Defining Sexual Assault: Debunking Myths, Adding Context

Define sexual assault in complex and nuanced, yet clear ways

At least partially as a result of the pervasive and persistent myths and misconceptions that surround power-based violence, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. A lack of awareness about what sexual assault is, and how it relates to and fits in with other forms of sexual violence, are also contributing factors. Replacing false ideas and vague conceptions with a complex, nuanced yet clear definition of sexual assault overcomes a key barrier to reporting, which is that many people who are sexually assaulted don’t realize they’ve been victimized, at least not criminally. Debunking common myths around sexual violence reduces the stigma and blame that continue to be placed on victims by societies, communities, individuals, and – all to often – themselves. Comparing and contrasting various forms of sexual abuse highlights patterns, distinctions, and overlap that can aid in understanding this pervasive and persistent public health concern.

Debunking Myths and Misconceptions

There are MANY myths and misconceptions surrounding sexual assault. They often result from outdated beliefs about sex and gender, stereotypes, -isms [classism, sexism, racism. etc.], and mistakenly viewing a crime of power and control through a sexual lens.

Can a Victim’s Behavior Cause Sexual Assault?


What occurred prior to, leading up to, a sexual assault did not “invite it” and does not excuse it. Not:

  • what you were wearing
  • how late you were out
  • whether you were flirting prior to saying no
  • whether you were kissing someone prior to saying no
  • your saying you wanted to originally, but later changing your mind
  • your sexual history
  • using alcohol or other drugs
  • having prior sexual relations with that person
  • being in a romantic relationship with them
  • being married to them
Sometimes just defining sexual assault can debunk myths,  eliminating misconceptions
Sometimes just defining sexual assault can debunk myths, eliminating misconceptions


Most victims don’t fight back physically. It’s also not uncommon to freeze, to be incapable of moving, during an assault.

Putting Sexual Assault in Context

Sexual Violence

Sexual assault is included under larger umbrellas, such as sexual misconduct and sexual violence. A few of the behaviors or acts that fall into these larger categories are:

  • voyeurism [watching people who are naked or engaged in intimate acts]
  • sex trafficking [forced involvement in the commercial sex industry]
  • indecent exposure [public nudity or masturbation, pretending to perform sexual acts, sending unsolicited nude photos, etc.]
  • sexual exploitation [taking, or sharing, explicit pictures or videos without someone’s knowledge or permission, revenge porn, etc.]

The following things invalidate consent:

  • threat
  • intimidation
  • force
  • intoxication

Defining Sexual Assault

Although there are variations, from state to state, sexual assault is defined as sexual activity with someone who hasn’t, is unable to, or can’t legally consent. Rape, attempted rape, and sexual contact that is unwanted, forced, or coerced are all forms of sexual assault.

Sexual assault involves sexual activity with someone who does not, or cannot, consent
Sexual assault involves sexual activity with someone who does not, or cannot, consent

Statutory Rape

Statutory rape refers to intimate relations between people who, due to age or age discrepancy, are unable to legally engage in sexual activity. The age of consent varies from country to country, and from state to state within the US. In some places persons under that age, without exception, are unable to legally decide to engage in intercourse. For many states, that age is 16.

Beyond the determined age of consent, age differentials may be in place. The most common are “close-in-age” or “Romeo and Juliet” allowances, which may be simple and straightforward [a person over 16, but under 18, may only consent with someone who is no more than 2 years older]. Or, they may be written in ways that are more complex. For instance, a 19-year-old could be with someone as young as 15, provided both are in high school. Or, the allowed gap may grow as the person ages. An 18-year-old is prohibited from being with someone under 16 [a two year gap], while a 27-year-old could legally be intimately involved with someone who is just 17 [a ten year gap].


People who are unable to legally marry are almost always prohibited from engaging in intimate activity. Since these people are unable to consent, intimate acts between them are, by definition, sexual assault. Restrictions regarding allowable degrees of kinship also vary from country to country, and from state to state within the US. The majority of these laws surround consanguinity [biological relationships], but there are also incest restrictions around affinity [related through marriage]. One of the more common examples of affinal prohibitions are laws saying someone cannot engage in sexual activity with the parent of a current or former spouse.

Some states, Ohio for example, lump “in custody of the government” with incest law.

“the offender is a teacher, administrator, coach, or other person in authority employed by or serving in a school for which the state board of education prescribes minimum standards pursuant to division”

Consent Laws, “Ohio”

Abuse of Authority as Sexual Misconduct

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Facts About Sexual Harassment
US Equal Opportunity Employment Commision (EEOC)

Being sexually harassed in the workplace is just one way authority can be used to exploit with respect to sex and sexuality. Mental health professionals, medical providers, leaders of religious groups, and prison guards are just a few of the many other examples of positions that can create power-imbalances significant enough to warrant the restriction or prohibition of intimate involvement.

Defining sexual assault requires assessing  circumstances under which people can and cannot consent
Defining sexual assault requires assessing circumstances under which people can and cannot consent

Sexual Abuse

Sexual misconduct is frequently referred to as sexual abuse when the people involved fall into specific relationship dynamics. Sexual abuse is one of the forms of domestic violence, which occurs between people who are dating, cohabitating, married, or those who’ve previously engaged in intimate acts. The term sexual abuse is also regularly applied when one party is a minor, most frequently if the perpetrator is a family member.

Sexual Assault: Response, and Prevention

Addressing sexual assault requires additional effort be put toward both response and prevention. When dealing with issues as pervasive and persistent as sexual violence, it’s easy to become solely reactive. And that is understandable, we want to take care of those who’ve been harmed.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.


However, becoming better at responding to sexual assault will never reduce, or eliminate the issue. In order to reduce the instances of seuxal assault we must move upstream, become active, get ahead of the issue. That means raising awareness and educating people about topics we may prefer to avoid.

The first step is defining sexual assault and ensuring people understand the nuances of consent. This will require having difficult, age-appropriate conversations with minors. To make a difference, we must challenge norms, confront myths, and question long-held assumptions. It won’t be easy, but it’s what must be done.