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.
Many people in society do not understand the extent of trauma endured by rape and sexual assault victims. If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault, friends and family may think you are okay. However, there may be physical and psychological injuries that you (and others) can’t see.
These are some suggestions you may want to consider to get the practical and emotional support you may need. Depending on what you think is best in your situation, you may do any or all of the following:
Even if the sexual assault happened in the past, you may still be able to report the abuse to law enforcement if you want the offender to be held criminally liable. Although an investigation that takes place months or years after the assault may have its legal challenges, police still can investigate past sexual assault if the statute of limitations on the criminal act has not already expired. A statute of limitations is a legal time period for which a person can be prosecuted for committing a crime – each state has its own statute of limitations for each crime. After the statute of limitations has run (expired), a prosecution is no longer possible, though you may still be able to take civil action. However, depending on how long ago the assault happened and the age of the victim at the time of the assault, the statute of limitations for sexual assault may last many years. RAINN has a link to each state’s statute of limitations on their website if you want to check out the statute of limitations for the state in which the sexual assault took place. If you are interested in pressing charges for a sexual assault that occurred in the past, you can read more on the RAINN website and you may want to contact a lawyer from our Finding a Lawyer page for legal advice.
You can also seek support and counseling for yourself for the trauma that the assault has caused. Sexual assault, no matter when it happens can change your life. It can change your view of yourself and others and influence your intimate relationships. You may experience changes in your eating and sleeping patterns. You may have nightmares or flashbacks about the assault or rape. Certain sounds, smells, or other sensory experiences may trigger these feelings and fears. You may be afraid of being alone, or you may fear being in crowds. You also may experience ongoing fear that the offender may have infected you with a sexually transmitted disease that may not have been detected initially after the assault.
Whether you were abused by someone you knew or were assaulted by a stranger, you may have a difficult time dealing with the assault for many years afterwards. As time passes, you may have a variety of feelings, thoughts, and reactions to what has happened that may not have occurred right after the assault -- many rape and sexual assault victims do. Whatever the circumstances, whatever your reactions or fears may be, support and help are available for you. Local rape crisis or sexual assault program staff may be able to assist you, regardless of whether you decide to report the assault to the police.*
If you feel like you need support, you may consider:
There are several places you may call for help if you have been sexually assaulted or fear you might be sexually assaulted:
Note: Depending on to whom you report the abuse, if it involves a minor, there may be mandatory reporting requirements for minor victims. Many states require that health professionals, school officials, and counselors report any accusations of sexual assault, rape, or unlawful sexual contact to child protective services and/or to the police if the victim is a minor. Mandatory reporting requirements vary by state. You can look up your states specific laws on mandatory reporting requirements for minors in RAINN’s State Law Database. If you are a minor and you want to talk to an adult about sexual assault or abuse without having it be reported to the police or child protective services, it may be a good idea to ask the adult if s/he is a mandatory reporter before you talk to him/her. If s/he says “yes,” you can ask if s/he can refer you to someone who you can talk to confidentially (who is not a mandatory reporter). Alternatively, you may want to call a national or state hotline anonymously without giving any identifying information about yourself.
The path to seeking “justice” after a sexual assault can look different for every victim. Some people may choose to pursue criminal charges, file civil lawsuits for money damages, file for civil protection orders, and/or file complaints with their universities or other educational institution. Other victims may choose not to pursue any of these options. In addition to finding a sense of justice, victims of sexual assault may also want information about caring for their own emotional well-being and working towards recovering from the trauma they have experienced. Any of the below options can be pursued independently or possibly at the same time.
Some victims of sexual violence may wish to have the prosecutor press criminal charges against the person(s) who victimized them. The criminal process usually begins with a victim reporting the incident to police and the prosecutor will determine whether or not there is enough evidence to start a criminal case. Each state defines crimes of sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, differently and has different statutes of limitation. You can look up the crimes in your specific state on our Crimes page.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides information on how to report to law enforcement and what to expect from a criminal trial, which may help you decide whether or not to file a report. If you need legal assistance, you can find legal resources for your specific state on our Finding a Lawyer page. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.
Civil lawsuit for money damages:
Some survivors of sexual violence may choose to file a civil lawsuit for money damages against perpetrator(s) of sexual violence. Unlike a criminal investigation, a civil suit is a private legal action that you initiate. Civil actions generally require a lower standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence) than criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt). You may wish to initiate a civil suit to seek compensatory damages (money for the damages or injuries you sustained as a result of the sexual) assault and possibly punitive damages, which are aimed at punishing the defendant.
Civil suits may take years to resolve, and there is no guarantee you will win. However, some survivors may prefer civil suits over a criminal trial. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs has compiled a survivor’s guide to filing a civil lawsuit, which provides more information on civil lawsuits and their pros and cons. If you need legal assistance in filing a civil lawsuit, you can look for your state bar association’s legal referral service for private attorneys on our Finding a Lawyer page. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.
Civil protection order:
Sexual assault victims may choose to file for a civil protection order as one measure of protection to try to keep the perpetrator away and to prohibit any contact. Usually, an applicant for a protection order can get an immediate, temporary order issued (ex parte) and then there will be a hearing at which the perpetrator has the right to be present to defend against the order being issued. To read about the protection order options in your state, go to our Restraining Orders page.
Numerous federal laws require that educational institutions, including local school districts, post-secondary institutions, charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums take steps to both prevent sexual violence as well as address complaints of sexual violence. The organization Know Your IX has information that may be able to help you learn the laws that protect you at educational institutions and the resources available to you. You can also find legal resources on our Finding a Lawyer page.
The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated against women, but 1 out of every 10 men is a victim of sexual assault. People are often reluctant to view men as victims of sexual assault, so men often have a difficult time accepting their own victimization and delay seeking help and support.
All of the information on this page and other pages of this website are relevant for men as well as women. However, because there are often particular issues that men face, you might want to view the links below which provide information specifically about male sexual assault and about the barriers male survivors often face:
There are many places that victims of sexual assault can find support, which you can find on our Chats and Message Boards page. You can also find other organizations that support victims of sexual assault on our National Organizations - Rape/Sexual Assault page.