Understanding Rape and Sexual Assault

what to know about sexual assault

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Sexual assault is a severe, punishable act that should not be taken lightly. Maybe you hooked up with someone while you were drunk. Maybe a stranger touched you inappropriately in passing. Maybe you were pressured into having sex with your partner. What is and isn’t considered sexual assault?

In short, if you’ve experienced unwanted sexual touching, of any kind, then you’ve likely experienced sexual assault. However, there are many situations that need to be taken into account when talking about rape and sexual assault.

What the Law Says About Sexual Assault 

Unwanted touching, of any kind, is unacceptable social behavior, but unwanted sexual touching is criminal.

Federal law defines many different sexual crimes, from “forcible touching” and “sexual misconduct” to “aggravated sexual abuse” and “predatory sexual assault against a child,” but it’s important to know that state jurisdiction can vary.

Many sexual assault crimes are considered felonies and depending on the state, sexual assault may be called “sexual battery,” “criminal sexual penetration,” or “rape.” Rape is considered a type of sexual assault. Categories of sexual assault include rape, as well as the following:

  • Attempted rape (in which rape was the motive)
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching (which includes groping, kissing, etc.)
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts 
  • Unwanted sexual penetration (which could involve non-body parts or objects)
  • Sodomy (anal or oral sex) without consent
  • Sexual contact with minors, consensual or not

If force, coercion, or incapacitation exists in a sexual act between two adults, it is considered sexual assault. Rape, in particular, is defined by federal law 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.”

Other types of sexual assault that aren’t often talked about include female genital mutilation (removal of part or all of the female genitalia) and sexual assault between intimate partners or martial couples. Despite misconceptions, intimate partner rape (also called marital rape or spousal rape) does occur and it can be extremely detrimental to an individual’s mental health. 

Understanding Consent 

Because sexual assault is a non-consensual sexual act, it’s important to define “consent.” When engaging in sexual relations of any kind, consent deals with more than just “yes” or “no,” which is why sexual assault (including rape) can be so controversial. 

“Mutual consent is key, yet the type of consent is critical,” explains clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. 

Children cannot legally consent to having sex, even if they say “yes,” to a consenting adult. Age of consent laws vary by state. Violations of the age of consent laws are considered “statutory rape” or “unlawful sexual intercourse.” When it comes to teen sexual assault, however, there are some unique factors to consider.

You are not obligated, under any situation, to have sexual relations with another person, even if that person is considered a sexual partner or spouse. However, sometimes individuals feel obligated, and this is one reason why the issues around sexual assault can be so complicated. 

Consider the following hypothetical situations:

  • A stranger touches an individual’s private area in public, but they have pants on.
  • An individual is pressured by a manager to engage in sexual acts to maintain their position at the company.
  • A 14 year old and a 12 year old both consent to having sex. Though this seems innocent, the two consenting individuals are “minors” and cannot legally consent.
  • An intimate partner insists that you have sex or they won't let you leave the house, so you unwillingly agree. Threats in intimate partner relationships are extremely unhealthy and dangerous.
  • You agree to have sex with a partner as long as they use a condom, but they either remove it or damage it on purpose. This is called stealthing and it is unacceptable.
  • You consent to having sex with a partner one day but do not consent to having sex with that same partner the next day and they force you to anyway.

All of the above scenarios are examples of sexual assault. If you feel pressured, or feel you have no other choice but to consent, then your decision is likely being “forced," and saying "yes" becomes irrelevant.

Because many sexual acts occur in private between just two people, there aren’t usually witnesses who can attest to the consent or the situation in which consent was unable to be freely given, and that’s why sexual assault cases can sometimes be so challenging.

Here’s what all of us should keep in mind: if the situation feels uncomfortable, if an individual is not fully capable of consenting or is not consenting in a clear way, you should not continue with that sexual act regardless of hearing the word “yes” and if you’ve started to engage in a sexual act, but the individual changes their mind, then stop the act immediately.  

The Bottom Line

If the situation feels uncomfortable, if an individual is not fully capable of consenting or is not consenting in a clear way, you should not continue with that sexual act regardless of hearing the word “yes” and if you’ve started to engage in a sexual act, but the individual changes their mind, then stop the act immediately.  

How Alcohol and Drugs Play a Role 

Casual sex is a large part of dating culture, as well as college culture, and the lines of consent can become blurry. When young adults experiment with drugs and alcohol, they often engage in risky behaviors which can quickly lead to sexual assault. 

Elizabeth L. Jeglic PhD, Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, recommends “[not] engaging in [any] sexual activity when one or both parties are drinking or under the influence of substances. An individual cannot consent when they are drunk or high.”

How do you know if someone is under the influence and unable to consent? Signs of drunkenness or intoxication include, but are not limited to: 

  • Stumbling
  • Slurring of words
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Extreme emotions
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Incoherence 

If you have any inclination that an individual is drunk or high, you should not engage sexually with them. If they are unconscious or passed out, you should not, under any circumstances, perform any sexual act on them. 

Those most at risk of sexual assault are females ages 18 to 24 , but sexual assault can occur at any age, regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

When Sexual Assault Occurs

“The days following an assault are difficult,” says Dr. Jeglic. “You will likely experience a variety of physical and emotional responses to the trauma. Everyone experiences [this] differently but it is not uncommon to feel fear, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety and a loss of sense of self.”

Dr. Jeglic recommends that you be with someone you trust or feel safe with and consider seeking professional help and social support, but also work on maintaining a routine and avoiding alcohol and drugs. “Know that you will experience a lot of different emotions,” she says. 

A Word From Verywell

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a toll-free 24-hour hotline for victims of sexual assault at 1-800-656-HOPE as well as an online chat hotline. When you call the HOPE hotline, your call will be routed to a local RAINN affiliate organization (based on the first six digits of your phone number).

When calling in on a cellular phone, there will be an option to enter your ZIP code (to more accurately route you to the nearest local sexual assault service provider). RAINN can help connect you to local counseling. 

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, know it is not your fault and recovery is possible. You can learn coping mechanisms, join networks of support, and work with experienced mental health professionals. 

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member at a local RAINN affiliate.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Justice. Sexual assault.

  2. U.S. Department of Justice. An updated definition of rape.

  3. U.S. House of Representatives. 10. USC 920: Art. 120. Rape and sexual assault generally.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Statutory rape: A guide to state laws and reporting requirements.

  5. Garcia TA, Litt DM, Davis KC, Norris J, Kaysen D, Lewis MA. Growing up, hooking up, and drinking: a review of uncommitted sexual behavior and its association with alcohol use and related consequences among adolescents and young adults in the United States. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1872. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01872

  6. Sinozich, S. Langton, L. Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College Females, 1995-2013. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs; 2014.

By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing instructor, and advocate for mental health, women's issues, and more.