Why Is It So Hard to Define Sexual Assault?
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Why Is It So Hard to Define Sexual Assault?

There are different definitions and legal outcomes, depending on where you live.

Sexual assault. Rape. Sexual violence. What does each term mean?

“These terms are really different preferences for how to describe what is essentially the same thing,” says Laura Jean McGuire, EdD, an inclusion and sexuality expert in New York, who offers individual trauma-informed coaching and consulting for survivors.

According to Sexual Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions And Recommended Data Elements, published by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 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.”

However, when you’re looking at legal recourse following a sexual violence incident, different terms can mean different things depending on where you live or where the incident took place. According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the legal definition of sexual assault and the statute of limitations—or, how long you have to bring legal action—vary somewhat from state to state. (You can see your state’s definitions here).

Slowly, this is changing as federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recognize that the lack of consensus for defining sexual assault terms makes it difficult to understand the true scope of the problem. This is particularly important in light of how prevalent it is and concern that the actual number of sexual assaults is significantly underestimated.

“For a long time, [sexual assault] was just defined as penile penetration in a vagina,” says Dr. McGuire. “Rape can be many different kinds of penetration across all genders. It can be forced oral sex, or penetration with an object [for example].” McGuire says these crimes weren’t 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.

States also have different statutes for punishment for crimes involving sexual assault, and for protecting participants in a crime. Furthermore, McGuire says, it’s not just what punishment is on the books for a given crime, “It’s also how consistently that state or county uses the maximum punishment allowed. 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.”

She adds, “It goes to the bigger picture of being politically involved. [We want to] make sure as citizens, we’re working to elect [the right] officials—whether they are judges, senators or congressmen. They are involved in how states look at sexual violence crimes.”

How prevalent is sexual assault?
It’s hard to say. RAINN says someone experiences sexual assault every 98 seconds. According to the 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 assault?
Above all, McGuire says, never blame yourself, which is the first thing people tend to do. Then, seek out support from professionals who understand sexual violence and make sure you 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. All of that isn’t true.” She says even if the assault took place many years ago, you can still get the same legal, medical and emotional support.

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 the criminal justice system will hold them accountable for the crime.

Keep good records: Retain text messages, email—anything that shows an interaction between you and a perpetrator. Sexual assault is usually not the dark-alley attack by a stranger as often portrayed on TV, McGuire says. Most victims know their perpetrator and have a trusting relationship with that person. “Even if you didn’t say ‘no,’ it’s still a serious crime and a big a problem. You deserve the same resources.”

Lean on the people around you: Finally—and most importantly—McGuire says, victims should know, “There is life after assault and after 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 your spouse and feel comfortable in your body again.

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

Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is unwanted behavior of a sexual nature. Some examples are inappropriate touching, rape, child molestation, verbal assault or visual assault. This can occur anywhere -- in the home, workplace -- or in an isolated lo...

cation and can be committed by those you know or strangers. Learn more about sexual assault from our experts.
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