What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is an unwanted or forced sexual act committed without consent. It can occur either against a person’s will, by force or coercion, or when a person is incapable of giving consent, such as when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Force includes actual physical aggression, threats of physical aggression, emotional coercion, and/or psychological blackmailing.
Under federal and state law, sexual assault includes, but is not limited to: rape, forcible sodomy, forcible oral copulation, sexual assault with an object, sexual battery, forcible fondling (e.g., unwanted touching or kissing), and threat of sexual assault.

What is the difference between regretted sex and sexual assault?

Regretted sex is when two individuals consent to sexual intimacy, but one or both people experience regret or feel guilty afterwards. Though they may regret that encounter, they do not feel like they did not have a choice. In contrast to regretted sex, sexual assault is about one person taking control and proceeding without consent.

Why isn’t rape considered an act of uncontrollable sexual desire?

Rape is an act of dominance, hostility, control and violence. Rape is a means by which one person uses their power to violate another person. A rapist is in complete control and can stop at any time if he wanted to stop. To claim that men can become so consumed by a sexual desire that they cannot help raping someone is an insult to men and their sexual agency.

What constitutes consent?

“A person consents if they agree by choice and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” Sexual Offenses Act, section 74.

  • In the absence of mutually understandable words or actions, it is the responsibility of the initiator, or the person who wants to engage in the specific sexual activity to make sure that they have consent from the partner.
  • Silence (or lack of resistance) does not equal consent.
  • Consent to some form of sexual activity does not necessarily imply consent to other forms of sexual activity. Mutually understandable consent must be obtained by the initiator at every stage of sexual interaction.
  • Kissing someone or going back to their room is not “implicit consent”.
  • Consent which is obtained through the use of fraud or force, whether that is physical force, threats, intimidation, or coercion, is ineffective consent.
  • Consent cannot be implied by attire, or inferred from the spending of money on a date.
  • If person was incapacitated, and initiator should have reasonably known of the incapacity, indications of consent are irrelevant.

What is affirmative consent?

According to California State Law, Section 67386 of the Education Code, affirmative consent is defined as the following:

  1. An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that they have the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.
  2. A policy that, in the evaluation of complaints in any disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse to alleged lack of affirmative consent that the accused believed that the complainant consented to the sexual activity under either of the following circumstances:
    • The accused’s belief in affirmative consent arose from the intoxication or recklessness of the accused.
    • The accused did not take reasonable steps, in the circumstances known to the accused at the time, to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.
  3. A policy that the standard used in determining whether the elements of the complaint against the accused have been demonstrated is the preponderance of the evidence.
  4. A policy that, in the evaluation of complaints in the disciplinary process, it shall not be a valid excuse that the accused believed that the complainant affirmatively consented to the sexual activity if the accused knew or reasonably should have known that the complainant was unable to consent to the sexual activity under any of the following circumstances:
    • The complainant was asleep or unconscious.
    • The complainant was incapacitated due to the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medication, so that the complainant could not understand the fact, nature, or extent of the sexual activity.
    • The complainant was unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition.

Okay, but how do I get affirmative consent?

We have gotten this question from some freaked out college students. When it comes down to it, consensual sex consists of the mutual and sustained enjoyment for both people involved. This is obvious. In order to achieve this, open communication is key. Checking in with your partner does not have to ruin the mood; Asking questions such as “Are you cool with this?,” “Are you enjoying this?” or “Is this still okay?” can actually improve the sexual experience for both of you, rather than making it awkward. Read nonverbal cues as well and remember that if there is any question about whether someone is enjoying themselves, then the logical choice is to stop because if the enjoyment is not mutual, there is no reason to proceed.

Why do we focus on womxn as victims and men as perpetrators?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 99% of sexual assault offenders in single-victim incidents were male. An estimated 91% of the survivors of rape and sexual assault are womxn and 10% to 20% are male. Additionally, we must recognize that men perpetrate violence against nonbinary and genderqueer individuals, and that gender based violence occurs in LGBTQI+ relationships. Acknowledging the gendered nature of these crimes does not minimize abuse experienced by individuals in the LGBTQI+ community, where sexual violence remains a gendered issue. Gender is implicated in the construction of heterosexism and homophobia, which both contribute to abuse and act as barriers to survivors seeking help. We focus on the gendered nature of this crime in order to more effectively hold perpetrators (those who choose to harm) accountable, while also analyzing how gender roles, systemic sexism, homophobia, and transphobia empower those who commit sexual violence, primarily men.

Does rape affect men?

Both men and boys are victims/survivors of rape. Please note that this site is not focused on child abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 99% of sexual assault offenders in single-victim incidents were male. In addition, rape culture affects all men, and any man who knows someone who has been raped may be deeply affected. An estimated 10% to 20% of sexual assault and rape survivors are male. Many men are part of ending men’s violence against womxn and the gender hierarchy that influences these crimes. We often say “men’s violence against womxn and gender-based violence” in order to recognize that many men, boys, nonbinary and genderqueer individuals are survivors of sexual violence. Acknowledging that a majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men does not diminish the experiences of male survivors. Instead, it  allows us to understand and dismantle the patriarchal structures that contribute to the acceptance of sexual violence, such as toxic masculinity. This helps all survivors.

