There are many types of sexual violence, including rape, child sexual abuse, and intimate partner sexual violence—and other crimes and forms of violence may arise jointly in these instances.
Sexual assault can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never the victim’s fault.
Types of Sexual Violence
What is sexual assault?
The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include:
- Attempted rape
- Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
- Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
- Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape
What is rape?
Rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. The term rape is often used as a legal definition to specifically include sexual penetration without consent. For its Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” To see how your state legally defines rape and other forms of sexual assault, visit RAINN’s State Law Database.
What is force?
Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.
who are the perpetrators?
The majority of perpetrators are someone known to the victim. Approximately seven out of 10 of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, such as in the case of intimate partner sexual violence or acquaintance rape.
The term “date rape” is sometimes used to refer to acquaintance rape. Perpetrators of acquaintance rape might be a date, but they could also be a classmate, a neighbor, a friend’s significant other, or any number of different roles. It’s important to remember that dating, instances of past intimacy, or other acts like kissing do not give someone consent for increased or continued sexual contact.
In other instances the victim may not know the perpetrator at all. This type of sexual violence is sometimes referred to as stranger rape. Stranger rape can occur in several different ways:
- Blitz sexual assault: when a perpetrator quickly and brutally assaults the victim with no prior contact, usually at night in a public place
- Contact sexual assault: when a perpetrator contacts the victim and tries to gain their trust by flirting, luring the victim to their car, or otherwise trying to coerce the victim into a situation where the sexual assault will occur
- Home invasion sexual assault: when a stranger breaks into the victim’s home to commit the assault
Survivors of both stranger rape and acquaintance rape often blame themselves for behaving in a way that encouraged the perpetrator. It’s important to remember that the victim is a never to blame for the actions of a perpetrator.
When a perpatrator intentionally harms a minor physically, psychologically, sexually, or by acts of neglect, the crime is known as child abuse. This page focuses specifically on child sexual abuse and the warning signs that this crime may be occurring.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse that includes sexual activity with a minor. A child cannot consent to any form of sexual activity, period. When a perpetrator engages with a child this way, they are committing a crime that can have lasting effects on the victim for years. Child sexual abuse does not need to include physical contact between a perpetrator and a child. Some forms of child sexual abuse include:
- Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a minor
- Masturbation in the presence of a minor or forcing the minor to masturbate
- Obscene phone calls, text messages, or digital interaction
- Producing, owning, or sharing pornographic images or movies of children
- Sex of any kind with a minor, including vaginal, oral, or anal
- Sex trafficking
- Any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child’s mental, emotional, or physical welfare
What do perpetrators of child sexual abuse look like?
The majority of perpetrators are someone the child or family knows. As many as 93 percent of victims under the age of 18 know the abuser. A perpetrator does not have to be an adult to harm a child. They can have any relationship to the child including an older sibling or playmate, family member, a teacher, a coach or instructor, a caretaker, or the parent of another child. According to 1 in 6, “[Child] sexual abuse is the result of abusive behavior that takes advantage of a child’s vulnerability and is in no way related to the sexual orientation of the abusive person.”
Abusers can manipulate victims to stay quiet about the sexual abuse using a number of different tactics. Often an abuser will use their position of power over the victim to coerce or intimidate the child. They might tell the child that the activity is normal or that they enjoyed it. An abuser may make threats if the child refuses to participate or plans to tell another adult. Child sexual abuse is not only a physical violation; it is a violation of trust and/or authority.
How can I protect my child from sexual abuse?
A big part of protecting your child is about creating a dialogue. Read more to learn about creating this dialogue and keeping your child safe.
What are the warning signs?
Child sexual abuse isn’t always easy to spot. The perpetrator could be someone you’ve known a long time or trust, which may make it even harder to notice. Consider the following warning signs:
- Bleeding, bruises, or swelling in genital area
- Bloody, torn, or stained underclothes
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Frequent urinary or yeast infections
- Pain, itching, or burning in genital area
- Changes in hygiene, such as refusing to bathe or bathing excessively
- Develops phobias
- Exhibits signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Expresses suicidal thoughts, especially in adolescents
- Has trouble in school, such as absences or drops in grades
- Inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors
- Nightmares or bed-wetting
- Overly protective and concerned for siblings, or assumes a caretaker role
- Returns to regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking
- Runs away from home or school
- Shrinks away or seems threatened by physical contact
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter your age, your sexual orientation, or your gender identity. Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused may have many of the same feelings and reactions as other survivors of sexual assault, but they may also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity.
Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted may experience the same effects of sexual assault as other survivors, and they may face other challenges that are more unique to their experience. Men who were sexually abused as boys or teens may respond differently than men who were sexually assaulted as an adult.
