What Is Sexual Assault?

Published on: 15 Apr 2021
Clinically Reviewed by Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC
woman descending down a staircase

Sexual violence can include but is not limited to sexual assault and rape, sexual harrassment, sexual abuse, unwanted sexual touching, sex trafficking, exposure of one’s private parts without consent, sharing pictures without consent, and words or actions of a sexual nature against a person’s will. It’s a long list, representing a wide spectrum of behaviors, but they all describe situations where the sexual context is unwanted. 

So what is sexual assault, exactly? According to the website of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, “The term ‘sexual assault’ means any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.” Basically, sexual assault can be construed as any sexual act performed without consent. This includes rape, but it also includes unwanted kissing and touching. The legal definitions of these acts, however, differ depending on which state you live in. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) has a searchable database where you can find out more about the laws where you live. 

Sexual harassment is a much broader category, encompassing sexual language, gestures, coercion (often in a workplace scenario), or constant pressure for dates. The most common form comes as gender harassment, which is a general disrespect of gender without necessarily implying sexual desire. For example, bathroom graffiti referring to women as “whores,” or comments questioning a man’s masculinity. 

Thanks to the watershed #MeToo movement and films and TV shows such as Promising Young Woman and I May Destroy You, our ideas of what constitutes sexual assault are becoming more elastic. We as a society are challenging our preconceived notions of gender, consent, and sexual violence. 

As Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel states, “Sexual assault can happen to anyone regardless of race, gender, age, ability, financial and social status, or anything else. Sexual assaults are most often perpetrated by people the survivor knows vs complete strangers.” 

Sexual Assault Statistics

According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. A child experiences sexual assault every 9 minutes. Given these staggering statistics, it’s shocking that only 5 in 1,000 perpetrators serve time in prison.

The overwhelming majority of rape victims are women — 90% — but men still experience rape and other forms of sexual assault. It’s estimated that 63,000 children are sexually assaulted every year. 

More than half of all sexual assaults occur at or near the victim’s home, about 55% of cases. Another 15% take place in open public spaces, such as parks, while 10% occur in closed public spaces, like parking garages. Cases at or near a relative’s home account for 12% of cases, while 8% occur on school grounds. 

Sexual assault disproportionately affects women of color, immigrant women, disabled women, and the LGBTQIA+ community. American Indians are the group most at-risk for sexual assault–they are twice as likely to experience sexual assault as compared to any other race. Approximately 18% of Black women will experience sexual assault in their lives, and that’s just the number of women who will report the crime. Statistics show that 3 out of 4 sexual assaults ultimately go unreported. For Black women, that number is even higher, with just one of every 15 assaults being reported.

Licensed Talkspace therapist Rachel O’Neill points out that the LGBTQIA+ community faces unique challenges when it comes to sexual assault. “LGBTQIA+ individuals are often at a higher risk for sexual assault. Transgender indiviudals and bisexual women experience the highest risk for sexual assault; recent research has suggested that 47% of transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted at least once in their life. This increased risk could be related to the overall increased risk of hate-crime related violence towards LGBTQIA+ individuals. It may also be due to other risk factors (e.g., poverty, stigma, marginalization) which tend to be experienced at a higher rate by LGBTQIA+ individuals. In addition, sexual assault prevention programs may fail to properly address the needs of LGBTQIA+ individuals.”

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

Sexual assault impacts survivors in many different ways. As Ashley Ertel explains, “Survivors of sexual violence can have a wide range of symptoms following their assault, and there is no one ‘right’ way to cope. Survivors may also engage in behaviors that are upsetting to others, but these behaviors are often very common trauma responses and should not be used to discredit the survivor’s report. Many survivors do not tell anyone about their assault (for a variety of reasons), so if you are trusted enough to be told, start by believing.”

Ertel goes on, “Some common symptoms shared amongst sexual assault survivors include: avoidance of memories, people, and/or places that remind you of the trauma, irritability, nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty feeling positive emotions, and self-blame/guilt/shame. Some survivors may also find it difficult to trust themselves and others which can make it difficult to have healthy intimate relationships.” 

In addition to running a 24/7 hotline (800-656-HOPE) , RAINN offers a wealth of tips and resources for sexual assault victims, ranging from how to navigate the criminal justic system to seeking medical attention. 
Another resource is therapy. Speaking directly to survivors, Ertel says, “First, I am BEYOND proud of you for surviving this far! You are not alone, and there IS help if you are feeling stuck or lost. My best advice is to reach out to a professional with experience working with sexual trauma survivors. If you aren’t feeling a good rapport with that therapist, it is okay to switch to someone new who helps you feel seen and validated while holding your story of pain and survival. You deserve a life characterized by feeling safe, having trusting and healthy relationships, and feeling the fullness of your own worth and value. Therapy is one way to start or continue your journey towards feeling whole.”

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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