What is sexual assault?

Understanding sexual assault helps us to respond.

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What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any sexual or sexualised act that makes a person feel uncomfortable, intimidated or frightened. It is behaviour that a person has not invited or chosen.

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. Sexual assault is an abuse of entitlement and power.

Sexual assault can be committed against adults and children, women and men, and people from all backgrounds.

Sexual assault may also be referred to as sexual abuse or sexual violence. The terms used to describe sexual assault, like rape and sexual abuse, have both a general meaning when used in everyday conversation and a specific meaning when used to describe particular criminal sexual offences. On this website, we use these words in a general way and provide general information only.

If you think a criminal sexual offence has been committed and you want to make a complaint, you may wish to seek further advice. You can do this by contacting the sexual assault service in your area, the police, your doctor or a private lawyer. Time may be a factor and these services can provide information on rights and options.

Sexual assault occurs in many forms

Understanding what sexual assault is helps us to respond when a friend, family member or client discloses that they have been assaulted. The following list gives some examples of sexual assault:

  • Sexual harassment.

  • 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.

  • Being watched by someone without your permission when you are naked or engaged in sexual activities.

  • The posting of sexual images  on the Internet without consent

  • Being forced or coerced by someone to watch or participate in pornography.

  • Spiking drinks, or the use of drugs and alcohol, in order to reduce or impair a person’s capacity to make choices about sex or sexual activity.

  • Having sex with someone who is asleep, severely affected by alcohol /and or other drugs.

  • Lewd or suggestive jokes, stories or showing of sexualised pictures, as part of a pattern of coercive, intimidating or exploitive behaviour.

  • Rape (penetration of any orifice by any object).

  • The ‘grooming’ of a child or vulnerable person to engage in sexual activities of any kind.

  • Any sexual act with a child.

Sexual assault is not the same as sexual expression. Sexual assault is unwanted sexual behaviour or acts that use intimidation, coercion or force to exercise power or deny someone’s right to choose. Sexual assault and abuse can be one-off events, or part of a pattern of violence. It has a range of effects, including physical, emotional and psychological effects.

Facts about sexual assault

Here are some important things to know about sexual assault:

  • Most sexual assaults are committed by men against women and children.

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

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

  • Some acts of sexual assault are also criminal offences.

  • Reporting to police can be a difficult decision. The limitations in our justice system, and the way evidence is collected can be confronting.

  • People who have experienced sexual assault respond in many different ways, sometimes with strong emotion, sometimes by withdrawing. Understanding the trauma of interpersonal violence helps us to respond appropriately.

  • Sexual assault is an abuse of the power imbalances that exist in society. 

  • Most sexual assaults are not reported to police.

The effects of sexual assault

Interpersonal violence, such as sexual assault, is among the most traumatic events a person can experience. Responding to the immediate needs of victim/survivors by believing them and taking it seriously, helps reduce further harm. Continuing to support people as they recover is also important; and it is important to do it in their way in in their time.

If you would like more information on supporting a victim/survivor see How do I support someone who has been sexually assaulted?


For more information on statistics about sexual assault in Australia can be found at:

The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault

The Australian Law Reform Commission

The Australian Institute of Criminology


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