What is Sexual Assault? What Constitutes Rape?

I am not alone in my struggle to recognize and name what happened to me as rape. I have met others who began sharing with the statement – “I am not sure exactly what happened to me…” That statement at first glance sounds misleading; that it implies they can’t remember what happened to them. So, let me clarify – when I have heard this statement, it has been followed with a detailed account of what happened to that person. It’s not that they don’t know or can’t remember what happened to them. The problem is they don’t know how to classify it. Sexual Assault? Rape? Acquaintance Rape? Date Rape? Sexual Harassment? Molestation? There are so many terms out there. If you don’t know how to classify your experience, how can you share your experience without sharing all the uncomfortable and hard to share details? The best way is to know what each of these terms means.

Let’s start with the broadest over-arching all-encompassing term – sexual assault. According to the United States Department of Justice:

Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.1

Another definition I have seen that is even more broad:

Sexual assault is any sexual activity where consent is not freely given by an individual. This includes rape, molestation, incest, harassment, partner/marital rape, indecent exposure, stalking, exhibitionism and voyeurism.8

I’ll be honest, sexual assault is my least favorite term to use, because it includes practically every type of sexual abuse. I have heard people use it to refer to their experience of rape and I have heard people use it to refer to their experience of sexual harassment. I am not trying to discount either experience – both are horrific and inexcusable, but the all-encompassing nature of this term makes it somewhat ambiguous. I still use the term sexual assault. However, I do not use rape and sexual assault interchangeably, because I want to clarity for my readers what I am specifically referencing.

This brings me to the next term – Rape. The United States Department of Justice updated their definition of rape in 2012 to ensure more accurate reporting. Just to forewarn you, this definition is graphic, but that is the nature of rape:

The 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.2

The Department of Justice also explains the significance of this new definition:

For the first time ever, the new definition includes any gender of victim and perpetrator, not just women being raped by men.  It also recognizes that rape with an object can be as traumatic as penile/vaginal rape.  This definition also includes instances in which the victim is unable to give consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity.  Furthermore, because many rapes are facilitated by drugs or alcohol, the new definition recognizes that a victim can be incapacitated and thus unable to consent because of ingestion of drugs or alcohol.  Similarly, a victim may be legally incapable of consent because of age. The ability of the victim to give consent must be determined in accordance with individual state statutes.  Physical resistance is not required on the part of the victim to demonstrate lack of consent.2

Victims do not always react with physical resistance, but that does not mean those instances are void of force. Physical Force does not have to be present on the part of the rapist to constitute rape either. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) elaborates on the idea of force:

Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.2

I’ll be honest, earlier this year when I read this explanation of force I realized I had been raped twice – once by physical force and once through threats or coercion. It finally sunk in why my second encounter with my rapist had also scarred me so deeply – it was rape as well. I agreed to cooperate with him to avoid being physically forced, but only after he threatened me.

As I have spoken with other survivors of sexual assault and rape, I have witnessed the repercussions of emotional, psychological, manipulation, coercion and threats. These types of “force” wreak havoc on the victim’s life, because for many this becomes a grey area – they “agreed” to do it. However, their agreement was based solely on perceived danger. I think this is where survivors need extra grace. They need those around them to extend them grace and they need to extend themselves grace. Self-blame is present after sexual assault regardless, yet when you add victim cooperation to avoid danger it introduces even more self-blame. “I should have fought.” “Why did I submit?” “I ‘agreed’ to do it, but if I didn’t he would have____.”

I also want to introduce another term you may have heard – acquaintance rape. Put very simply, acquaintance rape means the victim knew their attacker. They were not raped by a total stranger. Most rapes are acquaintance rape – 7 out of 10 rapes are committed by a person known to the victim.3 Date rape is a form of acquaintance rape and these two terms can be used interchangeably. However, not every acquaintance rape is date rape. Date rape simply means the rape occurred on a date by someone known to the victim. I want to point out one very important fact RAINN mentions regarding date rape:

It’s important to remember that dating, instances of past intimacy, or other acts like kissing do not give someone consent for increased or continued sexual contact.2

Being on a date with someone does not entitle a person complete access to another person’s body without their consent. That may seem obvious, but excusing date rape is buying into the falsehood of entitlement.

What constitutes sexual harassment? According to RAINN:

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, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Sexual harassment does not always have to be specifically about sexual behavior or directed at a specific person. For example, negative comments about women as a group may be a form of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment interferes with your performance by threatening your job security or becoming an obstacle to effective work.4

The last term I referenced is molestation. Molestation is “to force physical and usually sexual contact on.”7 Typically, molestation refers to child molestation and involves an adult perpetrator and a child victim, but one third of perpetrators are minors victimizing other minors.  Child molestation is a perpetrator touching any portion of a child’s body with a “lewd and lascivious” intent.5 Child molestation was typically how I heard this described growing up, but now this is more commonly referred to as child sexual abuse. RAINN explains:

Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse that includes sexual activity with a minor. A child cannot consent to any form of sexual activity, period.6

Like rape, the majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to their victims – 93%.6 Technically, molestation and child sexual abuse fall under the umbrella of sexual assault, but have been further classified for clarification.

Hopefully these definitions help shed light on possibly your own or the experiences of others. Education and knowledge are empowerment. Once you know more specifically how to classify an experience you can begin to speak about it more openly, you can address it and you can reach out for help.

SOURCES: ​

  1. “An Updated Definition of Rape“ by Susan B. Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women. January 6, 2012. https://www.justice.gov/archives/opa/blog/updated-definition-rape.
  2. “Sexual Assault” by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-assault
  3. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 (2015).
  4. “Sexual Harrassment” by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-harassment
  5. “Child Molestation” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Child+Molestation
  6. “Child Sexual Abuse” by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) https://www.rainn.org/articles/child-sexual-abuse
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