Sexual Assault Definition and Other Forms of Sexual Violence
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is any type of sexual activity, including rape, that you do not agree to. Also called sexual violence or abuse, sexual assault is never your fault.
What is rape?
The Department of Justice defines rape as "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 This legal definition is used by the federal government to collect information from local police about rape. The definition of rape may be slightly different in your community.
Rape also can happen when you cannot physically give consent, such as while you were drunk, passed out, or high. Read more about alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault. Rape can also happen when you cannot legally give consent, such as when you are underage.
What does sexual assault include?
Sexual assault can include:
- Any type of sexual contact with someone who cannot consent, such as someone who is underage, has an intellectual disability, or is passed out
- Attempted rape
- Sexual coercion
- Sexual contact with a child
- Incest (sexual contact between family members)
- Fondling or unwanted touching above or under clothes
Sexual assault can also be verbal or visual. It is anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. Examples can include:4
- Voyeurism, or peeping (when someone watches private sexual acts without consent)
- Exhibitionism (when someone exposes himself or herself in public)
- Sexual harassment or threats
- Forcing someone to pose for sexual pictures
What does "consent" mean in sexual assault?
Consent is a clear "yes" to sexual activity. Not saying "no" does not mean you have given consent.
Your consent means:
- You know and understand what is going on (you are not unconscious or blacked out or intellectually disabled).
- You know what you want to do.
- You are able to say what you want to do.
- You are sober (not under the influence of alcohol or drugs).
Sometimes you cannot give legal consent to sexual activity or contact. For example, if you are:
- Threatened, forced, coerced, or manipulated into agreeing
- Not physically able to (you are drunk, high, drugged, passed out, or asleep)
- Not mentally able to (due to illness or disability)
- Younger than 16 (in most states) or 18 (in other states)
- Consent is an ongoing process, not a one-time question. If you consent to sexual activity, you can change your mind and choose to stop, even after sexual activity has started.
- Past consent does not mean future consent. Giving consent in the past to sexual activity does not mean you have to give consent now or in the future.
- Saying yes to a sexual activity is not consent for all types of sexual activity. If you consent to sexual activity, it is only for types of sexual activities that you are comfortable with at that time with that partner.
What is NOT considered "consent" in sexual assault?
- Silence. Just because someone does not say "no" it doesn't mean she or he is saying "yes."
- Having consented before. Just because someone said "yes" in the past does not mean she is saying "yes" now. Consent must be part of every sexual activity, every time.
- Being in a relationship. Being married, dating, or having sexual contact with someone before does not mean that there is consent now.
- Being drunk or high. Read more about alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault.
- Not fighting back. Not putting up a physical fight does not mean that there is consent.
- Sexy clothing, dancing, or flirting. Only "yes" means "yes."
What is sexual coercion?
Not all sexual assault involves a physical attack. Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after someone is pressured, tricked, or forced in a nonphysical way.
Anyone can use coercion — for example, husbands, partners, boyfriends, friends, coworkers, bosses, or dates.
What are some examples of sexual coercion?
Sexual coercion can be social or emotional pressure to force you into sexual activity that you do not want or agree to. See the chart below for ways someone might use sexual coercion:
How can I respond in the moment to sexual coercion?
Sexual coercion is not your fault! If you are feeling pressured to do something you don't want to do, speak up or leave the situation. It is better to risk a relationship ending or hurting someone's feelings than to do something you aren't ready or willing to do.
Some possible responses include:
- "I do like you, but I'm not ready for sex."
- "If you really care for me, you'll respect that I don't want to have sex."
- "I don't owe you an explanation or anything at all."
Be clear and direct with the person coercing you. Tell him or her how you feel and what you do not want to do. If the other person is not listening to you, leave the situation. If you or your family is in physical danger, try to get away from the person as quickly as possible. Call 9-1-1 if you are in immediate danger.
How can I get help after being sexually coerced?
