Sexual Assault, Defined — Plus Resources for Support
There are many different forms of assault that can be defined as intentional harm to someone else.
- Someone is throwing something at someone.
- Someone is struck with a weapon or object.
- threatening harm.
When assault involves any unwanted sexual contact, it’s considered sexual assault.
Any sexual act you didn’t give explicit consent for counts as sexual assault. This includes touching or harassment, sexual coercion, and rape or attempted rape, among other nonconsensual acts.
Sexual assault is not your fault. Finding the words to describe what happened could help you navigate the assault, get support, and begin to heal.
Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and other types of sexual assault can be distinguished. You will find some help.
Different states have different definitions of sexual assault, so it can be hard to pin down the exact definition.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has a State Law Database where you can learn how your state legally defines crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual battery.
- Rape is always sexual assault, but sexual assault doesn’t specifically mean rape.
- Rape is the penetration of the vagina or anus with any object. Rape and nonconsensual oral penetration are both included in some states.
- Statutory rape is sexual activity that takes place when one person is below the legal age of consent.
- Sexual assault can include other types of unwanted contact.
- Sexual assault and attempted rape are both types.
Sexual assault is used interchangeably with other terms, like sexual harassment, sexual battery, and sexual assault.
This type of sexual assault includes a range of both physical and verbal unwanted sexual advances, according to Heather Kent, a licensed psychotherapist and trauma recovery specialist.
- requesting sexual favors.
- Making jokes about your sexuality.
- Making sexual comments about your body.
- You are being pressured to engage in sexual acts.
- Talking about sexual relations or fantasies in a school or work setting.
- Sending you explicit photos, emails, or texts.
- “If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll fire you or give you a promotion, that’s what sexual favors are for.”
Sexual harassment can be directed at anyone. Sexual harassment still applies when comments are made to a group of women.
There is a possibility that unwanted touching or physical acts could be considered sexual harassment.
Sexual assault usually refers to criminal acts. Sexual harassment is not a criminal act, but it still violates your civil right to a safe and non hostile working environment.
Sexual battery and aggravated sexual assault
Sexual battery is the act of touching of your intimate parts without your consent or your will. This touching can happen without clothes on.
Examples might include:
- grabbing your body part.
- touching your clit.
- fondling you while you’re asleep or incapacitated, or any time you can’t give consent
- Taking your hand and putting it on their genitals.
According to Christie Jenkins, PhD, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and educator in Walden University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, laws in certain states require sexual battery to happen for the purpose of:
- Sexual arousal.
- Enhancing the pleasure.
- The person was abused or humiliated.
Aggravated sexual assault is usually defined as knowingly or recklessly causing or threatening harm. during a nonconsensual sexual act. But again, the exact definition varies by state.
In some states, sexually assault of an older adult or someone with a disability is considered a sexual assault.
Kent says that sexual assault can involve one or more of the following.
- There is a risk of death.
- The use of a deadly weapon to instill fear.
- The person is participating in or aiding the assault.
- There were threats to your life during the assault.
The term sexual abuse typically describes the mistreatment of children, explains Nicole Ohebshalom, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma.
Laws in all 50 states recognize that minors cannot give informed consent to any sex act — although the exact age of consent ranges from 16 to 18, depending on the state.
Sexual abuse can include an adult doing something.
- They may have been exposing themselves to a minor or looking at their genitals.
- A minor is forced to expose their intimate body parts.
- “Taking pictures of a minor’s intimate body parts.”
- A minor is forced to watch porn.
- A person touching a minor in a sexual manner.
- Sending obscene messages.
It may not always be easy to define what happened, in part because of widely varying definitions.
Knowing how your state defines these terms can help you determine what kind of legal action you can take and how your state will punish that crime.
Kent says you should be free to use whatever term you want. If you find it easier to say, “I was raped,” that\’s fine.
Counselors and advocates at crisis centers can help you understand what happened.
- Support with compassion.
- Help you get some clarification.
- guide you through the next steps
You deserve support and compassion no matter what you have gone through.
“A sexual assault can leave you feeling overwhelmed and distressed, and it can be difficult to make decisions. These steps can help if you don’t know what to do.”
Make sure you’re safe
The most important thing is your safety.
If you are in danger, you can call the emergency services.
“If you don’t have any injuries but still don’t feel safe, you may want to reach out to a trusted family member or friend.”
Preserve potential evidence
If you plan to do a forensic exam, otherwise known as a rape kit, you’ll want to preserve as much DNA evidence as you can.
If you can, avoid the following until you get to the hospital or clinic where the exam is taking place.
- Changing your clothes.
- You are brushing your hair.
- Your fingernails are being cleaned.
“You don’t have to report the crime if you have an exam.”
“Kent says that you don’t have to decide if you want to press charges against the person who hit you. It is important to have as much evidence as possible.”
Sexual assault investigations and prosecutions rely on the evidence of a genetic nature. It can help identify a person who is behind the crime.
