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What is Sexual Assault: Definition & Types

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault is a serious matter; if you have been sexually assaulted, the contents of this article may be triggering. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-(800)-656-4673; all victims are encouraged to contact them whenever they are ready.

Assault comes in a variety of anxiety-inducing flavors. Depending on the state, assault can be anything from implying a threat to physically touching another person. Sexual assault, however, is different from the other types of assault crimes because it is never the victim’s fault. In typical assault cases, the victim may be partially responsible, as they as when they provoke a situation. Sexual assault happens to the victim, so the aggressor is the only one to blame.

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault occurs when sexual contact or behavior happens without the victim’s explicit consent. A good sexual assault definition would also include additional factors like the expression of force and possible perpetrators; subsequent sections speak more about these factors and their relation to sexual assault as a crime.

What is Considered Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault can happen in various situations—some may not appear clear and immediate harassment in the moment. There are many types of sexual assault crimes that most people should be aware of, including:

  • Attempted or committed rape
  • Fondling or sexual touching of a victim’s body
  • Forcing a person to perform sexual acts or allowing acts to be done to them
  • Any form of unwanted penetration of the victim’s body, including sodomy

But then there are the sexual assault crimes that happen without contact with a victim:

  • Sexual harassment (i.e., sending unwanted nudes or photos)
  • Solicitation of minors or unwilling parties
  • The possession or distribution of child pornography
  • Taking videos or pictures of unwilling persons, then distributing them
  • The distribution of revenge porn online and over social media

None of the previous examples speak about the whole picture either—sexual assault can happen anywhere, to anyone. Sometimes these assaults or harassment also occur in the work environment; unless these threats are seen as red flags, the aggressor may continue their behavior. Sexual harassment has happened in the workforce for many decades, so calling it out and correcting it is crucial.

For example, these are some common sexual assault examples in the workplace:

  • Talking or joking about an employee’s sexual experiences
  • Making comments on the attractiveness of other employees
  • Sending messages to employees that are sexual
  • Spreading rumors about employees and their sex life
  • Touching another employee in an uncomfortable or unwanted manner
  • Encouraging an overly sexual relationship with an employee (i.e., excessively direct or intense, prolonged eye contact of a sexual nature)

Is Rape Sexual Assault?

All forms of rape are sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. Rape consists of the penetration of the victim’s anus or vagina with any object that is unwanted. Whether a situation involves rape depends on many elements, including consent, force, and the victim’s relation to the rapist.

All states have statutes that judges must follow to charge those indicted with sexual assault charges. Unfortunately, many states allow only a certain amount of time for the victims to report the incident. These periods are called "statutes of limitations" and can range from one to five years. The particular assault, its severity, and many other factors determine how long a victim has to report their rape.

When Does Force Play a Role in Sexual Assault?

Force is a deciding element of all sexual assaults; the aggressor forces themselves onto the victim in an unwanted, sexual way. Even in cases of perceived consent, the aggressor is still committing sexual assault (below). Force also plays a hidden factor in many other ways:

  • Emotional coercion: breaking into tears or threatening to kill oneself because of a lack of sex or intimacy is lunacy. Dynamic coercion bets the victim will give up their problems to assist the manipulator.
  • Psychological warfare: gas lighting or accusing a partner of infidelity are common warfare tactics in toxic relationships. Abusers may also insist on cutting off family or friends to make their victim utterly dependent on them.
  • Manipulation: unlike coercion and warfare, manipulation uses social structure as an extra element of force. Excellent examples include bosses who exert power over their employees or cases involving an adult and child or grooming.
  • Intimidation tactics: making any threat to another person should be taken seriously. These threats don’t have to be direct; they can be implied or indirectly mentioned (i.e., "just wait till I get you alone").
  • Continued sexual acts: sexual assault happens when one party does not consent to the act or contact. Disagreements during intimacy are a justifiable reason to stop any act; if the act continues, it becomes assault or rape.
  • Passive resistance: sexual assault of any kind is trauma-inducing. During these situations, our bodies freeze up—and an aggressor may take this to mean consent. Being too scared to move is a sure indicator of sexual assault.

How Does Sexual Assault Happen?

Eight out of ten sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, called acquaintance assaults. Situations like assaults at work, school, and home, fall under this category. Only recently has marital rape been added to this list.

On the other side, stranger assaults are the term for assaults by unknown aggressors. Situations like this can happen in many ways. For example, there are blitz sexual assaults, where the aggressor quickly and brutally attacks the victim.

Can Sexual Assault Happen to a ___?

Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, or creed. During the "Me Too" movement, many women came out about their experience with sexual assaults; as a byproduct, many men, nonbinary, and transgender people joined the fray. In some cases, these victims were met with dismissive answers, while others received the full fury of the internet. Victims of any sexual assault can come from anywhere—their only similarity is that they are victims.

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