Throughout this site we will be referencing the term sexual assault a lot. Even though we’ve taken sex ed, many of us can still be confused about what it means. Are there different types? Does it have to include a physical interaction? Is rape always sexual assault and vice versa?
Through this blog post we hope to answer these questions as well as to clarify the definition of sexual assault and the various forms it can take.
To start us off, let’s answer one of the most common questions: Is all rape sexual assault and is all sexual assault rape? The answer: yes and no. You see, sexual assault is the umbrella term that includes various types of unwanted sexual contact. The uniting factor amongst all these types is the lack of consent. Rape is one of these types of unwanted sexual contact, which means that yes, all rape is sexual assault. However, there are many other forms of unwanted contact that sexual assault encompasses. This can range from physical actions (sodomy, copulation, sexual battery, etc.) to verbal or physical non-touching actions (harassment, following someone, blocking their path, etc.) So if someone asks, is all sexual assault rape? We can confidently answer, no.
Below, we break down the various types of sexual assault and their definitions. If you haven’t already, check out our article on consent first to put these into better perspective.
Please note that sexual assault manifests differently for all survivors. There are so many societal, cultural, and personal factors surrounding this issue that it can be difficult to provide clear, all-encompassing definitions. Through the definitions provided here, we hope to offer a little more clarity so that each survivor can better understand and assess their own situation.
Rape is a type of sexual assault involving penetration of any orifice in the body (vaginal, anal, oral) without consent. Rape can be, and is often thought of as, an act of physical force, but force does not have to happen to constitute rape. If one party is unable to physically or mentally consent to sex or is threatened with force (coercion), that would be considered rape too.
Rape has been portrayed through our media too often as a violent act with the survivor fighting and screaming “No” while the perpetrator has their way. While this can be the case, we want to clarify that this is not always what happens. Rape can be violent but it can also be non-violent. It is still considered rape if the survivor doesn’t say no, if they don’t say anything, and maybe even if they say yes. If one party is unable to physically or mentally consent to sex, is threatened with force, or is coerced, it is still rape.
Many survivors don’t realize they’ve been assaulted because they were coerced. Sexual coercion is when someone makes you feel obligated to say yes to a sexual activity by using guilt, pressure, drugs/alcohol, or force. This can manifest in a number of ways, including persistent attempts to have sex with someone after they’ve already refused.
Sexual coercion is best explained as a range, varying from someone verbally pestering you to physically forcing you to have contact with them. Sometimes coercion is achieved subtly through various actions including but not limited to: using your relationship with them as leverage, normalizing their sexual expectations, reacting negatively or continuing to pressure you if you say no or don’t immediately agree, insincere compliments, and buying you drinks/drugs/gifts to loosen you up.
The following phrases are some common examples of coercion:
- “I need it, I’m a guy”
- “If you don’t put out I’ll find someone that will”
- “How can I tell you love me if we don’t have sex?”
- “But we’ve had sex before…”
- “Aww, I’ve really been looking forward to having sex with you”
- “Come on, pleaaase?”
- “What about that nice dinner I bought you? Don’t I get anything in return?”
Sexual coercion is not something that many of us think about when it comes to sexual assault, but it’s a huge part of the overall problem. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that sexual coercion will ever be regarded as sexual assault from a legal perspective. However, consent under pressure is not true consent.
Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault
Drug-facilitated sexual assault is often associated with the use of “date rape drugs” (rohypnol, ketamine and gamma-hydroxybutyrate), but can occur when one partner’s ability to consent is compromised due to any drugs or alcohol, whether the consumption of these substances were voluntary or not. While alcohol is the most commonly used substance to facilitate sexual assault, prescription and recreational drugs (including sleep aids, muscle relaxers, anxiety medication, tranquilizers or ecstasy) are also used. Many of these drugs can be added to someone’s drink without changing the color, odor, or flavor, making it easy to hide.
Substances inhibit one’s ability to resist or fight back, making it easier for the perpetrator to assault them, while also impairing the survivor’s ability to recall the incident. Many survivors blame themselves for their assault because they feel they got too drunk or put themselves in a bad situation, but it is important to remember that drug-facilitated assault occurs because the perpetrator took advantage of their partner, not because the partner was under the influence.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment. It threatens job or learning performance by creating a hostile environment with obstacles that get in the way of effective work, whether that’s making employment condition dependent on sexual favors, physical acts of sexual assault or requests for sexual favors.
