Womansplain

It’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But what does “sexual assault” really mean?

It means different things in different places, so be sure to read carefully

Cosby matchbook
Attorney Gloria Allred displays a book of matches that Margie Shapiro, an alleged sexual assault victim of comedian Bill Cosby, that she took after visiting Cosby's home. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Image

Though the cascade of allegations against Bill Cosby has put a renewed national focus on the problem of sexual assault since last November, April has officially been deemed “Sexual Assault Awareness Month” in the United States.​ The initiative was spearheaded by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Throughout the month, NSVRC disseminates educational resources and helps plan events that seek to combat sexual violence by spreading information about healthy sexuality and consent. This year’s campaign theme is sexual assault on campus.

Pushing aside several pertinent queries (What is the connection between sexual assault and April? Bill Cosby or not, shouldn’t we be aware of sexual assault during the other 11 months of the year?), one key question remains: What exactly constitutes “sexual assault” in the United States?

The answer is a complex one that encompasses convoluted legal definitions, colloquialisms, and murky boundaries between different categories of sexual aggression. According to the website womenslaw.org, “sexual assault and domestic violence organizations consider any unwanted sexual activity to be sexual assault. This includes rape.” But when it comes to the institution that can hold the most sway in sexual violence cases—i.e. the law—the definition of sexual assault is not quite so broad.

Here is a breakdown of how the law categorizes and treats different forms of sexual aggression.

What are the legal categories of sexual offenses?

Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

How is sexual assault different from sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a civil offense with very specific parameters. It describes pervasive and unwanted sexual advances that occur within a workplace environment or an educational institution. So when a strange man hollers something about your butt as you pass him on the street, it is not legally sexual harassment because it does not take place within the aforementioned contexts.

In most states, sexual assault pertains to unwanted sexual touching. Unlike rape, it does not require penetration (but more on that later). Sexual assault is not limited to aggression that takes place in educational institutions or workplaces, and it is a criminal offense.

According to Michelle J. Anderson, Dean of the CUNY School of Law and a leading expert in rape law, the categories of sexual harassment and sexual assault can overlap. “Someone who is an employer may sexually assault somebody who works for them, and that would be an instance of sexual harassment,” she explains. “It’s in a context in which the law prohibits harassment on the basis of sex: That is, because it’s an educational institution or an employment situation.”

Does rape fall under the umbrella of sexual assault?

Sometimes.

Most people on the street consider rape a form of sexual assault. But in many states, they are separate categories of offenses, with ‘sexual assault’ indicating a lesser crime. “Rape is about penetration, and sexual assault is about non-consensual touching, but does not require penetration,” says Dean Anderson. “Where the states vary is that they sometimes define the exact same criminal behavior as [rape or sexual assault].”

Michigan, for example, abolished the term “rape” from its legal lexicon in the 1980s, and now labels penetrative sexual offenses as “sexual assault.” Dean Anderson explains why. “There was so much bias against term ‘rape,’ and people conceived of it in very stereotypical ways: That it only involved strangers, that it only involved traditional forms of weaponry, that it required the victim—usually a woman—to fight back. The reformer who wanted to tackle that question said, ‘Well, let’s just get rid of that word ‘rape’ entirely, and let’s define these kinds of aggressions as criminal sexual assault.’”

Other states, like New York, distinguish between rape and sexual assault, or “sexual abuse.”

In sum?

“When you talk about sexual harassment, you’re often talking about federal law,” Anderson says. “When you’re talking about sexual assault and rape, you’re talking about state crimes … What’s interesting, I think, is that states have grappled with different ways of defining … deeply aggressive sexual conduct.”

Where can I learn more about sexual assault laws in my state?

Womenslaw.org allows visitors to search through sexual assault statues that pertain to their hometown.

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