The key points
- The term 'sexual assault' is commonly used to refer to any form of sexual violence or abuse that involves physical contact between the perpetrator (person responsible) and the victim or survivor.
- However, under English and Welsh law, forms of sexual violence and abuse that involve penetration of someone's mouth, vagina or anus are considered different crimes: rape or assault by penetration.
- Sexual assault can involve the touching of skin, clothing or the use of something else to touch skin or clothing.
- It is a serious crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. And any form of sexual assault can have a serious and lasting impact on the victim or survivor.
- No one ever deserves or asks for sexual assault to happen. 100% of the blame, shame and responsibility lies with the perpetrator.
Have you experienced sexual assault or another form of sexual violence or abuse? Or are you feeling confused? Please know that you're not alone. We have lots of information and support to help.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone commits sexual assault if all of the following happens:
- They intentionally touch another person.
- The touching is sexual.
- The other person does not consent to the touching.
- They do not reasonably believe that the other person consents.
- The touching can be with any part of the body or with anything else.
It could include:
- Touching someone’s genitals, breasts or bottom – including through clothing.
- Touching any other part of the body for sexual pleasure or in a sexual manner – for example, stroking someone’s thigh or rubbing their back.
- Pressing up against another person for sexual pleasure or in a sexual manner.
- The perpetrator making someone else touch them in a sexual manner.
- Touching someone’s clothing if done for sexual pleasure or in a sexual manner – for example, lifting up someone’s skirt.
❗ However, please know that this is not a full list. Just because something isn’t included here doesn’t mean it isn’t sexual assault.
How the law defines 'consent'
Under English and Welsh law, someone consents to sex or other sexual activity when they agree to it by choice and have both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.
This means that someone doesn't consent to sex or other sexual activity if they:
- Say 'no'.
- Seem unsure or upset, stay quiet, move away or don't respond.
- Are asleep, unconscious, drunk, drugged or on drugs.
- Are pressured, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying 'yes'.
- Are too young or vulnerable to have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.
What is indecent assault?
Before the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force in 2004, indecent assault was the legal term used for what is now sexual assault. You might still hear people using the term ‘indecent assault’ to refer to sexual assault.
Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003:
- Sexual assault is defined as sexual touching without consent and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
- Rape is defined as someone with a penis penetrating another person's vagina, anus or mouth without consent, and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
- Assault by penetration is defined as someone penetrating another person's vagina, anus or mouth with something other than a penis, without their consent, and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Why you might hear someone using the term 'sexual assault' to describe rape
It's really common to hear people using the terms 'sexual assault' or just 'assault' to describe any of the offences above.
This might be because someone feels more comfortable saying 'sexual assault' or 'assault' rather than 'rape' or 'assault by penetration'. Or it might be because they're not familiar with the legal definitions of these terms.
Of course, rape and assault by penetration both involve sexual touching without consent and so could be considered forms of sexual assault. However, if someone has committed rape or assault by penetration then they should be charged with those offences, not with sexual assault.
❗ At Rape Crisis, when we work with victims and survivors of sexual violence or abuse, we are led by them. This means we use words that they find meaningful, not just legal definitions.
This offence includes causing another person to:
- Masturbate or touch themselves sexually.
- Sexually touch or be sexually touched by a third person – with or without that third person’s consent.
- Take part or be involved in any other sexual activity with a third person – with or without that third person’s consent.
As you can see, someone can commit this crime without ever coming into physical contact with the victim or survivor. But it is a very serious offence that carries the same maximum sentence as rape and assault by penetration.