What Is Sexual Assault?


For at least some purposes, sexual assault is a disputed concept. According to Burgess-Proctor and Urban (2014, p. 1),

There is . . . tremendous variation in the terminology states use to describe sexual assault (“sexual abuse,” “criminal sexual conduct,” “sexual battery,” “sexual torture,” etc.), and there likewise exists no necessary consistency in the definitions of these terms across states. Even the language states use to define “consent” varies considerably, as does the standard by which consent (or lack thereof) is measured.

The complexity of the concept, and of its definitions, is increased by the publication of confusing materials, by sources to which people might reasonably look for guidance.

For example, in my simple Google search for “sexual assault,” the second entry came from WomensHealth.gov — that is, the Office on Women’s Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Based on prior research, I suspected that such an office might not be credible. That suspicion was confirmed by a reading of the definition offered on that page. That definition and related discussion including the following words:

Sexual assault and abuse is any type of sexual activity that you do not agree to . . . . Sexual assault can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. Examples of this [include] .  . . . sexual harassment. . . .

These are important steps to take right away after an assault: Get away from the attacker to a safe place as fast as you can. Then call 911 or the police. . . .

There are things you can do to reduce your chances of being sexually assaulted [including] . . . Know your limits when it comes to using alcohol.

As those excerpts may suggest, the page was completely muddled. I was amazed that the Office on Women’s Health was unable to find a competent staff attorney to write something intelligible. Among other things,

  • Consider the first words: “Sexual assault and abuse is . . . .” We have just seen that sexual assault and abuse may be distinct concepts, and that in any event this particular webpage repeatedly refers to sexual assault as distinct from sexual abuse. If you want to talk about sexual assault, fine. If you want to talk about sexual abuse, fine. Just explain how they differ from one another, or make clear that you are treating them as synonyms.
  • The claim: sexual harassment is a kind of sexual assault. This seems unlikely. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in which submission to or rejection of such conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s work or school performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work or school environment.” By contrast, assault is typically defined as “an attempt to injure to someone else, and in some circumstances can include threats or threatening behavior against others” (FindLaw, 2014). In other words, assault and sexual harassment appear to be largely unrelated concepts.
  • The claim: sexual assault can be verbal. The contention here seems to be that, just as “hate speech” is absurdly used to include speech lacking in hatred, “sexual assault” is used to include sex-related behavior not entailing an assault.
  • The claim: sexual assault can be visual. This cryptic remark would apparently require women to be arrested and charged with sexual assault if, for example, they engage in naked bicycling, topless protests, or displays of nakedness suggesting mental illness. Or possibly the author means that a man can be arrested for looking at a woman.
  • The claim: sexual assault can include unwanted sexual attention. The Catch-22: how do you know it is unwanted until you try? The woman is not wearing a sign that says, “Don’t talk to me.” You aren’t allowed to use her choice of seductive or non-seductive clothing as a clue. You can’t tell by her body language, because women generally act uninterested until they decide that they might be interested after all. So you do the natural thing: you give it a try and then — oops! Wrong! Call the cops!
  • Related claim: sexual harassment is an example of behavior that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. What does it mean to force someone to engage in unwanted attention?
  • The advice: after a sexual assault, get away as fast as possible and call 911. So, OK, the guy has engaged in so-called “verbal sexual assault.” The woman, as advised, gets away and calls the police. They show up, listen to her story, and scratch their heads. You didn’t want his attention, OK, but what does that have to do with us?
  • The advice: to avoid verbal sexual assault, don’t drink too much. This is completely incoherent. The author apparently did not even bother to review his/her work, else s/he might have recognized that the advice on lowering one’s risk of sexual assault is entirely oriented toward rape situations. Which makes sense, in itself, because rape is one of the few acts listed on that page that really should be treated as assaultive or otherwise criminal behavior.

In net terms, this material from the Office on Women’s Health seemed malicious toward men. Even for an author as befuddled as this one was, never mind his/her supervisor, it would be difficult to overlook the harm that could be done by the broad and confusing scope of his/her statements. It is as though s/he sought to put men on warning that, where women are concerned, they should not speak, look, or touch. In other words, they should act like women. That may be impossible; it may not be what the women in their lives want from them; but, if so, too bad.

It did not appear that that office of the federal government was structured to provide useful information to men and women alike. RAINN (cited above) had seemed much more clear-headed, so I returned to them. Their definition:

Sexual assault: unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling. (But, be aware: Some states use this term interchangeably with rape.)

Nothing there about visual or verbal assault. The webpage seems to indicate that this wording is not someone’s random brainchild; this is apparently an attempt to synthesize the content of various state statutes. In other words, to the extent that criminal laws represent compromises that everyone can live with, this definition attempts to provide a brief summary that people can understand, apply, and be fairly disciplined for violating. It also appeared that, in most states, the definition of rape tends to be distinguished from the definition of sexual assault.

Returning to my Google search, I decided to consult one more source. FindLaw largely confirmed what RAINN had said:

Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape.

One variation, there, was the requirement that the touching be not only unwanted but also offensive. A drawback of statutory language, to offset the advantage noted above, is that it is generally quite abbreviated. Without investigating the specifics of any particular state, it seemed likely that the same touch (to e.g., a breast, performed intentionally or perhaps even accidentally) could be variously treated as permissible or impermissible, depending on complexities of thought and imperfections of communication that would rarely be articulated in real time and might not even be clarified in a courtroom after the fact.

In these matters, the intention of the law appeared to be that men would spend their Saturday mornings in the law library, researching what they could safely do on their Saturday nights. Since that was unlikely to happen, society’s default position seemed to be that men are expected to figure it out by trial and error, learning the nuances by rumor and, where they learn wrong, acquiring criminal charges. This could be less of a problem for socially advantaged males, who might be adequately cued in by acquaintance with sophisticated sources, and more of a problem for rural, lower-income, lower-intelligence, and otherwise uncertain or ill-informed folk.


This brief excursion into definitions of sexual assault yielded several observations. One was that, as in other matters pertaining to interactions between men and women, there seem to be women in influential positions who abuse their power to try to harm men. An example in this case is the U.S. Office on Women’s Health. As indicated in another post, there are real problems with the idea of a federal office that exists to serve women while entirely neglecting male perspectives and concerns, thus implicitly treating men as the enemy.

Another observation was that there is considerable tension between the ways in which the law restricts male behavior and the ways in which certain women wish to restrict male behavior. Quite aside from motives tending toward malice or emasculation, it appeared that many women and men alike are unhappy with the roles and behaviors that millions of us have acquired in ordinary American life. It seemed, in other words, that in preference to the legalistic confrontations implicit in definitions of terms like “sexual assault,” there may be a need for a constructive dialogue, developed in congruence with the spirit of genuine social work (as distinct from today’s bigoted and corrupt social work profession), wherein all sorts of men and women would strive to develop a more workable and positive set of principles, expectations, assumptions, and objectives to guide their mutual interactions.

Finally, this bit of exploration yielded the impression that sexual assault may be construed as assault of a sexual nature. Embellishments upon that relatively obvious formulation, such as those offered by the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, could seemingly be manifestations of mental confusion and/or wishful thinking — to be attempts, in other words, to piggyback all sorts of additional proscriptions onto actual law, without permitting the public commentary and opposing views that tend to make the law a relatively concise compromise.


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