Know the Laws:
UPDATED June 21, 2012
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 activity to be sexual assault. This includes rape.
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. There is often overlap between domestic violence and sexual assault because one of the ways abusers harm their partners is through sexual assault.
Sexual assault can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces you to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. Examples of this are voyeurism (when someone watches private sexual acts), exhibitionism (when someone exposes him/herself in public), incest (sexual contact between family members), and sexual harassment.*
Sexual assault or rape may happen to anyone, including women, men, children, elderly, straight or gay.
Legal definitions for sexual assault are more precise and vary by state. To read about the crimes of sexual assault, please visit the Crimes page on this website and choose your state.
*National Women’s Health Information Center, US Department of Health and Human Services, http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/sexual-assault.cfm.
Rape is a form of sexual assault. Again, legal definitions are different in every state, but generally, rape is forced sexual intercourse. SmarterSex.org explains that “force may involve psychological coercion (being ‘talked into it’) as well as physical violence. This includes situations where the victim may be drunk, drugged, asleep, unconscious, or for any reason unable to say yes or no. It doesn't matter if a girl dresses sexy or a guy is really ‘bombed,’ sex without proper consent is RAPE. Period.”*
Most legal definitions of rape include a definition of penetration that must occur for a sexual assault to be rape. This often includes vaginal, anal or oral penetration by a body part or an object.**
In every state, spousal rape is also illegal. This means that even if you are married, it is illegal for your spouse to have sexual intercourse with you against your will.
Legal definitions are precise. To read about the crimes of sexual assault and rape, please visit the Crimes page on this website and choose your state.
* SmarterSex.org, http://www.smartersex.org/date_rape/what_is_rape.asp
** RAINN, Was I Raped?, http://www.rainn.org/get-information/types-of-sexual-assault/was-it-rape
Statutory rape is the crime of sex with a minor when the sex is consensual (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 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. 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 Contact Us.
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, please Contact Us.
If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault, friends and family may think you are okay. Many people do not understand the extent of trauma endured by rape and sexual assault victims. There may also be physical injuries that you can’t see.
The following are some suggestions of how to get the practical and emotional support you need:
Sexual assault, no matter when it happens can change your life. It can change your view of yourself and others. 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 fear that the offender may have infected you with a sexually transmitted disease, such as HIV/AIDS, or that you may become pregnant.
Maybe you were abused by someone you knew (a boss, family member, spouse, friend). Maybe you were assaulted by a stranger. As time passes, you may have a variety of feelings, thoughts, and reactions to what has happened--most 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 will assist you, regardless of whether you decide to report the assault to the police.
There are several places you may call for help if you have been sexually assaulted or fear you might be sexually assaulted:
The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men, but 1 out of every 10 men is a victim of sexual assault. As the Brown University website points out, people are often reluctant view men as victims, 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.
The Voices and Faces Project gives voice and face to rape survivors, offering a sense of solidarity and possibility to those who have lived through abuse, while raising awareness of how this human rights and public health issue impacts victims, families and communities.