What is Sexual Assault?

Last updated June 2019

Sexual assault is nonconsensual sexual contact that is obtained through coercion or the use or threat of force. Sexual assault is not a manifestation of uncontrolled desire, attraction, or arousal; it is a deliberate act of gender-based violence against women and an expression of power, control and domination over another. Sexual assault occurs in every socioeconomic level of society and in a variety of settings. Women may be 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 may be 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.

Sexual Violence

Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual violence as “an all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.”[1] 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.

[1] Types of Sexual Violence, RAINN, https://www.rainn.org/types-sexual-violence (last accessed June 4, 2019).