Sexual harassment is not limited solely to the workplace or learning environment, it also occurs daily in public in the form of catcalling, stalking, groping, exposing ones genitals, and other sexual advances. While sexual harassment can affect anyone regardless of gender, most, if not all women have experienced some form of it in their lifetime.
Stalking is a pattern of repeated harassment, unwanted contact and attention, or other contact that makes the other person fearful or uncomfortable. This might include repeated unwanted calls, emails, messages, pictures, or gifts; someone following you or waiting for you at certain locations; threats against you, your friends or family; and other threatening behaviors, on and offline.
Laws regarding stalking vary from state to state. Find more information about your state’s laws at the Stalking Resource Center.
Groping is unwanted touching or fondling of another person’s body parts (usually their butt, breasts, genitals, or thighs) with one’s hands. You may have recently heard about groping in the headlines when Taylor Swift counter-sued her groper for $1.
From a legal perspective, in the United States the charge is typically considered a sexual battery.
Intimate Partner Violence
When the relationship between the survivor and perpetrator is an intimate one, different dynamics come into play. Intimate partner violence encapsulates a wide range of violence from physical abuse to rape, with the different types of abuse often occurring alongside each other. A 2007 study showed that most women who were physically abused by their partner have also been sexually assaulted by that same partner. Because these relationships are complicated by love, children, or financial reasons (among many others), survivors often find it difficult to leave the relationship and/or come forward about the abuse. Other names you might hear in regards to intimate partner violence are domestic violence, intimate partner rape, marital rape, and spousal rape.
Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse encapsulates ANY sexual activity between a child/adolescent and an adult, with or without physical touch. Sexual activity between two children with a large age or power gap between them is considered abuse as well. Child sexual abuse, like many other forms of sexual abuse, is based on an exploitation of power and trust, with the difference being here that the lack of power is usually age-based.
Some behaviors that constitute child sexual abuse are:
- Intentional contact with a child’s genitals, butt, or chest
- Penetration of a child’s mouth, anus, or vagina with an object or body part
- Forcing a child to touch themselves, the offender, or another child
- Exposing self to a child
- Talking about sexually explicit stories with a child or teen (in person, through the phone, or online)
- Viewing or violating private behaviors of a child or teen
- Taking or showing explict photos of a child or teen
Nearly half (43%) of abusers in situations of child abuse are minors themselves.
Despite what Game of Thrones might have you believe, incest is not typically a Jaime/Cersei love or Targaryen marriage to protect their dynasty. Incest is unwanted sexual contact between two members of the same family that wouldn’t be legally allowed to marry. Legal definitions vary by state, but this typically means relatives that are first cousins or closer in relationship. Commonly incest is between a child and older relative or siblings, with one person using their position of power over the other. Because of this complicated relationship between survivors and their family members, incest often goes unreported.
Elderly Sexual Assault
As with other forms of sexual violence, elder sexual assault occurs when a perpetrator engages in sexual activity without the other consent. Elder abuse typically occurs when the survivor was unable to provide consent due to a medical condition, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, and is perpetrated by a loved one or caretaker who is in a position of power over the elder.
Elder sexual assault falls into a larger category of elder abuse, which also includes neglect, abandonment, and emotional, financial, or physical abuse.
The act of sexual violence against an inmate. The perpetrator can be another inmate, a prison guard, or a staff member.
Multi-perpetrator sexual assault
Multi-perpetrator sexual assault, more commonly called gang rape, can take a number of different forms. It can start out as a consensual act between 2 partners, but then others join without one partner’s consent. It can be planned out ahead of time by the perpetrators, with or without the use of drugs on the victim, or it can be used as a form of initiation into a group (like gang, fraternity, club, or sports team).
Regardless of whether all parties got involved in the sexual act themselves, filming or watching without intervening makes them guilty of multi-perpetrator sexual assault as well.
Wrap Up and Resources
Hopefully, these definitions have helped you identify which type(s) of sexual assault you or a loved one have experienced so that you can properly address the situation. It’s important to remember that more than one of these definitions might fit a single experience, so this post is meant to act as a guide for self-assessment, not a diagnostic.
If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments below or call your local crisis hotline (RAINN; 1-800-656-4673) to speak with a certified rape crisis counselor that can help assess the situation. All calls are kept confidential.
This post is part of a series called Sexual Assault 101. Please check back for more posts in the future, and let us know if there are any topics that you’d like to see covered. You can also check out our Resources section to learn more about all the ways you can find support through the healing process.