About the Issue

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is a term that refers to unwanted sexual act against or without a person’s consent. This type of assault encompasses more than violent physical incidents—sexual assault refers to any sexual, physical, verbal or visual act that forces a person against their will to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention.

The precise legal definitions of sexual assault often vary by states, countries and organizations, and they can sometimes be confusing. Each state’s legal definition is not the same as the federal government’s. States often use different wording to refer to the same type of crime. If you are looking for a precise legal definition, the best reference would be to check the law in your state, which you can do here.

Many use the terms sexual assault and sexual violence interchangeably. Both sexual assault and sexual violence refer to a wide variety of non-consensual sexual acts. The difference is in the state legal definitions, but sexual violence generally refers to multiple acts or a pattern of sexual assault performed without the consent of the victim, while sexual assault tends to be used in reference to specific incidents of unsolicited or forcible sexual activities.

Consent is commonly recognized as approval or agreement given without force or coercion. Sexual assault is considered to be a form of sexual violence, but again, different states have variations on the terms they use and their definitions.

What is rape?

Rape is forced sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal or oral penetration. Penetration may be by a body part or an object.1 It is defined as any completed or attempted unwanted vaginal, oral or anal penetration through the use of physical force (such as being pinned or held down, or by the use of violence) or threats to physically harm.

Incidents of rape also occur when a survivor unable to consent because she or he is impaired by drugs and/or alcohol, or passed out.2

Throughout this section, we primarily use the term “sexual assault” to encompass the kinds of violence covered. No matter what the circumstances of this crime are, sexual violence is a weapon used by perpetrators to hurt and dominate others. Sexual assault and rape are crimes motivated by a need to control, humiliate and harm.

Remember sexual assault and rape are never a victim’s fault. Not fighting during an act does not mean consent. In fact, not fighting can be a means to protect a person who is being assaulted from being hurt more.

Next section: Who does sexual assault affect?

Previous section: Introduction to sexual assault

1 Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, “Types of Sexual Violence: Rape.” (2009). www.rainn.org.

2 Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. (2011) Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov. 

Printer-friendly version