Sexual Assault

The legal term sexual assault refers to any sexual contact that occurs without the express consent of the recipient. Whether the recipient is physically forced, or coerced to participate, or has refused or is unable to give consent, sexual assault is a serious crime. As a violent crime, sexual assault includes acts of rape, forced kissing or fondling, other non-consensual sexual acts, and child sexual abuse. To explore this concept, consider the following sexual assault definition.

Definition of Sexual Assault


  1. Sexual contact forced on an unconsenting individual, or perpetrated on an individual who is not capable of giving consent.

What is Sexual Assault

In the U.S., the specific definition of sexual assault varies by state. Sexual assault is commonly recognized as any unwanted sexual contact, or threats of sexual contact. Sexual assault includes the touching of another person’s body in a sexual manner without that person’s express consent, even if the touching occurs through clothing. This sexual assault definition also includes kissing, groping, and fondling.

The term “express consent” refers to an individual’s clearly stated, and voluntary expression of preference of choice in any matter. Any person who is incapacitated, whether by physical or psychological ailment, or by drugs or alcohol, or who is under the age of majority, cannot legally consent to sexual contact. Therefore, sexual touching, or sexual acts performed on such an individual, are considered sexual assault, regardless of the perpetrator’s claim that the victim consented.

For example:

Melanie attends a fraternity party with her friend Sally. The two young women take part in a drinking game, and both become very intoxicated. Robert invites Melanie up to his room, where she collapses on the bed, and he kisses and fondles her until Sally walks into the room, interrupting him.

The next day, Sally tells Melanie, who can’t remember much about the night before, what Robert was doing when she walked into the room. Melanie files a police report for sexual assault. Robert has committed a very serious crime. Because Melanie was intoxicated, she was legally unable to give consent for sexual contact, even if she appeared to “go along with it” at the time.

Types of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault has no boundaries as to age or gender, race, nationality, disability, or social position. Sexual assault is perpetrated against anyone, at any time, in any location. Sexual assault takes many forms, and each victim’s experience is unique.

Child Sexual Assault

Also known as “child sexual abuse,” child sexual assault is viewed by the legal system as a much more serious crime than adult sexual assault. This is because the psychological trauma inflicted by such acts has a long-term, often life-long affect on the child. Acts of child sexual assault do not necessarily involve actual touching, as many sex-related activities are considered sexual assault when perpetrated against a child. These include:

  • Pressuring a child to engage in sexual touching or activities
  • Displaying pornographic images to a child
  • Exposing one’s genitals to a child, or asking a child to display his or her genitals
  • Viewing a child’s genitals without physical contact
  • Touching a child’s genitals
  • Any sexual contact against a child’s body
  • Using a child to produce child pornography
  • Incest

Most child sexual abuse offenders know their victims, with 30 percent being family members, and about 60 percent being friends of the family, neighbors, and babysitters. Only about 10 percent of offenders are strangers to their victims.

Very often, child sexual abuse goes unreported. There are a number of reasons for this, such as:

  • Being threatened or bribed by the abuser
  • Being too young to understand or express the abuse
  • Being confused about both liking the attention, and fearing the abuser
  • Being afraid nobody will believe them
  • Believing the abuse is punishment of some sort, or blaming themselves
  • Feeling guilty about what might happen to the abuser if they “tell”

Intimate Partner Sexual Assault

Married couples, or individuals involved in an ongoing intimate relationship with a partner, maintain their right to say “No.” Sexual touching and other acts perpetrated against a spouse or intimate partner without his or her express consent is considered sexual assault, and may be considered “marital rape.”

Intimate partner sexual assault causes great psychological damage, as it is not only a violation of physical boundaries, but a betrayal of trust. Many such assaults go unreported, as it is difficult for a victim to perceive the act as sexual assault, or rape.

Same Gender Sexual Assault

Same gender sexual assault is committed on a person of the same gender as the perpetrator. This type of crime does not mean that the perpetrator identifies as an LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) individual. Like all sexual assault crimes, same gender sexual assault is about violence and domination, rather than sex. This type of sexual assault is most commonly associated as a pattern of domestic violence in same-sex relationships.

Acquaintance/Date Sexual Assault

While acquaintance rape and date rape have become popularly used terms, the fact is that not all illegal sexual acts meet the standard of rape, but are considered sexual assault. Even in the absence of sexual penetration, sexual touching, fondling, and other acts perpetrated without the express consent of the other party is a crime.

Acquaintance/date sexual assault is not perpetrated only in a dating situation, but may be perpetrated by a friend or relative, an employer or co-worker, a neighbor, or even a recent acquaintance. Acquaintance/date sexual assault is frequently facilitated by the use of drugs and/or alcohol, rendering the victim unable, if not physically, then legally, to give consent to sexual activity.