Sexual coercion is a type of sexual assault. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online with a trained hotline worker on the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at any time to get help.
Some sexual coercion is against the law or violates school or workplace policies. If you are younger than 18, tell a trusted adult about what happened. If you are an adult, consider talking to someone about getting help and reporting the person to the local authorities. You could talk to a counselor, the human resources department, or the local police.
Who is sexually assaulted?
Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age, race or ethnicity, religion, ability, appearance, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, women have higher rates of sexual assault than men.
- Women. More than 23 million women in the United States have been raped. More than one in five African-American and white women and one in eight Hispanic women have been raped.1
- Young women. Most women who have been raped were younger than 25 when the rape happened. Almost half of female rape victims were under 18.1
- Men. Almost 2 million men in the United States have been raped. Almost 6% of men have experienced sexual coercion, and almost 11% of men have experienced unwanted sexual contact.1
- Lesbians, gays, and bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Bisexual women have higher rates of sexual assault than lesbians and heterosexual women. Nearly half of all bisexual women have been raped.5 Lesbians and bisexual women also have higher rates of sexual violence by a partner than heterosexual women. More than half of transgender people have been sexually assaulted.6,7 Read more about violence in same-sex relationships.
Who commits sexual assault?
Sometimes, sexual assault is committed by a stranger. Most often, though, it is by someone you know, including a friend, acquaintance, relative, date, or your partner.
Both women and men commit sexual assault, but nearly 99% of all people who are reported for sexual assault are men. Six in 10 of those are white.The majority of sexual assault victims know the person who assaulted them.
Can I be sexually assaulted by my partner or spouse?
Yes! Sexual assault is unwanted sexual activity — no matter whom it is with.
Sexual assault by an intimate partner is common. More than half of female rape victims were raped by their partner.1
What do I do if I've been sexually assaulted?
If you are in danger or need medical care, call 9-1-1. If you can, get away from the person who assaulted you and get to a safe place as fast as you can.
If you have been physically assaulted or raped, there are other important steps you can take right away:
- Save everything that might have the attacker's DNA on it. As hard as it may be to not wash up, you might wash away important evidence if you do. Don't brush, comb, or clean any part of your body. Don't change clothes, if possible. Don't touch or change anything at the scene of the assault. That way the local police will have physical evidence from the person who assaulted you.
- Go to your nearest hospital emergency room as soon as possible. You need to be examined and treated for injuries. You can be given medicine to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) can help you find a hospital able to collect evidence of sexual assault. Ask for a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE). A doctor or nurse will use a rape kit to collect evidence. This might be fibers, hairs, saliva, semen, or clothing left behind by the attacker. You do not have to decide whether to press charges while at the hospital.
- If you think you were drugged, talk to the hospital staff about being tested for date rape drugs, such as Rohypnol and Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB), and other drugs.
- The hospital staff can also connect you with the local rape crisis center. Staff there can help you make choices about reporting the sexual assault and getting help through counseling and support groups.
- Reach out for help. Call a friend or family member you trust, or call a crisis center or hotline. Crisis centers and hotlines have trained volunteers and counselors who can help you find support and resources near you. One hotline is the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in the military, you may also call the DoD Safe Helpline at 877-995-5246.
- Report the sexual assault to the police: Call 911. If you want to talk to someone first about reporting the assault, you can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). A counselor can help you understand how to report the crime. Even though these calls are free, they may appear on your phone bill. If you think that the person who sexually assaulted you may check your phone bill, try to call from a friend's phone or a public phone.
- Write down the details about the person who sexually assaulted you and what happened.
How can I get help after a sexual assault?
After a sexual assault, you may feel fear, shame, guilt, or shock. These feelings are normal. But sexual assault is never your fault. It may be frightening to think about talking about the assault, but it is important to get help. You can call these organizations any time, day or night. The calls are free and confidential:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (4673). You can also chat with a trained hotline worker on the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TTY)
Each state and territory has organizations and hotlines to help people who have been sexually assaulted.
