Disclaimer: We acknowledge that there are many different words that individuals use to describe themselves after experiencing sexual assault. In this article we use the term ‘survivor’ for the sake of consistency. We acknowledge that there are many different ways of processing sexual violence, and believe each individual person should choose the language that they are most comfortable with.
What is Sexual Assault?
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault is defined as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the survivor.1 Sexual assault comes in many different forms, and is often referred to as a continuum. This is due to the fact that some incidences will overlap, and the survivor will experience multiple different types of assault at the same time. Others may experience sexual assault as an isolated, singular event.
Assault does not have to be penetrative; it can include both fondling and molestation.2 Sexual assault is considered rape when it involves oral, anal, or vaginal penetration.2 Sexual contact is also illegal if inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent because of age, physical incapacity, or mental incapacity. A person may experience sexual assault from a friend, romantic partner, or family member, but regardless of relation, unwanted sexual contact is unacceptable. Consent should be very clear in a sexual encounter. If all parties involved do not provide an enthusiastic “yes,” there is no consent.
Below is an alphabetical list of all the terms and definitions that make up the sexual assault continuum. However, not all types of sexual assault are listed here. Any unwanted sexual contact, whether it is verbal, visual, or physical, is sexual assault. If you think you have been sexually assaulted and you are not sure what to do, click here to read more about your options.
Types of Sexual Assault
Acquaintance rape is rape committed by a person who the survivor personally knows. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (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."4 This is also often referred to as “date rape,” especially when the two parties have agreed to a romantic relationship, but the survivor has not consented to sexual intercourse.
Acquaintance rape is often misunderstood; people think that because the two parties know each other, it isn’t “real rape.” This is incorrect—rape is a felony crime, regardless of the relationship between the people involved. A clear, consenting “yes” needs to be communicated in order for sexual contact to be legal.
Alcohol and Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is considered alcohol and drug facilitated when the survivor is unable to give consent because she or he is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. These substances inhibit the survivor’s ability to resist the sexual act, and sometimes even prevent them from remembering the event.
These assaults occur in two ways: the perpetrator will either take advantage of a person’s inebriation, or the perpetrator will force the survivor to consume drugs or alcohol without their knowledge or consent. Many survivors will blame themselves in these situations; sometimes they are told that they “drank too much” or “shouldn’t have been partying,” and this causes them to feel guilty. Remember that even under these circumstances, the assault is not the survivor’s fault.
Cat calls are verbal advances that include whistling, shouting, and/or saying sexually explicit or implicit phrases or propositions that are unwanted by the survivor. Cat calling has received a lot of media attention in the last few years—women, in particular, are fed up with being verbally harassed on the street. Many perpetrators of this type of sexual harassment believe it is a form of flattery, but survivors do not perceive it this way at all. Instead, it feels to them like an objectifying, unwanted advance.
Child Sexual Abuse
At the extreme end, child sexual abuse includes sexual intercourse. However, touching sexual offenses, non-touching sexual offenses, and sexual exploitation are all considered child sexual abuse as well. The American Humane Association states that child sexual abuse consists of, but is not limited to: 6
- Fondling a child
- Forcing a child to touch an adult’s sex organs
- Penetrating a child’s vagina or anus with a penis or any other object that does not have a medical purpose
- Exposing one’s body in a sexual manner to the child
- Exposing a child to pornographic material
- Exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse
- Masturbating in front of a child
- Soliciting a child for prostitution
- Engaging in the prostitution of a child
- Using a child to film, photograph, or model for pornography
Commercial Sexual Exploitation
Commercial sexual exploitation happens when individuals buy, trade, or sell sexual acts from unconsenting participants.7 This is a global problem that particularly victimizes girls, boys, and transgendered youth. These groups are targeted as vulnerable victims by pimps and traffickers, and are lured into both prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation using “psychological manipulation, drugs, and/or violence.”7 These pimps and traffickers often forge a loving, caring relationship to gain trust, and then exploit the survivor for monetary gain.
Date rape is similar to acquaintance rape; in both cases the survivor knows the perpetrator, but has not consented to sexual intercourse. The term “date” often leads people to believe that one must be dating the rapist for a sexual assault to count as “date rape,” but that is not the case. Regardless of whether two parties are in a relationship, rape is sex without consent, and it is a crime.
“Date rape drug” is a slang term for a drug that is used to aid a perpetrator in sexually assaulting someone. The drugs often have no taste, smell, or color, and can be poured or dissolved into drinks or food.8 Examples of popular date rape drugs include, but are not limited to, Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Ketamine, Rohypnol (roofies), and alcohol. They can cause survivors to feel paralyzed, or keep them from seeing well or speaking up.8 An easy way to protect oneself from date rape drugs in public places is to monitor personal beverages. It is also a good idea to refuse any unknown drinks that are offered by strangers.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), domestic violence is the “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetuated by one intimate partner against another.”9 This can include physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional violence and abuse. Although not all domestic violence is sexual, we have chosen to include it in this list because there is often overlap between domestic violence and sexual assault and battery.
