Assault, generally defined as the intentional act of causing physical harm to someone else, can take many different forms:
- throwing an object at someone
- striking someone with a weapon or other object
- threatening physical harm
When assault involves any unwanted sexual contact, it’s considered sexual assault.
Any sexual act you didn’t give explicit consent for counts as sexual assault. This includes touching or harassment, sexual coercion, and rape or attempted rape, among other nonconsensual acts.
No matter what happened, sexual assault is never your fault. Finding the words to describe what happened, though, could help you navigate the assault, get support, and begin to heal.
Read on to learn how to differentiate between sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and other types of sexual assault. You’ll also find some guidance on getting help.
The exact definition of sexual assault can be hard to pin down, in part because different states don’t always use consistent terms to describe particular acts of assault.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has a State Law Database where you can learn how your state legally defines crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual battery.
- Rape is always sexual assault, but sexual assault doesn’t specifically mean rape.
- Rape is generally defined as penetration of the vagina or anus with any body part or object. In some states, nonconsensual oral penetration is also rape.
- Statutory rape refers to sexual activity that takes place when one person is below the legal age of consent — even if they participate willingly.
- Sexual assault includes other types of unwanted contact, like fondling or groping.
- Attempted rape is also a type of sexual assault.
You might also notice sexual assault used interchangeably with other terms, like sexual harassment, sexual battery, and aggravated sexual assault.
This type of sexual assault includes a range of both physical and verbal unwanted sexual advances, according to Heather Kent, a licensed psychotherapist and trauma recovery specialist.
- requesting sexual favors
- making sexually charged jokes or jokes about your sexuality
- making sexual remarks about your body
- verbally or emotionally pressuring you to engage in sexual acts
- talking about sexual relations or fantasies in inappropriate environments, like work or school
- sending you unwanted explicit photos, emails, or texts
- using sexual favors as conditions for your employment or advancement at a company (“If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll have to fire you,” or “If you have sex with me, I’ll give you that promotion.”)
It’s worth noting that sexual harassment doesn’t have to be directed at a specific person. Comments made to or about a group, like all the women in your office, still fall into the category of sexual harassment.
There’s some crossover: Unwanted touching or physical acts, could count as both sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The main difference lies in the fact that sexual assault usually refers to criminal acts. Sexual harassment may not be legally considered a criminal act, but it still violates your civil right to a safe and nonhostile working or learning environment.
Sexual battery and aggravated sexual assault
Sexual battery generally refers to any kind of touching of your intimate parts, or the perpetrator’s, that happens without consent or against your will. This touching can happen with or without clothes on.
Examples might include:
- grabbing your breast or butt
- touching your genital area
- fondling you while you’re asleep or incapacitated, or any time you can’t give consent
- taking your hand and forcing it onto their genitals
According to Christie Jenkins, PhD, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and educator in Walden University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, laws in certain states require sexual battery to happen for the purpose of:
- sexual arousal
- abusing or humiliating the person assaulted
Aggravated sexual assault is usually defined as knowingly or recklessly causing or threatening physical harm during a nonconsensual sexual act. But again, the exact definition varies by state.
In some states, Jenkins notes, sexually assaulting an older adult or someone living with a disability is also considered aggravated sexual assault.
Kent explains that aggravated sexual assault typically involves one or more of the following:
- physical injuries or the risk of death
- the use of a deadly weapon, even to instill fear
- the presence of at least one additional person participating in or aiding the assault
- threats on your life during the assault
The term sexual abuse typically describes the mistreatment of children, explains Nicole Ohebshalom, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma.
Laws in all 50 states recognize that minors cannot give informed consent to any sex act — although the exact age of consent ranges from 16 to 18, depending on the state.
Sexual abuse can include an adult doing one of the following:
- intentionally exposing themselves to a minor, or making a minor look at their genitals
- forcing a minor to expose their intimate body parts
- taking photographs or videos of a minor’s intimate body parts
- forcing a minor to watch porn
- touching a minor in a sexual manner
- sending obscene messages to a minor
It may not always be easy to define what happened, in part because of widely varying definitions.
Knowing how your state defines these terms can help you determine what kind of legal action you can take and how your state might punish that crime.
However, Kent says you should feel free to use whatever term feels most comfortable for you. If you find it easier to say, “I was assaulted,” than “I was raped,” that’s absolutely OK.
If you feel confused about what happened, counselors and advocates at crisis centers like RAINN can:
- offer compassionate support
- help you get some clarification
- guide you through potential next steps
No matter what you’ve experienced, you deserve support and compassion.
A sexual assault can leave you feeling overwhelmed and distressed to the point where you find it difficult to make decisions. If you’re not sure what to do first, these steps can help.
Make sure you’re safe
Your safety is the most important thing, says Jenkins.
So, if you’re injured or in immediate danger, you can start by calling 911.
If you don’t have any injuries but still don’t feel safe, you may want to reach out to a trusted family member or friend for help.
Preserve potential evidence
If you plan to do a forensic exam, otherwise known as a rape kit, you’ll want to preserve as much DNA evidence as you can.
That means avoiding the following, if at all possible, until you get to the clinic or hospital where the exam takes place:
- changing your clothes
- brushing your hair
- cleaning your fingernails
Keep in mind you don’t necessarily have to report the crime just because you have an exam.