This is another crime of violence that is vastly underreported, as victims often do not recognize the fact that they have been sexually assaulted. Victims of acquaintance sexual assault often carry feelings of guilt and anxiety, feeling as if the incident was their own fault.

Stranger Sexual Assault

Stranger sexual assault is most often a one-time occurrence, perpetrated by someone the victim has never met before. Anytime a person touches another in a sexual way, or touches intimate parts of another’s body without consent, it is a crime. Forcing, coercing, or manipulating another person to allow, or even engage in, sexual activity against his or her will, or without express consent, is considered sexual assault.

For example:

As Naomi is riding home on the crowded subway, a complete stranger slides his hand up under her skirt to touch her. This sexual touching, done without Naomi’s consent, is sexual assault, and is a serious crime.

Similarly, if the stranger had touched Naomi’s breast, even over the top of her clothing, he has committed sexual assault.

Aggravated Sexual Assault

While the exact definition of aggravated sexual assault may vary by state, it is generally considered to be any sexual assault that results in the wounding, maiming, or disfiguring of the victim. Other situations in which sexual assault may be elevated to aggravated sexual assault may include:

  • Sexual assault perpetrated against a person who is mentally or physically incapacitated
  • Sexual assault perpetrated against a minor
  • Sexual assault perpetrated by a parent or guardian
  • Sexual assault that is aided or abetted by another person
  • Sexual assault that involves the use of a weapon, or the use of threats against the victim
  • Sexual assault that is perpetrated during the commission of another crime

Degrees of Sexual Assault

The laws of sexual assault vary by state. Some states classify different types of sexual assault by degrees, in which fourth degree sexual assault is the least serious, and first degree sexual assault is the most serious. In states that use this system, degrees of sexual assault are determined by the specific circumstances of the crime. For instance, considerations such as the age of the victim, whether a weapon was used, whether the victim sustained injuries, and whether the victim was incapacitated, play an important role in determining degrees of sexual assault.

Penalties for the various degrees of sexual assault become harsher at each level. In many states, punishment for first degree sexual assault, or aggravated sexual assault, may be as severe as 40 years, or even life, in prison. Punishment for fourth degree sexual assault is often somewhere between 2 and 4 years in prison. In addition to imprisonment, fines may be imposed, and the perpetrator is likely to be ordered to register as a sex offender.

Football Coach Convicted of Sexual Assault

In 2011, famed assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University, Gerald Sandusky, saw his coaching career come to a screeching halt. Following a 2-year grand jury investigation, the two-time Assistant Coach of the Year was charged with 52 counts of child sexual assault, which occurred over a 15 year time period. Sandusky met his young victims through his own non-profit foundation, The Second Mile.

At the time of his arrest, Sandusky was charged with seven counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, eight counts of endangering the welfare of a child, eight counts of corruption of a minor, and seven counts of indecent assault, among other offenses. Four of these counts were dropped before trial. The victims, boys ranging from 8 to 12 years old, trusted Sandusky as a mentor, and four of them testified against him at his trial.

Following a 10-day trial, Gerald Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of the 48 remaining counts against him, including:

  • 8 counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse
  • 7 counts of indecent assault
  • 1 count of criminal intent to commit indecent assault
  • 9 counts of unlawful contact with a minor
  • 10 counts of corruption of a minor
  • 10 counts of endangering the welfare of children

Sandusky faced a maximum sentence of 442 years in prison, and a minimum sentence of 60 years in prison. Because of Sandusky’s age, even the minimum sentence amounted to a life sentence. Ultimately, the judge sentenced this sex offender to 60 years in the Pennsylvania state prison, with parole possible only after 30 years. By that time, Sandusky will be 98 years old.

Sexual Assault Statistics

While sexual assault statistics are somewhat difficult to come by accurately, due to the tendency of victims to not report the crime, studies have been undertaken by a few organizations to get a glimpse into the victims and perpetrators of this crime. According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (“RAINN”):

  • Nearly 300,000 people, age 12 and older, fall victim to sexual assault each year in the U.S.
  • Summer has the highest rate of sexual assaults, and winter the lowest
  • An estimated 68 percent of sexual assaults go unreported
  • Approximately 82 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim
  • Approximately 25 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by an intimate partner
  • Approximately 50 percent of reported sexual assaults occur at, or within one mile of, the victim’s home
  • The perpetrator of one in three sexual assaults is intoxicated: 30 percent with alcohol, 4 percent with drugs
  • Nearly half of all sexual assault perpetrators released from prison are re-arrested within 3 years for another crime

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Incapacitated – To be unable to act or respond.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.