What is Sexual Assault?

Most often when people hear the words “sexual assault” they think of rape. One might automatically picture a stranger jumping out of the bushes to rape a woman walking home from work late at night.

While it is true that rape by a stranger is a form of sexual assault, it is vital to include the wide range of unwanted sexual contacts that many people experience in our definition of these words. Sexual assault can include child sexual abuse, rape, attempted rape, incest, exhibitionism, voyeurism, obscene phone calls, fondling, and sexual harassment. There is a range of nonconsensual sexual acts that create a continuum in which each form of sexual assault is linked to the others by their root causes, as well as by the effects they have on individuals and communities. While sexual assault can take many forms, it is important to remember that the loss of power and control that a victim of sexual assault experiences is a common thread.

Child sexual abuse can be defined as any situation in which an adult or another child threatens, forces or manipulates a child into sexual activity. Many times the offender doesn’t need to use physical force with the victim. Instead, they take advantage of their own position of trust and authority. Child sexual abuse can include exposing a child to pornography, fondling the sexual parts of a child’s body, making a child engage in sexual activity with others, and sexually penetrating a child, orally, anally or vaginally with the penis, hand or any object. Incest is intercourse or touching of sexual parts between an adult family member and a child or between siblings.

Rape is any sexual intercourse with a person without his or her consent. It is an act of violence that uses sex as a weapon. There are many different types of rape that are important to distinguish as well. Stranger rape happens when the victim does not know his or her offender. Many people believe that this type of rape only happens to women who dress a certain way, walk alone at night, or park in parking garages. The reality of stranger rape is that it happens during the day and at night, to people from all different walks of life, and in lots of different places.

Acquaintance rape describes a rape in which the victim and the perpetrator are known to each other. The perpetrator might be a partner, coworker, best friend or neighbor. Did you know that this is the most common type of rape? 84 percent of rapes happen among people who know one another. Most of the time a person is raped by someone they know, trust, or love.

Date rape is a specific kind of acquaintance rape, referring to a rape that occurs between two people who are dating partners. Often times the victim is emotionally manipulated or coerced into having sex with his or her partner. Marital rape, one of the least talked about forms of sexual assault, is rape between spouses. Because of personal and societal barriers to reporting marital rape, its prevalence is probably higher than we are aware.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment often manifests itself in subtle ways, such as sexually suggestive comments, unwanted touching, risqué jokes, or blatant demand for sexual contact. In most cases, these actions take place within work or educational settings where both the offender and the victim are required to be in close contact.

There are many types of sexual assault. It is important to understand the differences between them, as well as how they are linked together. Unfortunately, because of the silence that surrounds sexual assault, there have been many myths created over time to help explain why it happens and who it happens to. We often hear things like “only women can be raped”, “a husband can’t rape his wife”, “she asked for it by wearing those shorts”, and “that child must be lying – his father is a good man.” We know that these things are not true. Both women and men can be sexually assaulted. Rape can occur within a marriage. A victim never asks to be raped and is never to blame for behavior of the perpetrator. People who sexually assault are often people who go to church, have good jobs, and are well liked by their community.

Common Effects of Sexual Assault

Victims of sexual assault often experience a number of common effects. These may include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Anger and rage
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilence
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Self-blame, guilt, and shame
  • Emotional numbing
  • Physical symptoms and health problems

What to do if someone you know is sexually assaulted

  • Believe them. A person has very little to gain by making up a story about sexual assault.
  • Listen to them. A victim of sexual assault needs someone who will listen to what they have to say without blame or judgment.
  • Do not tell them what to do. A person who has been sexually assaulted has had every ounce of power and control stripped from them. They only way they are going to gain that power back is by making decisions for themselves.
  • Give them information, provide them options, but don’t tell them what to do. A great place to get information is your local sexual assault center.


Program Contact

Trisha Smith trisha.smith@commerce.wa.gov 360-725-2873 If you are a victim of a crime and are looking for services: ocva@commerce.wa.gov Direct Service Line:1-800-822-1067
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