Exhibitionism is a paraphilia in which a person derives sexual arousal from the act or fantasy of exposing their genitals to non-consenting strangers. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrators of exhibitionist acts are men and the survivors are women.
One common form of exhibitionism is “flashing.” A typical “flasher” will set themselves up in a public place where there are many people. They will conceal their genitals with a trench coat, newspaper, book, or other object. When they see a suitable person to flash, they will enter the person’s line of vision and expose their genitals to the victim. At this point, the flasher revels in the reaction of the survivor, perhaps fantasizing about a sexual relationship with the victim as well. The flasher may masturbate at the scene to the point of ejaculation, or he may later masturbate to the memory of the event.10
Female Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation (known as FGM) is the partial or complete removal of a girl’s external genitals.11 More than 130 million girls and women around the world are living with the consequences of FGM, and 30 million more are at risk of being cut in the next 10 years. This practice is carried out in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East, but the practice affects women in other parts of the world, as well.11
These procedures are considered sexual assault because they are physically and emotionally harmful to the girls and women who undergo them, and the survivors are often not able to consent to the practice. In the most extreme cases, the girl’s entire external genitals will be removed, and the wounds will be sewn closed with thorns or string. The wound will then heal over, creating a “seal” of virginity.11
Gang rape, also known as “gang bang” or “sex train,” is rape that is perpetrated by two or more individuals against a single person. Gang rape is sometimes used as a rite of passage or way to establish membership to a group or gang. The dynamic created by gang rape is especially traumatizing for a number of reasons—not only is the survivor being assaulted, but they are also being assaulted in front of an audience. The experience is not only horrific and painful, but also humiliating and degrading.
Incest is sexual contact between family members. Laws vary state by state and country by country regarding what exactly constitutes incest, child abuse, sexual abuse, and rape, but regardless of these laws, incest will have a lasting psychological and emotional effect on the survivor.12 According to RAINN, incest is far more common than one may think: over one-third of perpetrators in cases of child sex abuse are family members.12
It can be very difficult to talk about incest. Many survivors keep their experiences to themselves. They might fear tattling on their family member, whom they may still care about and even love. Survivors may be concerned about what will happen to their family member who assaulted them, or worry about their larger family dynamic once the perpetrator is accused. It is hard to know whom to trust after experiencing incest. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual contact with a family member, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or go online to seek resources at online.rainn.org.
Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (IPSV)
Intimate partner sexual violence (also known as IPSV) is “any form of sexual assault that takes place within an intimate relationship.”13 This can include any unwanted sexual act including rape, shaming a partner’s sexuality or sexual preferences, threats or coercion to obtain sex, and not respecting a partner’s sexual or physical privacy.13 Other forms of IPSV include violent sex, degrading sexual taunts, forced involvement in the making or viewing of pornography, forced prostitution, and forced participation in group sex or sex with another person.13
Marital Rape is non-consensual sex within marriage.23 Many cultures often have trouble understanding this type of sexual assault, because they believe that a spouse is entitled to sex because of the marriage. However, even in a married relationship, any sexual act without consent is still considered sexual assault. Marital rape is one of the most underreported types of sexual assaults, yet it is much more prevalent in society than expected.23 Many countries around the world do not have any legislation protecting victims of marital rape. Some countries either legally allow it, or illegally tolerate it by not pursuing the rapists. The western world has recently progressed due to the feminist movement, and some countries such as the United States have begun to develop new legislation to protect victims of marital rape. However, the laws are much contested and often result in a long, difficult trial.23
Molestation refers to “sexual acts with children up to the age of 18, including touching of private parts, exposure of genitalia, taking of pornographic pictures, rape, inducement of sexual acts with the molester or with other children, and variations of these acts by pedophiles. Molestation may include incest or unwanted sexual acts by a relative, but is short of rape.”14
Though strangers can be the perpetrators of this crime, it is quite common for the perpetrator to be a family member or other individual that the child knows. This is because the predator often engages in “grooming” before the actual molestation takes place—that is, they increase trust and access to the child to decrease the likelihood that they will be discovered. When molesters are strangers, they often commit the crime at schools, playgrounds, parks, and shopping malls. If you are a parent and you are concerned that your child is being molested, click here to see 11 common signs that show a child may have been molested.
