape offender will be. However, there are some men who are more likely to be sexually aggressive than others. The important traits seem to be the offenders’ beliefs and attitudes toward women.

Men who have the following attitudes are more likely to commit rape:

  • Hostility toward Women: Men who express anger or aggression toward women, as individuals or in general. Hostile feelings can easily be translated into hostile acts. Such men often get hostile when a woman says ‘no’.
  • Overly Expectant: Men who try to make women feel guilty, or accuse women of being “uptight” if they resist their sexual advances.
  • Unrealistic Views of Women: Men who have wrong or unrealistic ideas about women (for example, “women are meant to serve men”). Such men are not likely to take objections to sex seriously.
  • Oppressive behaviour towards women: Men who do not listen to, ignore, talk over, or pretend not to hear women. Such men generally have little respect for women and would be more likely to interpret ‘no’ as meaning ‘convince me’.

Certain attitudes held by some men attempt to justify rape. Mary Koss found in her study that 54% of students stated that if a girl “leads a boy on,” or is believed to be a tease or “loose”, these behaviours imply that there is an invitation to sex. Another factor which can be seen as “asking” for rape is if women go against accepted norms for women. These include hitchhiking, going braless, or getting drunk. Offenders generally feel proud during an assault. They feel vaguely responsible but believe that their victims are equally or more responsible. About 47% of the men surveyed who raped reported that they expected to do it again; 88% of men whose acts met the legal definition of rape adamantly denied that the acts were rape.


A victim of acquaintance rape faces long-lasting and wide-ranging effects. Many years after the assault, victims report physical disturbances such as severe muscle tension, fatigue, sleeplessness, stomach problems, poor appetite, nausea, and genital and urinary disturbances. Many women experience sexual problems and find it difficult to enjoy sexual intercourse.

The most difficult and often untreated effects of sexual assault are the emotional scars that are left after the act. Victims often feel less able to trust after being sexually assaulted, not only is it more difficult to open up to strangers, but to people already in the victim’s life. We do not believe that people we know are capable of rape. After this trust is broken, it is hard to rebuild the same level of trust with another person. Not only do victims have trust issues with others, but trusting their own judgement becomes difficult.

Other deeply rooted scars include guilt, shame, and depression.


The majority of acquaintance rape cases do not even go to court. There are many reasons for this, which span from the victim not pressing charges out of fear of retaliation from her assailant, the lack of support or assistance from police and prosecutors, even the court hearing. Issues which affect conviction and sentencing include: lack of corroborating evidence, the belief that women are responsible for preventing rape, that rape is motivated by sexual desire, that some women provoke rape and that the accused is considered to be a “normal” man. These biases in the courts assume certain kinds of stereotypical sexual behaviours from men and women. Many rape victims are not believed. Moreover, some may believe a woman was raped but deny the severity of it.

There are definite issues with the court system’s treatment of sexual assault cases. If the victim consents only because she is afraid, and there is no use of a weapon or serious physical harm, the sentence will be more lenient than if there had been an obvious physical threat. This often causes serious emotional harm to a victim of acquaintance rape, as leniency and doubt in the court system leaves the victim without validation. Not only is the accused given the best possible defence, but the courts must side with him if the crown is unable to prove, without a doubt, that he is guilty. These factors and many more make coming forward very difficult for most victims of rape.

Vague laws and social misconceptions of acquaintance rape result in few arrests, prosecutions, and shockingly lenient sentences. Victim advocates question the police’s, prosecutors’, and judges’ understanding of the severity of the act. Considering the harm done to the victim, sentences for sex crimes seldom seem to be appropriate. The issue is not how severe the maximum penalties are, but how difficult it is to prove guilt. Victims expect a criminal justice system that is responsive to their needs, but in cases of acquaintance rape it seldom is. Little money is allocated to victims to undergo counselling or treatment. The accused receives as much resources as necessary so that he may be rehabilitated. The justice system must consider the rehabilitation of the victim.

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