Since the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force on 1st May 2004, rape has legally been defined in the UK as the penetration with a penis of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person without their consent.
The Act describes penetration of another person's vagina, mouth or anus with any part of the body other than the penis or any object without their consent, as 'sexual assault by penetration', which can carry the same sentences as rape.
The overall definition of sexual or indecent assault is an act of physical, psychological and emotional violation, in the form of a sexual act, inflicted upon someone without their consent. It can involve forcing or manipulating someone to witness or participate in any sexual acts.
Through our experience of supporting survivors at Rape Crisis, however, we know that for some survivors, for example for those who've experienced sexual violence that involved penetration by something other than a penis, these legal definitions can feel restrictive and as if their experience is not considered as serious. When we work with survivors, we are led by them, encourage them to name and frame their own experiences, and use the language that they find most meaningful and representative, rather than strict legal terminology.
Rape within relationships
Everyone has the right to say 'no' to sex, to withdraw or withhold their consent for any sexual act, on any occasion and under any circumstances, regardless of whether they've given consent to sex with that person in the past and regardless of whether they're in a relationship with the other person. Sex without consent is rape.
There are many reasons why a woman or man might stay in an intimate relationship that is violent or abusive, including fear, shame and self-blame, concern for their children and hope that their partner's behaviour might change. Staying in a relationship that involves or has involved sexual violence does not mean someone is 'weak' or any less deserving of specialist support and justice than someone raped in any other kind of circumstance.
Other terms you might hear used:
The term 'drug rape' or 'drug-assisted rape' is used to refer to rape or sexual assault that takes place after the perpetrator has administered a drug to his victim. The media in particular will often use these terms to refer to attacks that take place after a drug has been administered through a drink in a public social setting such as a bar or nightclub.
The drug Rohypnol is sometimes referred to as the 'date rape drug' but other drugs, including prescription medication and most often alcohol, can be used to incapacitate someone or to try and make them vulnerable to a sexual attack.
Drug-assisted rape is most commonly associated with perpetrators who are strangers to their victim(s), or recent acquaintances, but the forced misuse of tranquillisers and other prescribed drugs often takes place in violent relationships and/or is an aspect of the rape of women in their own homes.
Reactions to different drugs will vary from individual to individual and different drugs will have different typical effects.
Some drugs might make someone physically incapacitated / unable to move or speak, some might result in short- or long-term memory loss and some might stimulate sexual response. The effects of drug rape and of being 'spiked' can be extremely frightening.
Regardless of whether drugs, including alcohol, have been administered to someone without their knowledge or consent or whether they have willingly consumed alcohol or drugs, 100% of the responsibility for any act of sexual violence lies with its perpetrator. There is no excuse for sexual violence; it can never be justified, it can never be explained away and there is no context in which it is valid, understandable or acceptable.
If someone is incapacitated through the (willing or unknown) consumption of drugs or alcohol, they are unable to consent to sexual activity and sexual activity with them is therefore a crime.
If you think you have been raped or sexually assaulted with the involvement of drugs and/or alcohol, visit our Getting Help pages for more information.
The term ‘date rape’ is often used to describe rapes that occur when the survivor / victim and perpetrator know each other, for example as acquaintances, friends or lovers, and/or have been on a date or out socially together. 'Date rape' can be an unhelpful and misleading label and is not a legal term or specific offence.
The use of this term can have a negative impact on survivors of sexual violence and on the attitudes of wider society, both because it can imply that rape can be 'graded' in terms of 'seriousness' and because it is sometimes used to infer that rape by a known perpetrator is less traumatic than or ‘not as bad as’ rape by a stranger.
As around 90% of those who are raped or sexually assaulted know their attacker prior to the incident, use of the term 'date rape' can be interpreted as minimising the experiences of a significant number of sexual violence survivors.
Rape Crisis encourages the media and others to avoid using the term ‘date rape’ when describing or reporting on sexual violence.