Types of Sexual Contact
last updated February 1, 2006

There are many different kinds of sexual contact that could fall within the definition of sexual assault. Sexual assault is often equated with rape, which can be defined as nonconsensual sexual intercourse. As the the former Special Rapporteur explained in her 1997 report, however, definitions based on intercourse or vaginal penetration, however, focus on the "male perspective of acceptable boundaries of heterosexual sex rather than the victim's experience of sexualized violence" and have been criticized as unduly privileging the male perspective and denying the victim's experience. Consequently, the former Special Rapporteur defines sexual assault to include many forms of unwanted sexual contact, including "insertion of objects into genital openings, oral and anal coitus, attempted rape and the infliction of other sexually abusive acts," acts of molestation or fondling that do not result in penetration, and "the use or threat of force in order to have sexual acts performed by third persons." From Radhika Coomaraswamy, Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response 1.1 (1995).

Adapted from 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); 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).

While recognizing that sexual assault includes much more than nonconsensual sexual intercourse, this website will occasionally use the terms "rape" and "sexual assault" interchangeably. This use of terminology, however, should not be interpreted as excluding from the definition of sexual assault other forms of nonconsensual sexual contact or diminishing the trauma that may be associated with such experiences.

It is important to remember that while sexual assault encompasses a number of kinds of sexual contact, it is the nonconsensual nature of the contact that makes it sexual assault. A particular sexual act may be wanted and acceptable in one context, but unwanted and thus assaultative in another. For example, sexual contact may be unwanted because it occurs "in situations that are personally unacceptable or cause distress—for example, in front of other people (including children), in groups, or with other people (including forced prostitution)—or to pose for pornographic photos or video." A perpetrator may force a victim to have sex when she is ill, or without the use of contraceptives, which may put her at risk of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. From Patricia Mahoney et al., Violence Against Women by Intimate Relationship Partners, Sourcebook on Violence Against Women 143, 151 (Claire M. Renzetti, Jeffrey L. Edleson, & Raquel Kennedy Bergen eds. 2001).