What Is Sexual Violence
Sexual violence refers to any sexual activity during which one person does not freely give consent or is unable to give consent. This includes completed and attempted sexual acts.
“Sexual violence is defined as: any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”
Many cases of sexual violence may involve violent or coerced acts. However, the incident does not need to be violent (e.g., involve coercion or inflict other bodily harm) to be considered sexual violence.
Any sexual act committed against a minor under the age of legal consent is an act of sexual violence.
Examples of Sexual Violence
The term “sexual violence” is a non-legal term covering a multitude of sexual acts. Below, we’ve covered some common examples of sexual violence.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual assault as sexual contact or behavior committed without the victim’s explicit consent. A perpetrator may use physical violence, coercion or manipulation when sexually assaulting a victim.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone. No matter how the incident takes place, it is never the victim’s fault.
Types Of Sexual Assault
- Rape (attempted or completed)
- Unwanted touching, groping or fondling
- Forcing a victim to perform a sexual act (such as masturbation, oral or anal sex)
Common Perpetrators Of Sexual Assault
Anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual assault. Oftentimes, victims know their perpetrators.
According to RAINN, the victim knows the perpetrator in approximately 74% of reported sexual assaults. The perpetrator may be a relative, significant other, former significant other or acquaintance of the victim.
The terms “sexual assault” and “rape” are not synonymous. Rape is one form of sexual assault. However, not every incident of sexual assault includes rape.
Rape is often defined as sexual penetration without consent. But, every state defines these terms differently in a legal setting.
Visit RAINN to learn how your state defines these terms and punishes these actions.
Sexual harassment includes any behavior of a sexual nature directed at an unwilling participant. It can be verbal, visual or physical.
Unwanted sexual advances and requests for sexual favors are also forms of sexual harassment.
Common Perpetrators Of Sexual Harassment
Anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is frequently perpetrated by those in a position of power. A manager may sexually harass a subordinate. An older student may sexually harass a younger student.
Sexual harassment is most often discussed in venues such as the workplace or on school campuses. However, sexual harassment can happen anywhere by anyone.
Sexual misconduct is a broad term that can describe a multitude of inappropriate sexual behaviors or actions. Depending on the definition, the term may or not include acts of sexual harassment.
The term is often used in workplace or learning environments and included in codes of conduct. Thus, the definition varies based on the context. For example, a company often defines sexual misconduct based on their own values and workplace etiquette.
Sexual abuse typically refers to sexual activity with a victim who is unable to give consent.
The term is most commonly used when referring to sexual activity committed against a minor. This is also known as child sexual abuse.
However, vulnerable adults can also be victims of sexual abuse. Adults with mental or physical disabilities as well as older adults who rely on assistance from others are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
For example, many older adults living in assisted care facilities or senior centers are victims of sexual abuse. In fact, sexual abuse is just one facet of elder abuse.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) defines elder abuse as “an intentional or negligent act by any person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to an older adult.”
Common Perpetrators Of Sexual Abuse
Anyone can commit sexual abuse, and it is most often committed by someone the victim knows. A perpetrator can be a teacher, a religious leader such as a priest, a caregiver, a doctor or even a relative. One DOJ report found 34% of sexual assaults against minors were crimes of incest.
Incest is sexual abuse committed by a victim’s family member. Perpetrators of incest can be biologically related to a victim or a member of the victim’s family through marriage.
People may believe they can trust everyone in their lives, but child sexual abuse statistics say otherwise. Being vigilant for signs of sexual abuse can help advocates identify victims and potentially prevent further sexual abuse.
Intimate Partner Sexual Violence
According to the CDC, intimate partner sexual violence occurs when a person forces a partner “…to take part in a sex act, sexual touching, or a non-physical sexual event (e.g., sexting) when the partner does not or cannot consent.”
Intimate partner sexual violence can occur between spouses or dating partners, both current and former. It occurs in relationships of all genders and sexual orientations.
Intimate partner sexual violence is also commonly referred to as domestic violence, intimate partner rape, marital rape and spousal rape.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”
A perpetrator of sex trafficking uses physical force, fraud or coercion to make a victim take part in sexual acts for profit.
Common Perpetrators Of Sex Trafficking
Perpetrators of sex trafficking come from all races, creeds, ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic classes. Although some perpetrators are involved in organized crime or members of gangs, others act in smaller or less-organized groups.
Anyone could be involved in sex trafficking, regardless of their criminal history.
Sex traffickers can be business owners, family members of the victim, intimate partners of the victim, corporate executives or government officials.
In today’s technology-driven world, perpetrators of sexual violence have developed digital methods to sexually harass, intimidate and abuse victims.
Perpetrators can utilize social media, online forums, collaborative gaming sites, digital communications and dating apps to reach victims. They leverage digital content (such as photos or videos) as well as sexually explicit language against victims.
According to RAINN, some common forms of digital sexual abuse include:
- Catfishing – a perpetrator lies about his or her identity in digital communications to start a romantic or sexual relationship.
- Cyberstalking – using digital means to track a victim’s location; cyberstalking can also include repeatedly contacting a victim against their wishes via digital means.
- Digital sexual assault – distributing or threatening to distribute sexual images of a victim without their consent.
- Pressuring a victim to send sexually explicit photos or videos – using manipulation or coercion to make a victim send photos or videos of themselves.
- Sending unsolicited or unwanted sexually explicit content to a victim – this includes sexually explicit language, photos or videos sent to a victim digitally.
- Taking sexually explicit photos or videos of a victim – this happens when a person takes photos or videos of someone without his or her consent.
- Digitally sharing unsolicited or material – this includes sharing unwanted pornography or sexually explicit content with a victim.
Common Perpetrators Of Digital Abuse
Due to the nature of digital abuse, it is easy for perpetrators to remain anonymous. Anyone can be the abuser behind a screen name or digital profile.
Reporting Sexual Violence
Sexual offenses are often underreported. It is typically left to the victim to report the crimes.
Based on the nature of sexual violence, victims often feel too intimidated or ashamed to report their experiences. However, some victims may find a sense of justice, dignity or comfort by reporting their experiences and potentially preventing their abuser from targeting other victims.
Learn more about reporting child sexual abuse and sexual assault here >
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 17). Sexual Violence.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, January 17). Preventing Sexual Violence.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 9). Preventing Intimate Partner Violence.
Elder Justice Initiative. (2015, October 19). Elder Justice Initiative (EJI). U.S. Department of Justice.
Love Is Respect. (N.D.) What Is Digital Abuse? [PDF]. National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Planned Parenthood. (N.D.) Sexual Assault and Harassment.
Polaris. (2018, November 7). Myths, Facts, And Statistics.
RAINN. (N.D.) Incest.
RAINN. (N.D.) Intimate Partner Sexual Violence.
RAINN. (N.D.) Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics.
RAINN. (N.D.) Sexual Assault.
RAINN. (N.D.) Sexual Harassment.
RAINN. (N.D.) Using Technology to Hurt Others.
Snyder, H. N. (2000, July). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics [PDF]. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
World Health Organization. (2002). World report on violence and health [PDF].
Meneo Group managing partner: Ron Meneo
Ron Meneo is the managing partner of The Meneo Law Group. With more than 40 years of experience, he represents clients across the country on a variety of complex legal matters, including personal injury due to institutional sexual abuse, unsafe pharmaceutical drugs and other practice areas. He is a recipient of Martindale-Hubbell’s prestigious AV® Preeminent Rating. He has also served as an editor and contributor for several legal journals.