Reach out for emotional support
“It’s incredibly important that survivors of sexual assault feel empowered to tell their story when and how they want,” says Rena Isen, a licensed psychologist and forensic evaluator. “Sexual assault is physically and emotionally traumatic and can result in a feeling of loss of control. So, it’s vital for survivors to have control over the telling of their story after the assault is over.”
Talking about what happened
It is up to you how much you share. This conversation can happen in person, over the phone, or in a letter.
Keeping these tips in mind can help.
- You will have plenty of privacy if you talk in a safe place.
- “You can choose a time and place where you can have the person’s attention.”
- Set boundaries for the conversation. For instance, you might start by saying, “I’m about to share something that’s hard for me to talk about, and right now I just need you to listen without asking any questions.”
- If the person asks for information that you are not ready to give, you can say you are not comfortable divulging any more and thank them.
Consider crisis support
“You don’t feel comfortable talking to family or friends about the assault. They respond in an unsupportive way.”
You have options for support. You can.
- Use RAINN’s tool to reach out to your local rape crisis center.
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- Discuss your options over anonymous chat.
You can connect with a trained staff member at a sexual assault service provider with any of these. They can offer support at your own pace.
- Listening to your story.
- Referred for long-term support.
- Information about medical concerns and the laws in your state is provided.
- You can connect to a local health clinic that cares for sexual assault survivors.
Know your options for reporting the assault
If you want to report a sexual assault, you have a number of options.
- Calling your local police station or stopping by in person. Most areas have law enforcement officers specially trained to help sexual assault survivors. You can ask for one when you contact or visit the police.
- Asking a sexual assault survivor advocate to connect you to the police. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting the police station alone, you can first reach out to RAINN’s hotline. Isen explains that RAINN and other service providers can often send an advocate to accompany you when you report the assault so you don’t have to do it alone.
- Contacting SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone). You can call 512-267-SAFE (7233) or text 737-888-7233 to find out if they can connect you with an advocate and offer support with reporting an assault.
If you ever feel as if an officer isn’t taking your case seriously, or they make you uncomfortable in the reporting process, consider asking to speak to their supervisor.
No matter what type of sexual assault you’ve experienced, you deserve to be believed and treated with respect.
Connect with a therapist
It can be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional after a sexual assault.
A therapist or counselor can.
- provide a safe space where you can begin to express and process your emotions
- Listen with compassion and understanding.
- Support with addressing mental health symptoms and emotional distress.
Not sure how to find a therapist? Our guide can help.
Isen also recommends the locator tool on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website to find a therapist who specializes in helping sexual assault survivors.
Connecting with other survivors in a peer support group could also have benefit.
When you are experiencing sexual harassment, what are the most important things you can do?
“Kent says to document the experience. Unless they know about it, companies and schools are not liable for harassment damages. They can be held responsible if they don’t take action.”
It is recommended that all communication that displays sexual harassment be kept.
If you feel comfortable discussing the harassment with a trusted friend, colleague or family member, it can be helpful. Your loved ones can offer support, but they can also be witnesses later on.
If the harassment only happened in person, you should write down everything you remember in as much detail as possible. If you saw the interaction, please note any people nearby.
“It is a good idea to review your school or employer’s sexual harassment policy before you do so.”
You can report sexual harassment at your job or school to the authorities or local law enforcement. Information about who handles sexual harassment complaints should be provided by your school or employer.
Written or verbal complaint?
Kent advises always filing a written complaint rather than a verbal one. When you file a written complaint, there’s a record of it, and you can keep a copy for yourself.
In your complaint, offer as much information and detail as you can about the dates, times, nature, and frequency of harassment you experienced.
Resources that can help you deal with sexual harassment are listed.
- National Street Harassment Hotline: 855-897-5910)
- 9 to 5: National Association of Working Women: 800-522-0925
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: 800-669-4000
- Equal Rights Advocates: 800-839-4372
- National Women’s Law Center: 202-588-5180
If you have experienced sexual assault, Ohebshalom, Kent, and Jenkins recommend the following resources.
- The National Sexual Violence Resource Center is a national center for sexual violence.
- The organization helps victims.
- The National Online Resource Center is about domestic violence.
- The National Center for Victims of Crime is located in the US.
- The Asian Pacific Institute is focused on violence against women.
- The center is about violence against women in the black community.
- It is darkness to light.
“You may not know where to go after being sexually assault. Even if you don’t feel ready to talk with your loved ones, you’re not alone.”
You have a lot of ways to get support after you make sure you are safe. Trained advocates and other experts can help you explore your options, because the decision of how to respond to sexual assault is very personal.
You have the option to reveal your experience to someone, or not, or to report it. Knowing the differences between terms used to describe sexual assault can help if you choose to take legal action. You can always use the language that feels most comfortable for you when talking about the assault.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based writer who writes about health and fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has appeared in a number of publications.