What is Sexual Assault?
last updated February 1, 2006

Sexual assault is nonconsensual sexual contact that is obtained through coercion or the use or threat of force. Sexual assault is a deliberate act of gender-based violence and an expression of power, control and domination over another. It is not a manifestation of uncontrolled desire, attraction or arousal. Sexual assault occurs  in every socioeconomic level of society and in a variety of settings. Women are sexually assaulted by intimate partners and acquaintances, while in police or law enforcement custody, in institutional settings, as refugees, and during armed conflict.

In understanding sexual assault as nonconsensual sexual contact, it is important to remember that sexual contact obtained without consent is often obtained not only through force, but also through coercion. Coercion can cover a wide range of behaviors, including intimidation, manipulation, threats of negative treatment (withholding a needed service or benefit), and blackmail.

While recognizing that men are also victims of sexual assault, the focus of this website is violence against women. As a result, the discussion of sexual assault in this website will focus on sexual assault of women and the ways in which sexual violence is deeply connected to historically unequal power relationships between men and women.

Adapted from Dorothy Q. Thomas & Robin S. Levi, Common Abuses Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 139, 149 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999); 1997 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1997/47), 12 February 1997.