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What is rape?

Rape is often described as unwanted or forced 'sex' – or 'sex' that happened without consent. But, sex can only happen when everyone consents. Rape, on the other hand, is a form of sexual violence and a serious crime.

Rape happens when someone didn't want to have sex or didn't give their consent for sex to happen.

It is a form of sexual violence and a very serious crime that carries the same maximum sentence as murder.

No-one ever deserves or asks for rape to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

However, many of the myths surrounding rape can make victims and survivors feel as though they are somehow to blame. It can also make them feel that what happened to them wasn’t ‘real’ rape.

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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

Rape myths

Please remember

It doesn't matter if the victim or survivor doesn't have visible injuries or if they didn't scream, try to run away or fight.

It also doesn't matter what they were wearing or what interaction happened beforehand. Or if they experienced feelings of arousal. Or if they knew the perpetrator. They might even be married to them.

The bottom line is: if there was no consent then it was rape.

Find out more about rape myths
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How rape is defined in law

In England and Wales, the legal definition of rape is when someone intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with their penis, without the other person's consent.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone commits rape if all of the following happens:

  • They intentionally penetrate the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with their penis.
  • The other person does not consent to the penetration.
  • They do not reasonably believe that the other person consents.

In other words: if a person puts their penis in someone’s vagina, anus or mouth on purpose, when the other person hasn’t consented, then they have raped them.

The law also makes it clear that it is rape if:

  • Someone removes a condom without the other person’s permission – or lies about putting one on in the first place. This is commonly known as ‘stealthing’.
  • The victim or survivor consented to one type of penetration e.g. vaginal or oral sex, but not another e.g. anal sex.
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It doesn’t matter who the person committing the rape is – if there is no consent then it is always rape. And that includes within marriage and relationships.

Rape and other types of sexual violence

Many people have experiences of sexual assault or sexual abuse that do not fit the legal definition of rape. However, that doesn't mean their experience isn't 'as bad'. 

In fact, all sexual assault and sexual abuse is a serious crime.

Some victims and survivors also describe what happened to them as 'rape' even if it doesn't fit the legal definition. And that's completely fine.

At Rape Crisis, we use words that are meaningful to the victim or survivor, not just legal terms.

Assault by penetration

In English and Welsh law, if someone penetrates another person's vagina or anus with an object or a part of the body that’s not a penis, without their consent, it is called 'assault by penetration'.

For example, this can include penetration of the vagina or anus by fingers – what is sometimes called ‘digital rape’. Or, it could include penetration by an object.

We know that lots of victims and survivors have experienced non-consensual penetration by something other than a penis. For these people, legal definitions can make it seem as though this is not as serious as non-consensual penetration by a penis.

But, all rape and sexual assault is a serious crime – and assault by penetration carries the same sentences as rape.

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What is consent

Consenting to having another person’s penis inside your vagina, anus or mouth means agreeing to it by choice and having both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

It is NOT consent if you or someone else was:

  • Asleep, unconscious, drunk, drugged or 'on' drugs.
  • Pressured, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying yes.
  • Too young or vulnerable to have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Consent can be withdrawn at any time, including during sex or a sexual act. Just because someone consented to something before doesn’t mean they consented to it happening again.

If someone’s unsure whether the other person is giving their consent for something sexual, they should always check with them.

Does rape have to involve force?

It’s a really common myth about rape that it has to involve physical force or leave the person with visible injuries. But that isn’t true.

There are many other ‘tactics’ that someone might use to rape another person. For example:

  • pressure
  • manipulation
  • bullying
  • intimidation
  • threats
  • deception
  • drugs or alcohol

BUT, none of these have to have happened for it to still be rape.

Many people find themselves unable to speak or move when faced with a scary, shocking or dangerous situation. If that happened, it does not mean the person gave their consent.

And if there’s no consent then it is always rape.

Who commits rape?

There's no typical rapist. People who carry out rape come from every economic, ethnic, racial, age and social group.

What lots of people who commit rape do have in common, however, is that their victims often know them.

In fact, statistics show that, in 86% of cases of rape against women, the victim or survivor knows the perpetrator. And, in 1 in 2 cases of rape against women, the perpetrator is a partner or ex-partner of the victim or survivor.

This isn't something that always gets talked about very much in the media.

But, it's important to remember that all cases of rape can have a serious and long-lasting impact on the lives and wellbeing of victims and survivors – no matter if they knew the person who raped them or not.

'Types' of rape

Sometimes, people use extra words to describe rape – for example, ‘date rape’, ‘rape in marriage’ or, as we’ve already mentioned, ‘stranger rape’.

It’s important to know, however, that these aren’t legal terms.

It doesn’t matter if a victim or survivor was on a date with the person who raped them, married to them or had never met them before. Whatever the situation and whatever the perpetrator’s relationship to the victim or survivor, if there was no consent then it was rape.

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to rape and sexual assault – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But, for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

If you have experienced rape or sexual assault of any kind – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.