Know the Laws:
UPDATED February 17, 2017
The term “sexual assault” generally means unwanted sexual contact, or in other words sexual contact against your will, and without consent. The legal definition varies by state, but sexual assault and domestic violence organizations consider any unwanted sexual contact or activity, including rape, to be sexual assault.
Sometimes, people are sexually assaulted or raped by strangers, but even more often, people are sexually assaulted by someone they know – a friend, date, relative, acquaintance, or even a long-time partner or spouse. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among female rape victims, 51.1% of perpetrators were reported to be intimate partners, 12.5% family members, 40.8% acquaintances, and 13.8% strangers.* There is often an overlap between domestic violence and sexual assault because one of the ways abusers harm their partners is through sexual assault. It is estimated that between 40 and 45% percent of women in abusive relationships will also be sexually assaulted during the course of the relationship.**
Sexual assault or rape can happen to anyone regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation.
Legal definitions for crimes related to sexual assault vary by state. We list some (not all) of the crimes related to sexual assault in each state on our Crimes page.
* Sexual Violence Factsheet, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
** Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (2000). Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence: Findings from the national violence against women survey.
Rape is a form of sexual assault. Again, legal definitions are different in every state, but generally, rape is forced sexual intercourse. Force doesn’t always have to be physical force where the perpetrator physically overpowers the victim; force could include psychological coercion (being "talked into it"), threats to cause harm to the person or a loved one if the person doesn’t submit to the sexual intercourse, or other circumstances in which the victim feels that there is no other option than to submit to the unwanted sexual activity. Rape can also include situations where the victim may be drunk, drugged, asleep, unconscious, or for any reason unable to consent. One in five women and one in 77 men has experienced rape in her/his lifetime.*
Most legal definitions of rape include vaginal, anal or oral penetration by a body part or an object. In every state, spousal rape is also a crime, so even if you are married, it is illegal for your spouse to have sexual intercourse with you without your consent.
Legal definitions for crimes related to rape vary by state. We list some (not all) of the crimes related to rape in each state on our Crimes page.
* The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Statutory rape is the crime of sex with a minor when the sex is agreed to by both parties, not forced. The reason why it is considered rape is because the minor is considered to be too young to legally consent to have sex or sexual contact. The age at which a person is too young to consent to sex or sexual contact varies by state, and often varies by different crimes. For example, if an adult has "consensual sex" with a person under the age of 12, that might be rape in the first degree, carrying a heavy sentence. If an adult has "consensual sex" with a person who is 16 years old, then that might be rape in the third degree and carry a lighter sentence. Also, for a 16 or 17 year old victim, the adult may have to be more than 5 or 10 years older than the victim, depending on the state. However, these are just examples; the rules are very different for every state. For specific information about the statutory rape laws in your state, you can send us a message on our Email Hotline.
Every state also has laws against sexual acts with minors, aside from sexual intercourse (including physical sexual contact, oral sex, exposing one's genitals, etc.). For specific information about the laws regarding sexual acts in your state, you can find a lawyer in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page.