Identifying Sexual Assault

Sexual assault, especially by an intimate partner, is a particularly heinous form of abuse made worse by the common assertion that this sort of assault is less likely to occur.  It is not uncommon to think that sexual assault typically happens among strangers, or that rape cannot occur between two people who have engaged in consensual sex.   Many women have trouble coming out about sexual violence in their relationship and, when they do, are often disregarded or questioned which in turn can result in the victims blaming themselves for the assault.

The truth is, though, that intimate partner rape is disturbingly common and its psychological effects are very damaging.  82% of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and 25%  by an intimate partner.  Already, this disproves the stereotype of the rapist as the stranger lurking in dark alleys.  More realistically, the rapist is a partner, friend, or acquaintance.

Typically when rape occurs within an intimate relationship, it occurs more than once.  In about 1/3 of the cases, the victim was raped more than 20 times before being separated from the rapist.

It is important to note that sexual assault takes many forms and does not necessarily include sexual penetration, nor does it necessarily occur between a man and a woman.  Sexual assault can occur in same-sex couples, and men can be victims both of other men and of women as well.

Also, rape does not necessarily require physical violence or restraint.  Sexual assault includes any sexual contact that occurs without consent.  With that in mind it is important to remember the following:

  • A drugged individual cannot give consent.
  • An unconscious individual cannot give consent.
  • A minor cannot give consent.
  • Being coerced is not the same as giving consent – threats or psychological abuse of any kind qualify as coercion and are just as psychologically damaging as physical violence.
  • Previous sexual contact does not qualify as consent.
  • Being in a relationship or married to an individual does not qualify as consent.
  • Consent can be withdrawn at any point in time.
  • Consent is never “owed” to another individual.
  • Arousal does not qualify as consent.
  • Appearance or clothing choice does not qualify as consent

Considering all this, it is much easier to define sexual assault and to recognize it when it has occurred.  Consensual sex occurs only when all parties have given active consent under no psychological duress nor the influence of drugs or alcohol.

We have many resources that provide information on sexual assault and intimate partner sexual assault, including our comprehensive Sexual Assault Quick Reference.  Information on intimate partner sexual abuse can also be found in our books, Intimate Partner Violence and Violence Against Women.


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