Obscene Phone Calls
Obscene phone calls consist of sexual and/or repetitive, unwanted phone calls. Law enforcement officers often consider these calls to be a trivial issue, but they are absolutely still instances of sexual harassment. The vast majority of these calls are made to anonymous recipients and only occur once, but occasionally one individual will be phone harassed by the same perpetrator over and over again. In either case, we recommend reporting the instance as soon as possible. If you have received an obscene phone call, click here to read the Psychiatric Times’ tips on coping with obscene phone calls.
Oral Copulation by Force or Fear
Oral copulation by force or fear occurs when a victim is forced to perform oral sex on a perpetrator, receive oral sex from a perpetrator, or both. This crime is more punishable when perpetrated against a minor, which is a child under the age of 18. Remember that even with oral sex, consent is always necessary.
Sexual Assault Depicted in Pornography
Pornography, different from erotica, can involve using men, women, and children for commercial gain. Not all pornography depicts sexual assault. However, there are different forms of pornography, and some can include depictions of sexual assault. Soft pornography depicts people wearing little, if any, clothing while hard pornography involves harsh and violent depictions of women and men in a sexual nature. Snuff pornography is a highly graphic and sadistic pornographic depiction of an actor or actress who is sexually coerced and eventually murdered in the culminating sequence of the film. In each type of pornography, it is possible for sexual assault to be portrayed.
Pornography can depict consensual and respectful sexual interactions. However, many pornographic films are aggressive and showcase women being objectified and sexually punished. Some individuals believe that pornography, especially hardcore pornography, can be a catalyst of sexual violence and can perpetuate a culture in which it is okay to hold sexual power over a partner. There is not often a consenting “yes” or communication between both parties depicted in pornography.
Sexual Assault in Prostitution
Prostitution is the exchange of sexual activity for money, drugs, food, shelter, or other forms of payment. Prostitution is not sexual assault. Many people choose to be prostitutes and engage in consensual sex in exchange for payment. However, some women and men may not choose to be prostitutes, and instead may be coerced into their situation or feel they must engage in prostitution in order to survive.15
While a prostitute is exchanging sexual activity for money, sexual assault can occur. A prostitute may be physically brutalized, beaten, burned, or threatened by a customer, and they may be forced to engage in sexual activities to which they did not consent. One survivor described prostitution as “paid rape.”15 In certain situations, prostitution can be violent, traumatic, and hard to escape, like other forms of sexual assault. Sometimes pimps, the men who control prostitutes and arrange clients for them, may coerce individuals into prostitution. They may use methods of psychological intimidation, physical violence, social isolation, threats, and verbal abuse to keep their prostitutes working. These methods often occur before sexual activity takes place, regardless of if the sexual activity is consensual or non-consensual.15 Although prostitution is often consensual, some prostitutes may experience sexual assault in their work.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (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."4 If you’re unsure whether or not you’ve been raped, RAINN provides 3 main considerations in judging whether a sexual act was consensual:16
- Are the participants old enough to consent?
- Do both people have the capacity to consent?
- Did both participants agree to take part?
The age of consent differs state-by-state and country-by-country. However, mental and legal capacity to consent is fairly easy to understand. Someone with “diminished capacity” is unable to legally consent—i.e. someone with disabilities, elderly people, or individuals who have been drugged or drinking.
Ritual abuse is an “extreme, sadistic form of abuse of children and non-consenting adults. It is methodical, systematic sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, which often includes mind control, torture, and highly illegal and immoral activities such as murder, child pornography and prostitution.”17 Not all elements of ritualized abuse are sexual, but as there is overlap, we found it fitting to include this type of abuse in our list of types of sexual assault.
If you think you may be a survivor of ritual abuse, we encourage you to click here for more resources and to connect with other survivors of ritual abuse.
Same-Sex Sexual Assault
Same-sex sexual assault is sexual assault where the perpetrator and the survivor have the same gender identity. There is a myth that sexual assault doesn’t occur in gay and lesbian relationships, but that is simply untrue. Survivors of same-sex sexual assault have to deal with the same traumatic post-assault effects, with additional concerns about homophobic responses from people who believe that same-sex partners cannot sexually assault each other.19 Instances of same sex rape often occur during prison rape and wartime rape. It is important to remember that anyone can be the perpetrator or survivor of sexual assault regardless of gender.
Sex trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act.”7 Many survivors of sex trafficking feel that it is a form of modern-day slavery—and it still exists within the U.S. and all over the world.
Sex traffickers use many different manipulation techniques to coerce women, men, and children to commercially engage in sex against their will. Some traffickers promise a high paying job abroad, others promise romance, gifts, fast money, luxuries, etc., while others use violence.18 These businesses exist within a number of venues, including but not limited to fake massage businesses, residential brothels, escort services, in strip clubs, hotels, motels, and in public on street corners.18
According to RAINN, sexual assault is defined as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.1 Sexual assault comes in many different forms, as evidenced by the sheer length of this list.