How can I lower my risk of sexual assault?
You cannot always prevent sexual assault. If you are assaulted, or if you find yourself in a situation that feels unsafe, it is not your fault. But you can take steps to help stay safe in general:9,10
- Go to parties or gatherings with friends. Arrive together, check in with each other, and leave together. Talk about your plans for the evening so that everyone knows what to expect.
- Look out for your friends, and ask them to look out for you. If a friend seems out of it, is way too drunk for the amount of alcohol she's had, is acting out of character, or seems too drunk to stay safe in general, get her to a safe place. Ask your friends to do the same for you.
- Have a code word with your family and friends that means "Come get me, I need help" or "Call me with a fake emergency." Call or text them and use the code word to let them know you need help.
- Download an app on your phone. You can download free apps you can use if you feel unsafe or are threatened. Some apps share your location with your friends or the police if you need help. You can also set up an app to send you texts throughout the night to make sure you're safe. If you don't respond, the app will notify police.
- Avoid drinks in punchbowls or other containers that can be easily "spiked" (when alcohol is added to a drink without permission). If you think that you or one of your friends has been drugged, call the police. Tell them what happened so that you can be tested for the right drugs.
- Know your limits when using alcohol or drugs. Don't let anyone pressure you into drinking or doing more than you want to.
- Trust your instincts. If you find yourself alone with someone you don't know or trust, leave. If you feel uncomfortable in any situation for any reason, leave. You are the only person who gets to say whether you feel safe.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Especially if walking alone, avoid talking on your phone or listening to music with headphones. Stay in busy, well-lit areas, especially at night.
Is there a link between alcohol and drugs and sexual assault?
Yes. Sexual assault and alcohol often go together. Research shows that up to three out of four attackers had been drinking when the attack happened.11
Research also shows that about half of sexual assault victims had been drinking.11 However, this does not mean that drinking causes sexual assault. Many perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to lower a person's ability to give consent, resist, understand what is happening, or remember the assault. They may take advantage of a victim who has already been drinking or encourage her to drink more than she might normally drink.
Some perpetrators also use drugs called "date rape drugs." These drugs are slipped into drinks — even nonalcoholic drinks — or food without the victim's knowledge. The drugs can cause memory loss, so victims may not know what happened. Some attackers also use other drugs, such as ecstasy, marijuana, or prescription pills. They may give drugs to someone who takes them willingly or may drug her without her knowledge.
Someone who is drunk, drugged, or high on drugs cannot give consent. Without consent, sexual activity is sexual assault.
Does sexual assault have long-term health effects?
Yes, sexual assault can have long-term health effects. People who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to report:1
- Frequent headaches
- Long-term pain
- Trouble sleeping
- Poor physical and mental health
Other health effects can include:12
- Severe anxiety, stress, or fear
- Abuse of alcohol or drugs
- Eating disorders
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Self-injury or suicide
How can I help someone who has been sexually assaulted?
You can help a friend or family member who has been sexually assaulted by listening, offering comfort, and not judging. Reinforce the message that she or he is not at fault and that it is natural to feel angry, confused, or ashamed — or any combination of feelings.
Ask your loved one if she would like you to go with her to the hospital or to counseling. If she decides to report the crime to the police, ask if she would like you to go with her. Let her know that professional help is available. Let her know about the hotlines to call and talk to someone. Get more tips on helping a friend who has been sexually assaulted or abused in our Violence Against Women section.
Do you need more information about domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or any other form of power based violence?
- Division of Violence Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HHS
- Phone Number: 800-232-4636
- Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice
- Phone Number: 202-514-2000
- Phone Number: 866-331-9474
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- Phone Number: 202-467-8700
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Phone Number: 800-799-7233
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- Phone Number: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- Phone Number: 877-739-3895
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
- Phone Number: 800-656-HOPE (4673)