If something happened to you, know that you are not alone. The following list includes some of the common experiences shared by men and boys who have survived sexual assault. It is not a complete list, but it may help you to know that other people are having similar experiences:
- Anxiety, depression, fearfulness, or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Avoiding people or places that are related to the assault or abuse
- Concerns or questions about sexual orientation
- Fear of the worst happening and having a sense of a shortened future
- Feel like “less of a man” or that you no longer have control over your own body
- Feeling on-edge, being unable to relax, and having difficulty sleeping
- Sense of blame or shame over not being able to stop the assault or abuse, especially if you experienced an erection or ejaculation
- Withdrawal from relationships or friendships and an increased sense of isolation
who are the perpetrators of sexual assault against men and boys?
Perpetrators can be any gender identity, sexual orientation, or age, and they can have any relationship to the victim. Like all perpetrators, they might use physical force or psychological and emotional coercion tactics.
How does being assault affect sexual orientation?
Sexual assault is in no way related to the sexual orientation of the perpetrator or the survivor, and a person’s sexual orientation cannot be caused by sexual abuse or assault. Some men and boys have questions about their sexuality after surviving an assault or abuse—and that’s understandable. This can be especially true if the you experienced an erection or ejaculation during the assault. Physiological responses like an erection are involuntary, meaning you have no control over them.
Sometimes perpetrators, especially adults who sexually abuse boys, will use these physiological responses to maintain secrecy by using phrases such as, “You know you liked it.” If you have been sexually abused or assaulted, it is not your fault. In no way does an erection invite unwanted sexual activity, and ejaculation in no way condones an assault.
A perpetrator can have any relationship to a victim, and that includes the role of an intimate partner. There are many different terms to refer to sexual assault committed by a person in a relationship with the victim, including: intimate partner sexual violence, domestic violence, intimate partner rape, marital rape, and spousal rape. No matter what term is used or how the relationship is defined, it is never okay to engage in sexual activity without someone’s consent.
How does sexual assault relate to domestic violence?
Sexual assault in a relationship rarely exists in a vacuum. It often occurs alongside other forms of abusive behavior. The majority of women who were physically assaulted by an intimate partner had been sexually assaulted by that same partner.
Why should I reach out?
If you have experienced sexual assault by an intimate partner, it can be challenging to come forward for many reasons. You may be concerned for your safety or the safety of your children, still have strong feelings for your partner, or aren’t convinced that what’s happening to you is really sexual assault. It’s understandable to feel this way.
Ending an abusive relationship is not something that you have to do alone. Reaching out for help from friends, loved ones, local organizations or law enforcement can help you through this process.
What is consent?
Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. There are many ways to give consent, and some of those are discussed below. Consent doesn’t have to be verbal, but verbally agreeing to different sexual activities can help both you and your partner respect each other’s boundaries.
How does consent work in real life?
When you’re engaging in sexual activity, consent is about communication. And it should happen every time. Giving consent for one activity, one time, does not mean giving consent for increased or recurring sexual contact. For example, agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t give that person permission to remove your clothes. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future.
you can change your mind at any time.
You can withdraw consent at any point if you feel uncomfortable. It’s important to clearly communicate to your partner that you are no longer comfortable with this activity and wish to stop. The best way to ensure both parties are comfortable with any sexual activity is to talk about it.
positive consent looks like this:
- Communicating when you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like “Is this OK?”
- Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, like “I’m open to trying.”
- Using physical cues to let the other person know you’re comfortable taking things to the next level
it does NOT look like this:
- Refusing to acknowledge “no”
- Assuming that wearing certain clothes, flirting, or kissing is an invitation for anything more
- Someone being under the legal age of consent, as defined by the state
- Someone being incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol
- Pressuring someone into sexual activity by using fear or intimidation
- Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you’ve done it in the past
There is no single legal definition of consent. Each state sets its own definition, either in law or through court cases. In general, there are three main ways that states analyze consent in relation to sexual acts:
- Affirmative consent: Did the person express overt actions or words indicating agreement for sexual acts?
- Freely given consent: Was the consent offered of the person’s own free will, without being induced by fraud, coercion, violence, or threat of violence?
- Capacity to consent: Did the individual have the capacity, or legal ability, to consent?
Capacity to consent
A person’s capacity, or ability, to legally consent to sexual activity can be based on a number of factors, which often vary from state to state. In a criminal investigation, a state may use these factors to determine if a person who engaged in sexual activity had the capacity to consent. If not, the state may be able to charge the perpetrator with a crime. Examples of some factors that may contribute to someone’s capacity to consent include:
- Age: Is the person at or above the age of consent for that state? Does the age difference between the perpetrator and victim affect the age of consent in that state?
- Developmental disability: Does the person have a developmental disability or other form of mental incapacitation, such as a traumatic brain injury?