Sexual harassment is any unwanted visual, verbal, or physical sexual behavior that interferes with a survivor’s work, education, or life. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.20 In a job-related context, these harassments can affect an individual’s employment, interfere with their work performance, or create an offensive, hostile, or intimidating work environment.20
According to the EOC, there are two different types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile emvironment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment means “this for that.” In this type of sexual harassment, the perpetrator expresses or implies demands for sexual favors in exchange for a benefit (i.e. a promotion, a pay raise, etc.) or to avoid some consequence (i.e. job termination).20
Hostile environment sexual harassment arises when a person’s speech or conduct is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating or demeaning environment or situation that negatively affects a person’s job performance.”21 These situations are often not as easy to recognize for a survivor than quid pro quo sexual harassment, because the offenses are less obvious and often more difficult to report.
In this horrific type of sexual assault, one perpetrator commits sexual assault against multiple survivors over a period of time.19 The rapes typically occur over a period of months or years. The survivors do not necessarily need to be connected in any way for the rapist to be considered a serial rapist. Patterns often emerge between serial rapists and their victims that can lead to their arrest and prosecution.19
Statutory rape is sexual intercourse with a minor or person unable to legally give consent.20 Even if both parties are consenting, by law, the underage party is “too young” to give legal consent to have sexual intercourse until they are 18 years of age. Consent age laws vary state-by-state and country-by-country but in most states, if one person is underage, then the sexual encounter can be considered statutory rape. The use of force or threat is not present in statutory rape, however coercion is considered a proponent because a minor or mentally handicapped person cannot legally give consent.20
Stranger Sexual Assault
Stranger sexual assault is sexual assault committed by a perpetrator that the survivor does not know. This can include any unwanted visual, verbal, or physical sexual contact. Sexual assault is committed by a stranger about 28% of the time.21 Stranger sexual assault can leave the survivor with long lasting psychological effects.
Systematic Sexual Abuse
Systematic sexual abuse is an organized form of sexual abuse, frequently involving numerous perpetrators and the survivors, that is used to control, condition, or “initiate” survivors.22 This type of abuse is often grouped with ritualized abuse, which was mentioned earlier in this article. It is repeated frequently, and can be perpetuated under the disguise of an initiation into a gang, a religious or spiritual expression, or membership into a secret or sexual group.22
Voyeurism occurs when a perpetrator, often known as a “peeping tom,” derives sexual pleasure from looking at sexual objects or acts, specifically people who are naked. Voyeurs are usually male. Some voyeuristic activities include spying on people who are taking showers in locker rooms, looking through binoculars for people undressing by their windows, or watching people from hidden cameras.
Sexual assault is a broad term that encompasses many types of assault. Sexual assault is a continuum that includes all forms of unwanted sexual occurrences, from lesser crimes, to more heinous crimes. Penetration does not need to occur for the act to be considered sexual assault. The most important thing to prevent a sexual assault from occurring is full, legal consent from all partners involved in any sexual activity.
- "Sexual Assault | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network." Sexual Assault | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "What Is the Difference between Rape and Sexual Assault?" What Is the Difference between Rape and Sexual Assault? N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2015.
- "Acquaintance Rape | Rape Treatment Center." Acquaintance Rape | Rape Treatment Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Was I Raped? | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network." Was I Raped? | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network." Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Child Sexual Abuse." American Humane Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth in Illinois." PsycEXTRA Dataset (2008): n. pag. Web.
- "What Is Rape and Date Rape?" Girls' Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "What Is Domestic Violence?" NCADV. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- LeVay, Simon, Janice I. Baldwin, and John D. Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality. 2nd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2012. Print.
- "What Is FGC?" Orchid Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Incest." RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Intimate Partner Violence: Fact Sheet." PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. RAINN Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Chapter Seven: What Is Molestation and What Are the Warning Signs?" What Is Molestation? Warning Signs of Possible Sex Abuse. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Prostitution Is Sexual Violence." Psychiatric Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Was I Raped?" RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Ritual Abuse,Ritual Crime and Healing." Ritual Abuse Info. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Sex Trafficking in the U.S." Polaris | Combating Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Same-Sex Rape and Sexual Assault." Men Against Abuse Now. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Facts About Sexual Harassment." EEOC. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Sexual Harassment Types." EEOC. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- "Glossary of Sexual Violence Terms and Acronyms." MN Coalition MNCASA. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
- Allen, Samantha. The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, n.d. Web. 14 May 2016.
Last updated: 15 January 2017.