Sexual assault can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never the victim’s fault.
The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include:
- Attempted rape
- Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
- Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
- Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape
Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape. All states prohibit this type of assault but the exact definitions of the crimes that fall within the category of sexual assault differ from state to state. The laws share some basic elements, but the structures, wording and scope of offenses vary considerably, so always check your local statutes for specific questions.
Proving Sexual Assault Charges
In general, sexual assault is involuntary sexual contact that occurs through the actor’s use of force, coercion or the victim’s incapacitation. The law will consider the victim incapacitated if he or she did not have the mental ability to understand the nature of the sexual acts, or if the victim was physically incapable of indicating their unwillingness to participate in the sexual conduct. Common examples of these charges may arise from the use of alcohol or date rape drugs, both of which can make it impossible for a victim to legally consent to sexual conduct.
Modern laws covering this subject area include the nonconsensual sexual contact that occurs between any sex and between people of any age. For example, most laws cover involuntary sexual contact occurring between two men, two women or two children, etc., not just an adult man and woman.
Most states have made sexual assault the umbrella term for other crimes, such as rape and unwanted sexual contact. Some states distinguish between crimes involving penetration and crimes involving coerced or involuntary touching, making the former an aggravated or first-degree sexual assault and the latter a lower-level sexual assault.
What does “sexual assault” actually mean?
It’s actually harder to define than you’d think. According to the United States Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Sexual assault is basically an umbrella term that includes sexual activities such as rape, fondling, and attempted rape.
However, the legal definition varies depending on which state you’re in, and can even be different depending on where you were when the assault happened, Emily Austin, director of advocacy services for California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, tells SELF. For example, she says, sexual assault on college campuses in California means a sex act that occurred without affirmative consent (which is described as active, voluntary participation), while California criminal law defines rape as non consensual sexual intercourse, and other laws govern different forms of sexual assault beyond intercourse. “It’s complex,” she admits.
The definitions can vary because of the way in which our laws are made, explains Rebecca O’Connor, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the U.S. “On the state level, because nothing is simple, the states have sovereignty over laws, and different legislatures and jurors have crafted different definitions of specific behaviors,” she tells SELF. Some states explicitly define rape or sexual assault and others may not, but fold that behavior under different terminology. “It runs the gamut,” she says, adding that states typically create these definitions with guidance from the Department of Justice. However, the details are crafted on a state level, often based on local cases that set a precedent for how sexual assault is phrased and determined.