See Guys Getting Involved for more information

Does this affect college students?

A 2006 college survey indicated that men have raped, or attempted to rape, 1 in 4 women. (2006 CALCASA Report).

More than half of college rapes involved a date. Eighty-six percent of these rapes occurred in off-campus housing or in a car. (Rape on Campus: Facts and Measures)

Men committed nonconsensual sexual contact against 39.1% of transgender, genderqueer, or nonbinary Seniors at least once during their time at college. (UMass College Students with Non-Binary Sexual and/ or Gender Identities)

Why do survivors change their stories?

Many survivors of sexual assault will experience Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS). As the victim works through the stages of RTS, denial and memory loss are often experienced, followed by flashbacks and slowly coming to terms with the trauma of the event. During this process, victims may not be able to remember specifics or order of details. The amount that they remember will change over time.

Survivors may also face social pressures to change their stories. The survivor may be afraid of the attacker, especially in cases where sexual assault is linked to relationship abuse, and change the story once the assailant finds out charges have been filed. The survivor may also be pressured by family, friends, or other community members to change their story.

Why don't survivors report?

There are many barriers to reporting. Consider the ways reports of sexual assault are usually handled in the media, in communities, and in the criminal justice system. Often, the victim’s sexuality and sexual history are questioned along with their clothing, drinking choices, and behaviors. Survivors are often scrutinized just as harshly, if not more harshly, than the perpetrators (those who choose to harm). This process is re-victimizing and does not make reporting an appealing option. Based on societal reactions, and low prosecution rates, survivors may think that no one will believe them if they come forward. In many cases, survivors may not recognize what they experienced as a crime because of the proliferation of sexualized violence in the media. Victims may also deny or minimize what happened to them as a coping mechanism. There are also substantial physical barriers to reporting. Womxn may not have the time, money, knowledge, support system, or language capacity needed to access the reporting process.

In one study, the following explanations were found as to why no report was made after a sexual assault:

  • 43% thought nothing could be done
  • 27% thought it was a private matter
  • 12% were afraid of police response

How can I help a friend/respond to survivors?

Please see How to Help a Friend.

What can I do right now?

  • Learn about sexual assault and its impact on society.
  • Speak out against sexual assault and sexual violence – including language that degrades women or makes a joke out of sexual assault.
  • Change the conversation – move from victim-blaming dialogue to offender accountability when you hear sexual assault discussed.
  • Support agencies that are a resource for survivors.

For more tips, see our Take Action Checklist.

Is it true that false accusations are not common?

Yes, it is true that they are not common. This fear of false accusations is common, but unfounded. Only 2% of all rape accusations are false, which is the same percentage as for any other felony. These accusations are often interrupted very early in the process and do not go to trial. However, people are not worried about being falsely accused of money laundering in the same way that they are worried about a false accusation of rape. Some of these fears stem from misconceptions about what happens when a survivor reports a rape. In Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz (2005) points out that between 80-90% of rapes go unreported, due to how traumatic and victimizing the process can be. Rape kits are invasive and painful; survivors are often subject to their own sex lives being put on display and their reputations destroyed; and many people do not believe survivors when they come forward. Katz asks “if these disincentives are powerful enough to keep the vast majority of actual from reporting the crime, how realistic is it to believe large numbers of women are falsely doing so…invit[ing] the heartache and social stigma?” (218). We would add that if a womxn regrets sex, they don’t call the police to feel better about it or if they want revenge; there are less socially damaging ways for a person to do this. We all see the media and we know what happens to the survivor when they have the courage to report. On top of this, prosecution rates are very low for sexual assault (only 2%) and college campuses generally do not hold perpetrators (those that choose to harm) accountable, so survivors who choose to come forward rarely receive justice. This fear of false rape accusations stems from an inability to see oneself, a friend, or a loved one as being capable of perpetrating such assault or abuse; it is easier to blame the victim. However, when you ask most men whether they are afraid of being falsely accused, they say no, because most men know how to obtain consent and are not afraid of “accidentally” committing sexual assault.

How are sex trafficking and sexual assault connected?

Survivors of sex trafficking are also survivors of sexual assault. Sex trafficking is a form of sexual violence, and men who traffic womxn, girls, and gender-expansive youth force them to commit commercial sex acts through force and/or coercion, thus perpetrating instances of sexual assault. For the full definition of sex trafficking, visit our Definitions page.

Survivors of sex trafficking and sexual assault may face similar backlash due to rape culture. According to the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, “Victim blaming mentality may be evident in both crimes. For example, sexual assault victims may be blamed for alcohol and drug use, relationship history, appearance, etc. Trafficking victims may be blamed for their immigration status, accepting a job, previous criminal history, involvement in the sex industry, or earning any money.”