- Intoxication: Was the person intoxicated? Different states have different definitions of intoxication, and in some states it matters whether you voluntarily or involuntarily became intoxicated.
- Physical disability: Does the persona have a physical disability, incapacity, or other form of helplessness?
- Relationship of victim/perpetrator: Was the alleged perpetrator in a position of authority, such as such as a teacher or correctional office?
- Unconsciousness: Was the person sleeping, sedated, strangulated, or suffering from physical trauma?
- Vulnerable adults: Is the person considered a vulnerable adult, such as an elderly or ill person? Is this adult dependent on others for care?
Remember: each state’s law is different. If you are unsure how a state law applies to specific circumstances, consult an attorney.
Help for you
Recovering from a sexual assault or abuse is a process, and that process looks different for everyone.
You may feel confused, numb, ashamed, angry, fearful, sad, guilty, or embarrassed.
It may take weeks, months, or years—there’s no timetable for healing.
- There is no “right way to feel. Talking to a DVSAS advocacy counselor can help.
You have the right to:
- Go to the hospital for a free sexual assault exam.
- Make a police report, even if the assault happened some time ago.
- File a request for a sexual assault protection order.
Below you’ll find some resources to help you navigate the recovery process.
DVSAS Sexual Assault Support Group
Connections Support Group: Support for adults who have experienced sexual assault/child sexual abuse.
Can Therapy Help?
If you decide to seek support from a therapist after sexual assault or abuse, you may have some questions. That’s perfectly normal. Working with a therapist can help you deal with some of the challenges you may be facing.
Brainstorming ways to stay safe may help reduce the risk of future harm.
Self-Care After Trauma
Whether it happened recently or years ago, self-care can help you cope with the short- and long-term effects of a trauma like sexual assault.
Tips for Survivors on Consuming Media
Movies and TV shows that show sexual assault, incest, and child sexual abuse can be very difficult for survivors to watch.
Airport Security for Survivors
Airport security can be stressful for any traveler, but for some survivors of sexual assault the security screening process is a little more sensitive.
Perpetrators of sexual violence often use tactics, such as guilt or intimidation, to pressure a person into something they do not want to do. It can be upsetting, frightening, or uncomfortable if you find yourself in this situation. Remember that it’s not your fault that the other person is acting this way—they are responsible for their own actions. The following tips may help you exit the situation safely.
- Remind yourself this isn’t your fault. You did not do anything wrong. It is the person who is pressuring you who is responsible.
- Trust your gut. Don’t feel obligated to do anything you don’t want to do. It doesn’t matter why you don’t want to do something. Simply not being interested is reason enough. Do only what feels right to you and what you are comfortable with.
- Have a code word. Develop a code with friends or family that means “I’m uncomfortable” or “I need help.” It could be a series of numbers you can text, like “311.” It might be a phrase you say out loud such as, “I wish we took more vacations.” This way you can communicate your concern and get help without alerting the person who is pressuring you.
- It’s okay to lie. If you are concerned about angering or upsetting this person, you can lie or make an excuse to create an exit. It may feel wrong to lie, but you are never obligated to remain in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, scared, or threatened. Some excuses you could use are: needing to take care of a friend or family member, not feeling well, and having to be somewhere else by a certain time. Even excusing yourself to use the bathroom can create an opportunity to get away or to get help. Whatever you need to say to stay safe is okay—even if it may seem embarrassing at the time.
- Think of an escape route. If you had to leave quickly, how would you do it? Locate the windows, doors, and any others means of exiting the situation. Are there people around who might be able to help you? How can you get their attention? Where can you go when you leave?
If you have to find a way out of a situation where someone is pressuring you, or if something happens that you didn’t consent to, it is not your fault. Take care of yourself, and know you’re not alone.
To speak with someone who is trained to help, call our helpline 360.715.1563
Help for someone you know
It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, especially when that person is a family member, friend, or loved one.
Consider the following ways of showing support:
- Listen. Be there. Communicate without judgment.
- If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need.
- Encourage the survivor to get support.
- Be patient. Remember, there is no timetable for recovering from trauma. Avoid putting pressure on them to engage in activities they aren’t ready to do yet.
- Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time.
- If someone you care about is considering suicide, learn the warning signs, and offer help and support. For more information about suicide prevention please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800.273.TALK (8255) any time, day or night.
It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, especially if they are a friend or family member. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, so we encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible.
Sometimes support means providing resources, such as how to reach the DVSAS helpline, seek medical attention, or report the crime to the police. But often listening is the best way to support a survivor.
Here are some specific phrases DVSAS staff recommend to be supportive through a survivor’s healing process.
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”
It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.”
Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual violence. If someone trusted you enough to disclose the event to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support.
- Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
- Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
Ask an Advocate
Have more questions? Ask an advocate.
Sexual violence information provided by Rainn.org