Defining Sexual Violence

Because of varying definitions and legal outcomes, it can be hard to clearly describe sexual violence. Here’s how to start—and find justice.

woman saying no, woman covering face with hand

Updated on September 18, 2023.

Sexual violence. Sexual assault. Rape. Do these terms mean the same thing? And if not, what are the differences?

Though the subject matter is often difficult to discuss, doing so is essential, especially if you’re seeking legal recourse following an incident of sexual violence.

According to Sexual Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions And Recommended Data Elements, published by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sexual violence is as “a sexual act committed by another person without freely given consent of the victim or against someone who is unable to consent or refuse.”

The category of sexual violence is generally held to include sexual assault and rape, as well as domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

Sexual assault is generally defined as an attack involving unwanted sexual contact. It may be physical or non-physical and may not necessarily involve physical force. For example, it may also include forms of psychological force, such as verbal threats, emotional coercion, or intimidation.

Rape is typically defined as forcible, non-consensual sexual intercourse involving penetration, whether vaginal, anal, or oral. Penetration may be with a body part or an object.

In reality, these terms may be used interchangeably or they may take on different meanings depending on the state in which you live or where the incident took place. For example, according to some definitions, sexual assault may include rape; in others, it may stop short of rape.

Understanding sexual violence

“For a long time, sexual assault was just defined as penile penetration in a vagina,” says Laura Jean McGuire, EdD, an inclusion and sexuality expert who offers trauma-informed coaching and consulting for survivors. “Rape can be many different kinds of penetration across all genders. It can be forced oral sex or penetration with an object.”

McGuire says these crimes weren’t always in the same category, which was misleading and difficult for victims. They didn’t know what to call what happened to them, although it was just as physically and emotionally traumatic.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the legal definition of sexual assault and the statute of limitations—or, how long you are able to bring legal action—vary from state to state. (You can find your state’s legal definition of rape and sexual assault through the RAINN website.)

These disparities are confusing but this is slowly changing as federal agencies—such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the CDC—recognize that the lack of consensus for defining sexual violence makes it difficult to understand the true scope of the problem. This is particularly important given the prevalence of sexual violence and the fact that the actual number of sexual assaults is significantly underestimated.

Varying definitions and legal parameters

States also have different statutes for punishment for crimes involving sexual violence and for protecting participants in a crime. Furthermore, McGuire says, what matters is not only what punishment is on the books for a given crime, but also “how consistently that state or county uses the maximum punishment allowed.”

For example, McGuire says, “One judge or state or district might be known to be lenient, while another metes out the maximum punishment. This is understandably difficult for victims.”

How prevalent is sexual violence?

The exact prevalence of sexual violence is hard to pin down. RAINN says an American experiences sexual assault every 68 seconds. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1 out of 5 women and 1 out of 59 men experience an attempted or completed act of penetration by use of force or through alcohol or drug facilitation.

Although there is no one definitive statistic about sexual assault, McGuire says, it’s an extremely pervasive problem. “It’s happening to people of every age, every demographic. It’s not rare. It’s happening all the time.”

What should you do if you’ve experienced sexual violence?

Above all, McGuire says, never blame yourself, which is the first thing people often do. Seek out support from a healthcare provider (HCP) or another professional who understands sexual violence. To the best of your ability, get all the care you need.

“One of the common misconceptions is that if you don’t think about it, it will go away over time, or you’ll just get over it, or it could have been worse,” McGuire says. “All of that isn’t true.”

McGuire notes that even if the assault took place many years ago, you can still get the same legal, medical, and emotional support. Follow these steps:

Reach out to a professional: Seek out the best legal representation you can so you have the best chance of seeing justice served, McGuire says. If you’re the victim of sexual violence, maintain all evidence and seek medical care. DNA, which can be collected on your body or clothes, can help identify a perpetrator and increase the likelihood that the criminal justice system will hold them accountable for the crime.

Keep good records: Retain text messages, email, voicemails—anything that shows an interaction between you and a perpetrator. Sexual assault is usually not the dark-alley attack by a stranger often portrayed on television, McGuire says. Most victims know their perpetrator and may even have a trusting relationship with that person.

“Even if you didn’t say ‘no,’ it’s still a serious crime,” says McGuire. “You deserve the same resources.”

Lean on the people around you: Finally—and most importantly—McGuire says, victims should know this: “There is life after sexual assault and after sexual abuse and it can be a really wonderful and good life.”

Surrounding yourself with people who support you and a strong network of professionals can help you have a positive relationship with yourself. That support can help you feel comfortable in your body again.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual violence (even if it was a long time ago), contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline via live chat at RAINN.org or by calling 800-656-4673. The website 1in6.org is another resource specifically for males who have been sexually assaulted.

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