The Culture of Consent
The Culture of Consent

What Is Sexual Assault?

by Teela Hudak about a year ago in activism

And what can we do about it?

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault can take many forms. The legal definition will change a bit from place to place, but it is generally defined as any action that is sexual in nature and violates the sexual integrity of the victim. It is an unwanted and non-consenting action performed by one person on another. In many cases, sexual assault is defined by its lack of freely given consent. It is used as more of an umbrella term that includes a wide variety of unwanted actions.

What Actions Are Considered Sexual Assault?

Since sexual assault can be used as more of an umbrella term that can describe a number of different actions, what actions are considered to be sexual assault? Once again this may vary in legal definition from one place to another.

When we consider what sexual assault is, we take into account several factors.

  • The nature of the contact
  • The part of the body touched
  • Gestures or words that accompanying the act
  • Circumstances surrounding the act
  • Situation in which the contact occurred
  • Any threats that may or may not have been used

All of these things factor into the determination of whether or not a particular action can be considered sexual assault. Actions such as rape are always sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. The definition can also include things like groping, fondling, or forcing the victim to perform other acts like oral sex.

Who Commits Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault can be committed by a person of any gender at almost any age. Perpetrators can be from any ethnic background as well. It is much more common for men to be perpetrators of sexual assault, but that doesn't mean that all perpetrators are men.

There is a common conception that the majority of offenses are committed by a stranger who is hiding in the bushes or attacks people in their homes. These kinds of offenders tend to be the most extreme and most likely to attract more media attention. Their motives are more apparent and people are significantly more likely to report these kinds of attacks. The truth about them is though that they only make up a small percentage of known sexual assaults.

The majority of sexual assaults are committed by an offender who is known to the victim. It could be a romantic interest, a friend, a family member, coworker, babysitter, schoolmate, or anyone else who has an acquaintance with the victim. These kinds of assaults are severely under-reported. It is estimated that only approximately 10% of people come forward and report them. There are a lot of complex reasons why these assaults are less likely to be reported and it can be influenced by that prior relationship.

Who Falls Victim to Sexual Assault?

As with the realities of who can commit these horrible acts, anyone can fall victim to them. Some demographic groups, such as women or the trans community, suffer higher rates of assault than other groups. It still stands true that it could happen to anyone.

Victims of sexual assault are never asking for it. It is not their fault that the offender chose to commit terrible acts against them. It has nothing to do with what they were wearing, what they said, what their sexual or personal history is, or any other reason. It was the offender's choice to refuse to take "no" for an answer.

Unfortunately, in many societies across the world, there is a good deal of victim-blaming that occurs. Instead of being focused on providing justice for victims, they can get harshly interrogated. There can be more focus on interrogating the victim than there is on finding or interrogating the offender. This is another reason why many sexual assaults are not reported. Victims feared being blamed after they have already been through a traumatic experience.

How Can We Create Change?

Sexual assault is a real problem. In Canada, 1 in 4 women will experience an assault in their lifetime. The numbers vary across the US, but it is an estimated 1 in 5 for the whole country. And once again, these numbers are based on actual reports received. So what do we do? How do we stop this?

Awareness is a large piece of the start to change. Conversations and movements like #MeToo have already had an impact on changing the level of general awareness in society. We need to keep raising that awareness. We need to keep the conversation around the problem in the spotlight on social media and our lives.

Education is another huge piece in creating change. As people become aware of the problem, they need to be able to access appropriate materials to educate themselves and others. No fake news, no false facts but real information based on current research and conversation. More resource material needs to be available to the public. We need more books like Got Consent? that educate and explore consent. The more people truly come to understand the concept of consent and how to apply it in their lives, the less we will have a problem with assault. Certain places have already had success in reducing their rates of sexual assault by up to 50% by simple educational programs on consent.

Lastly, a powerful way to promote change is by supporting victims and survivors. We need to create safe spaces where people can feel comfortable coming forward to make reports, getting support, and accessing services that will help them move past the traumatic event. If we can move away from victim-blaming and start victim supporting, we can turn the focus to offenders. If we put our focus on offenders we can determine why these assaults take place, prosecute the guilty, and stop future assaults from occurring.

Sexual Assault Is a Real Problem But You Can Be Part of the Solution

The sexual assault problem will only get worse if we close our eyes and pretend it doesn't happen. It's what we have done, for the most part, as a society so far and all we have seen is the number of assaults continue to climb over the years. You can easily be part of the solution by educating yourself and those in your life. You can be part of the solution that saves another person from experiencing trauma and pain. Share this article with people in your life.

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Teela Hudak
Teela Hudak
Read next: The State
Teela Hudak

Teela is a Vancouver-based Sex Educator & Relationship Expert. Learn more at:

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