Sexual Assault as a Form of Sexual Violence
last updated February 1, 2006

Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence. Sexual violence, in turn, encompasses a broad range of violence that targets women's sexuality, and would include not only rape and sexual assault, but also sexual exploitation and sexual harassment. For example, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has defined sexual violence as "all forms of sexual threat, assault, interference and exploitation." From Radhika Coomaraswamy, Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response 1.1 (1995). The First World Report on Health and Violence defines sexual violence as "any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person's sexuality using coercion by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work." World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 149 (2002). A recent Human Rights Watch report defines sexual violence as "[a]ny violence, physical or psychological, carried out through sexual means or by targeting sexuality." From Human Rights Watch, We'll Kill You If You Cry": Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict, v.15, no. 1(A), January 2003.

While other forms of sexual violence are also serious, this section will address the unique characteristics of nonconsensual sexual contact. Trafficking and sexual harassment are addressed elsewhere in this website.

Because sexual harassment may also include some forms of nonconsensual sexual contact, the distinction between these two types of sexual violence—sexual harassment and sexual assault—may be difficult to define. Some behaviors could constitute both sexual harassment and sexual assault, while others will not. To the extent that sexually harassing behavior involves nonconsensual sexual contact, it also falls within the definition of sexual assault. The scope of the definition of sexual assault is discussed in the sections of this website on consent, force and coercion and forms of sexual contact. It is also important to note that Domestic Violence and Trafficking, other forms of violence against women addressed in this website, often involve sexual assault. For example, 77% of Moldovan trafficking victims between the ages of 15 and 18 are subjected to sexual violence. From “NGO Study Says 77 Percent of Trafficked Moldovan Teenagers Suffered Sexual Exploitation,” RFE/RL Newsline, Vol. 9 No. 150 Part II,(Citing La Strada, "Traffiking in Persons in Moldova. Comments, Trends, Recommendations" 10 August 2005)