What Is Sexual Assault?

We’ve all heard of rape, but what exactly defines sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any involuntary sexual act in which a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will — or any non-consensual sexual touching of a person. This means that sexual assault doesn’t just mean rape; simply forced kissing or touching someone’s butt without their consent is defined as a form of sexual assault.

The laws regarding sexual assault vary from country to country. For example, in New South Wales, the crime of sexual assault is only defined as non-consensual penetrative sex. However, in many other places, the crime also deals with non-consensual, non-penetrative sexual contact. Here in the United States, there are no federal laws regarding sexual assault, but rather the laws are different between each state. Penalties can range anywhere from fines to 25 years to life in prison.

Unfortunately, sexual assault has been around since the beginning of time. In Ancient Rome, sexual assault was any harassment through attempted seduction, stalking, or abduction. Dirty jokes were considered a form of sexual assault. However, offenses against slaves or those dressed as prostitutes had lesser repercussions than those against “respectable young girls.”

Surprisingly, we have actually made great strides in taking action against sexual assault. In Post-Ancient Rome, for thousands of years, the only form of sexual assault recognized by the law was rape, meaning forced penetrative intercourse. Men feared that women would lie about being sexually assaulted, and men were the ones writing the laws due to the patriarchal society. So, English Common Law made it so that one could only be punished for rape if there was proof that the woman had struggled. Only if the woman was bruised or beaten would the case have even been considered. Even then, it only counted as “real rape” if the victim was injured.

Males were considered the only possible perpetrators. The rape had to be performed vaginally — anally and orally didn’t count. This then discounted males as victims. Rape also had to be penile, meaning the use of objects didn’t count. Rape was not considered rape if it took place between a married couple. “Consent” was never codified.

However, starting in 1970s England, people started to protest. They wanted something done about this. Sexual assault didn’t just mean vaginal rape, and it certainly didn’t “count” only if someone was injured. A group of feminists ganged together to define consent: “Consent means cooperation in act or attitude pursuant to an exercise of free will and with knowledge of the nature of the act. A current or previous relationship shall not be sufficient to constitute consent… Submission under the influence of fear shall not constitute consent.”

These women realized that the stereotypes of rape that they’d grown up with did not hold truth. They went to city councils, county government, state legislatures, and the federal government fighting for better laws. Eventually “rape” turned into “sexual assault” to cover a wider range of abuses, and men were soon allowed to be seen as victims, too (and women as perpetrators).

Unfortunately, while the laws have improved in developed countries, in developing and under-developed countries, women do not have access to this kind of protection. Even here in the US, most men that commit assault do not do time in prison.

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Luckily, there are some great movements that people can get involved in. It would take nine years for me to talk about all of the sexual assault campaigns that everyday people can get involved in, but here are a few that have really left an impression.

Sexual assault campaigns:
  • NO MORE: Launched in March 2013, NO MORE is a movement set on raising awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault. It is a national organization supported by universities, cooperations, and even the US Department of Justices. It is a symbol and is not owned by anyone. If you visit their website, you can sign up to receive updates to get involved in their events and to purchase clothing that will go toward raising money for the movement.
  • “Where Is Your Line”:  The Line Campaign works to inspire young leaders to take action into shaping a world without sexual violence. It strives to use the media to make future leaders aware of the current rape cultures in which we are involved in order to push for legal steps to be made to end this horrible stigma.
  • Not Alone: This campaign was launched in connection with the White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assault. Started in January 2014, the task force has worked with the federal government to find ways to eliminate sexual assault in elementary and secondary schools.
  • It’s On Us: It’s On Us was started by President Obama himself and works with the Not Alone campaign on a broader scale to stop sexual assault everywhere.
There have also been a wide range of really cool social media campaigns that were started to raise awareness:
  • The #BriefMessage campaign consisted of girls holding underwear with powerful messages written on them.
  • A woman in Germany put sanitary pounds around her city of Kasruhe to show her message about gender equality.
  • Feminist shoots were taken by photographer Liora K that showed woman with messages written on “exposed” parts of their bodies.
  • In Chicago (and many other locales), a “Slut Walk” takes place every year to raise awareness to those who blame people for their attacks by saying that their outfits or flirtatious movements were “asking for it.”
  • Project Unbreakable showed victims holding signs that displayed the words their attackers had said to them. This campaign was done for both genders.
  • The “I need feminism because…” campaign showed women holding signs with their stories for needing feminism.
  • Stands with Survivors was a movement performed by the College of William and Mary when an athlete and student at the school lost her rape case.
  • Surviving in Numbers was a powerful movement where victims took pictures at the sites of their attacks.
  • 30 Secrets In 30 Days revealed Flickr users posting photographs where they wrote on their bodies confessing their sexual assaults.


Rape culture is more prevalent than most people realize, and sexual assault has no chance of being eliminated until it is recognized by the world as a universal issue. Most of these campaigns are just trying to get the message out there because right now, awareness is more important than anything else. We have come a long way, that can’t be denied, but we can go even further.

Be informed, be educated, and get involved. We can do this.

Leave a Reply