“You don’t have to decide right away if you’re going to talk with the police about what happened or press charges against the person who assaulted you,” says Kent. “But just in case you do, it’s important to have as much DNA evidence as possible.”
DNA evidence is a key component of investigating and prosecuting sexual assault. It can help identify a perpetrator and build a stronger case against them in court.
Reach out for emotional support
“It’s incredibly important that survivors of sexual assault feel empowered to tell their story when and how they want,” says Rena Isen, a licensed psychologist and forensic evaluator. “Sexual assault is physically and emotionally traumatic and can result in a feeling of loss of control. So, it’s vital for survivors to have control over the telling of their story after the assault is over.”
Talking about what happened
It’s completely up to you how much or little you share. This conversation can happen however you’re most comfortable — in person, over the phone, or even in a letter.
Keeping these tips in mind can help:
- Try to talk in a setting where you feel safe and know you’ll have plenty of privacy.
- Choose a time and place where you know you’ll have the person’s full attention.
- Set boundaries for the conversation. For instance, you might start by saying, “I’m about to share something that’s hard for me to talk about, and right now I just need you to listen without asking any questions.”
- If the person asks for details you’re not ready to disclose, you can explain you’re not comfortable divulging any more, and thank them for listening.
Consider crisis support
Maybe you don’t yet feel comfortable talking to family or friends about the assault. Or you try, but they respond in an unsupportive way.
You still have options for confidential, compassionate support. You can:
- Use RAINN’s tool to reach out to your local rape crisis center.
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- Discuss your options over anonymous chat.
Any of these will connect you with a trained staff member at a sexual assault service provider. They can offer support with getting help at your own pace by:
- listening to your story
- offering referrals for long-term support
- providing information about medical concerns and the laws in your state
- connecting you to a local health clinic that specializes in caring for sexual assault survivors
Know your options for reporting the assault
If you’d like to report a sexual assault, your options generally include:
- Calling your local police station or stopping by in person. Most areas have law enforcement officers specially trained to help sexual assault survivors. You can ask for one when you contact or visit the police.
- Asking a sexual assault survivor advocate to connect you to the police. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting the police station alone, you can first reach out to RAINN’s hotline. Isen explains that RAINN and other service providers can often send an advocate to accompany you when you report the assault so you don’t have to do it alone.
- Contacting SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone). You can call 512-267-SAFE (7233) or text 737-888-7233 to find out if they can connect you with an advocate and offer support with reporting an assault.
If you ever feel as if an officer isn’t taking your case seriously, or they make you uncomfortable in the reporting process, consider asking to speak to their supervisor.
No matter what type of sexual assault you’ve experienced, you deserve to be believed and treated with respect.
Connect with a therapist
That’s why experts agree it can be immensely helpful to seek support from a licensed mental health professional in the aftermath of sexual assault.
A therapist or counselor can:
- provide a safe space where you can begin to express and process your emotions
- listen with compassion and understanding
- offer support with addressing mental health symptoms and emotional distress
Not sure how to find a therapist? Our guide can help.
Isen also recommends the locator tool on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website to find a therapist who specializes in helping sexual assault survivors.
Connecting with other survivors in a peer support group could also have benefit.
One of the most important things you can do when experiencing sexual harassment?
Document the experience, says Kent. Companies and schools may not be liable for damages relating to harassment unless they know about it. If they know about it and fail to take action, they can be held responsible.
That’s why Jenkins recommends keeping all voicemails, emails, texts, and other communication that displays sexual harassment.
It can also help to tell a trusted friend, colleague, or family member about the harassment if you feel comfortable discussing it. Telling someone serves two purposes: Your loved ones can offer support — but they can also serve as witnesses later on.
If the harassment only happened in person, write down exactly what you remember in as much detail as possible as quickly as you can. Note any people nearby who may have witnessed the interaction.
Before doing so, it might be a good idea to review your school or employer’s sexual harassment policy and procedures.
You can report sexual harassment either to the authorities at your job or school (such as the HR department) or to local law enforcement. Your school or employer’s sexual harassment policy should provide information about who handles sexual harassment complaints.
Written or verbal complaint?
Kent advises always filing a written complaint rather than a verbal one. When you file a written complaint, there’s a record of it, and you can keep a copy for yourself.
In your complaint, offer as much information and detail as you can about the dates, times, nature, and frequency of harassment you experienced.
Resources that can help you in handling sexual harassment include:
- National Street Harassment Hotline: 855-897-5910)
- 9 to 5: National Association of Working Women: 800-522-0925
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: 800-669-4000
- Equal Rights Advocates: 800-839-4372
- National Women’s Law Center: 202-588-5180
If you experienced any type of sexual assault, Jenkins, Ohebshalom, and Kent recommend the following resources for navigating your next steps:
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- National Organization for Victim Assistance
- National Online Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- The National Center for Victims of Crime
- Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence
- The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community
- Darkness to Light
After experiencing sexual assault, you may not know where to turn. But remember, you’re not alone, even if you don’t feel ready to talk with your loved ones.
After you make sure you’re safe, you have plenty of paths to getting support. Trained advocates and other experts can help you explore your options — because the decision of how to respond to sexual assault is highly personal, and yours alone.
You get to choose who to divulge your experience to and how, and whether or not to report it or press charges. If you do choose to take legal action, knowing the differences between terms used to describe sexual assault can help. That said, when talking about the assault, you can always use the language that feels most comfortable for you.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.