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What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault happens when someone touches another person in a sexual manner without their consent. Or when someone makes another person take part in a sexual activity with them without that person's consent. It includes unwanted kissing and sexual touching.

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

Sexual assault refers to many different forms of sexual violence – the phrase we use to describe any sexual activity or act that happened without consent.

Any sexual assault is a serious crime that can have a lasting impact on the victim or survivor. No-one ever deserves or asks for it to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

You might have heard people talking about sexual assault on TV shows or in the news. However, because it's such a broad term, lots of people aren't sure what it really means.

Language

Confused about different terms?

In England and Wales, there are lots of terms (words) that we use to talk about different sexual offences and forms of sexual violence.

But, the most important thing to remember is: if someone has done something sexual to another person without their consent then it's sexual violence. And it's always serious.

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How sexual assault is defined in law

The legal definition of sexual assault in England and Wales is when someone intentionally touches another person in a sexual manner, without that person’s consent.

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:

  • Kissing.
  • Attempted rape.
  • Touching someone’s breasts or genitals – 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.
  • Pressuring, manipulating or scaring someone into performing a sexual act on the perpetrator.
  • 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.

Causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent

In English and Welsh law, it is also a crime to intentionally ‘cause’ another person to engage in sexual activity without their consent.

This could include:

  • Making someone masturbate or touch themselves sexually.
  • Making someone sexually touch or take part in sexual activity with another person – with or without that other person’s consent.
  • Making someone be sexually touched by another person or having another person carry out sexual activity with them – whether the other person is consenting or not.

As you can see, the person committing the crime of ‘causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent’ here is not touching the victim or victims themselves. But, it is a very serious offence that can carry the same sentence as rape and assault by penetration.

The tactics a perpetrator could use to ‘cause’ someone to engage in sexual activity without their consent include physical force, manipulation and threats (see more examples below under 'What is consent?').

Indecent assault

Sometimes, people use the term ‘indecent assault’ instead of sexual 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’ when they mean sexual assault.

Related types of sexual violence

There are other forms of sexual violence that also involve the non-consensual touching of another person in a sexual manner. These include:

These are seen as different crimes in English and Welsh law. However, it's common to hear people using the terms 'sexual assault' or just 'assault' to describe any of them.

This might be because someone feels more comfortable saying 'sexual assault' (rather than, for example, 'rape'). Or it might be because they're not familiar with the legal definitions of these terms.    

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At Rape Crisis, when we work with victims and survivors of sexual violence, we are led by them. This means we use words that are meaningful to the victim or survivor, not just legal definitions.

What is consent?

Consenting to someone touching you in a sexual manner 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 sexual assault have to involve force?

It’s a really common myth about sexual assault, rape and other kinds of sexual violence and abuse that they have 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 sexually assault someone. For example:

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

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

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 sexual assault.

Who commits sexual assault?

Sexual assault can be committed by a stranger or someone that the victim or survivor knows.

This could be:

  • a partner
  • an ex-partner
  • someone they were dating
  • someone they used to date
  • an acquaintance (someone they only know a little bit)
  • a friend
  • a colleague
  • a family member

It can be carried out by a person of any gender against another person of any gender.

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to 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 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.