What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is a betrayal of trust and a denial of the right each person has to say what happens to her or his body.


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Sexual assault is often also referred to as sexual violence. Sexual assault refers to any sexual acts that a person does not consent to take part in.

This includes unwanted sexual behaviours or acts that:

  • Are carried out through intimidation, coercion, force, power or exploitation of someone’s vulnerability.

  • Are used to coerce, intimidate and exploit someone to establish a pattern of power and control.

  • Make someone feel uncomfortable.

The use of terms like sexual assault and rape can be confusing because these words can have both a general meaning as used by the public and a very specific meaning when they are used in the legal system to describe particular criminal sexual offences that a person can be charged with.

On this website, we use these words in a general way and provide general information only. For more information about your specific situation you can contact the police, a sexual assault counselling service, a legal service or a private lawyer.

Sexual assault occurs in many forms

Sexual assault can include:

  • Rape.

  • Unwanted touching or kissing.

  • Coerced or forced sexual activities or sex-related activities, including activities that involve violence or pain.

  • Exposing of genitals such as ‘flashing’.

  • Stalking.

  • Watching someone without their permission when they are naked or engaged in sexual activities.

  • Posting sexual images of someone on the Internet without their consent.

  • Forcing or coercing someone to watch or participate in pornography.

  • Using substances such as drugs or alcohol (or spiking drinks) to make someone vulnerable in order to have sex with them.

  • Sexual harassment, such as lewd or suggestive jokes, stories or showing of pictures, whether as part of pattern of coercive, intimidating or exploitive behaviour, or when it simply causes someone to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.

  • ‘Grooming’ a child or vulnerable person to engage in sex activities of any kind.

Many acts of sexual assault are crimes. People who have experienced sexual abuse are often known as ‘survivors’, emphasising their courage and strength. Sexual assault can be committed against adults and children, women and men, and people of all backgrounds. Sexual assault is not the same as sexual expression – it is a display of power.

The effects of sexual assault

Sexual assault is an abuse of power by the perpetrator. For the person experiencing the abuse, it involves a betrayal of trust and a denial of their right to feel safe and valued. Sexual assault violates the personal boundaries of the person being abused. The loss of control over one’s own body can often translate into a loss of control in many other areas of life.

Facts about sexual assault

Here are some important things to know about sexual assault:

  • Most acts of sexual assault are unreported.

  • Most sexual assault is committed by men against women and children.

  • Men also experience sexual assault; this is also predominantly committed by other men.

  • Acts of sexual assault can be criminal offences.

  • It can be difficult for survivors of sexual assault to report it to the police or even to talk about it.

  • Most people who experience sexual assault know, or have recently met, the perpetrator of the assault.

  • Sexual assault is often caused by the power imbalances that exist in society. This can be power imbalances between individuals, or between groups, such as between men and women, rich and poor, or different cultures or races.


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