Sexual Assault: Definition
Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape. All states prohibit this type of assault but the exact definitions of the crimes that fall within the category of sexual assault differ from state to state. The laws share some basic elements, but the structures, wording and scope of offenses vary considerably, so always check your local statutes for specific questions.
Sexual violence happens in every community and affects people of all genders and ages. Sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact. This includes words and actions of a sexual nature against a person’s will and without their consent. A person may use force, threats, manipulation, or coercion to commit sexual violence.
Forms of sexual violence include:
- Rape or sexual assault
- Child sexual assault and incest
- Sexual assault by a person’s spouse or partner
- Unwanted sexual contact/touching
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual exploitation and trafficking
- Exposing one’s genitals or naked body to other(s) without consent
- Masturbating in public
- Watching someone engage in private acts without their knowledge or permission
- Nonconsensual image sharing
There is a social context that surrounds sexual violence. Social norms that condone violence, use power over others, traditional constructs of masculinity, the subjugation of women, and silence about violence and abuse contribute to the occurrence of sexual violence. Oppression in all of its forms is among the root causes of sexual violence. Sexual violence is preventable through collaborations of community members at multiple levels of society—in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, faith settings, workplaces, and other settings. We all play a role in preventing sexual violence and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality, and helping others.
Types of Sexual Assault
There are many different types of sexual assault. Below is a list of the various acts that are considered sexual assault and abuse, as well as a short description of some of the most common types of assault.
Sexual assault includes:
- Rape—sexual intercourse against a person’s will
- Forcible sodomy—anal or oral sex against a person’s will
- Forcible object penetration—penetrating someone’s vagina or anus, or causing that person to penetrate her or himself, against that person’s will
- Marital rape
- Unwanted sexual touching
- Sexual contact with minors, whether consensual or not
- Incest (Sexual intercourse or sexual intrusion between family members.)
- Any unwanted or coerced sexual contact
Other sexual crimes include:
- Sexual harassment
- Solicitation of minors through the Internet
- Possession of child pornography
Sexual Assault Misconceptions
Several misconceptions exist about sexual assault. These misconceptions often shift responsibility and blame from the assailant to the victim. Understanding the misconceptions surrounding sexual assault may help you in your recovery. What happened to you was a crime. You are not to blame for the assailant’s behavior.
Sexual assault happens because people need sex. People get carried away by their sexual desires and/or hormones and loose control.
Sexual assault is a form of sexualized violence, that is, violence enacted in a sexual way. Like many other crimes, sexual assault is about power and control. Sexual assault happens because perpetrators put their desires over the survivor’s agency to consent. The survivor is never to blame.
Sexual assault is sex.
Sexual assault is an act of violence, not sex. This is an important distinction because by framing sexualized violence as about sex and not about violence we focus on the perpetrator’s narrative and not the survivor’s. Focusing on the perpetrator’s narrative leads society to blame the victim and to not hold the perpetrator accountable for their actions. Remember, sexual assault happens because perpetrators exert power over the survivor to take away any control the survivor has in choosing whether or not to engage in a sexual situation. Thus, sexual assault is not sex to the survivor – it is an act of violence.
What is rape?
Rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. The term rape is often used as a legal definition to specifically include sexual penetration without consent. For its Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” To see how your state legally defines rape and other forms of sexual assault, visit RAINN’s State Law Database.
What is force?
Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.