What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is a general term that includes any forced or unwanted sexual activity including rape (forced penetration), sexual abuse, and molestation. Sexual violence is a broader term defined as any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.

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A wide range of sexually violent acts can take place in different circumstances and settings. These include:

  • Sexual violence within marriage or dating relationships

  • Unwanted sexual advances or sexual harassment, including demanding sex in return for favors

  • Sexual abuse of mentally or physically disabled people, including elder abuse

  • Sexual abuse of children

  • Forced marriage or cohabitation, including the marriage of children

  • Denial of the right to use contraception or to adopt other measures to protect against sexually transmitted diseases

  • Forced abortion

  • Forced prostitution and sex trafficking

  • Violent acts against the sexual integrity of an individual, including genital mutilation and obligatory inspections for virginity 

  • Systematic sexual violence during armed conflict

 

What is Consent?

Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or says "yes" to sexual activity with other persons. Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say "yes" or "no" or stop the sexual activity at any point. Consent should not be assumed and is not determined by body language or appearance, dating relationships or previous sexual activity, marriage, silence or immobility, or incapacitation. Consent must be voluntarily given and may not be valid if a person is being subjected to actions or behaviors that elicit emotional or psychological pressure, intimidation, or fear.

Consent is not valid in circumstances of coercion. Coercion can cover a whole spectrum of degrees of force. Apart from physical force, it may involve psychological intimidation, manipulation, blackmail or other threats. It may also occur when the person aggressed is unable to give consent—for instance, while drunk, drugged, asleep or mentally incapable of understanding the situation.

 

What effects can assault have on a survivor?

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Depression

  • Psychiatric disorders

  • Promiscuity as a means of coping

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Somatic complaints

  • Aggressive behavior (theft, truancy, etc.)

  • Suicidal thoughts/behavior

  • Social ostracization

  • Sexual and reproductive health complications

 

If someone in your life has experienced sexual assault:

Believe them—survivors who are criticized, questioned, or doubted by the first individual they disclose to are 80% more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Remember that the individual has been through a highly traumatic experience and it is possible that they may act differently after the assault.

Be patient and understanding. The trauma of a sexual assault does not go away quickly and it will likely take time for the individual to recover. Sometimes friends and family members expect sexual assault victims to be “over it” in a few weeks, or even days. Do not force "solutions" but honor their needs and wishes to pursue healing in ways that feel best to them.

 

Understand that as a loved one, you may need support as well. Don't hesitate to seek out a trauma-informed therapist to help you navigate supporting the survivor and yourself. For more resources and assistance, click "Get Help" below. 

 

If you or a loved one have experienced sexual assault, please view our Resources page for more information to support healing.