What is Sexual Assault?

Jessica Ellis

Sexual assault is a legal term that refers to non-consensual sex acts achieved or attempted by use of force or threat. Although rape is the most commonly cited type of sexual assault, many legal systems include any coerced or non-consensual sexual act under the statutes of assault. Depending on the age of the perpetrator and victim, the severity of the crime, and applicable laws, those convicted of sexual assault may be subject to jail time, fines, court-ordered therapy, and permanent registration on sex offender databases.

Sexual assault can cause lasting emotional damage.
Sexual assault can cause lasting emotional damage.

Laws regarding non-consensual sex acts changed greatly throughout the twentieth century. In many regions, married women had little protection against spousal sexual assault, the logic being that marriage was implied consent. In the latter half of the century, as women's rights issues became more widely appreciated throughout the Western world, sexual laws became more stringent and far-reaching. Although historically, sexual assault is typically considered a crime perpetrated by men against women, it is important to remember that any non-consensual sexual act can be considered assault, regardless of gender.

Prisons have a reputation as places where sexual assault occurs frequently.
Prisons have a reputation as places where sexual assault occurs frequently.

Assault laws vary from region to region, and assault suspects may be charged with associated offenses, such as battery or blackmail. Some regions include sexual acts that do not include physical contact, such as voyeurism or exhibitionism. Additionally, many legal systems do not give minors the right of consent, meaning that any sexual contact with a minor is automatically a crime. Sexual assault charges may also be brought if the victim is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which may impair the ability to consent.

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Contrary to popular belief, sexual assault does not usually occur between strangers. Many statistics suggest that a majority of assault cases are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, such as a teacher, boss, neighbor, relative, or romantic partner. To help reduce the chances of assault, experts recommend self-defense training, keeping car and home doors locked at all times, and trusting instincts that warn of danger.

Like other assault laws, sexual charges may be divided into degrees of severity. Often, rape, assault resulting in bodily harm, or sexual contact with a child are considered first degree assaults. Assaults that do not involve intercourse or physical injury may be considered second degree crimes. In some areas, a person who is aware of an assault but is not involved in the act can be charged as an accessory to a crime. Having knowledge of a sexual crime and choosing not to report it, or in some cases not attempting to stop the crime, can also result in accessory charges.

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