DEFINE WHAT HAPPENED
WHAT IS SEXUAL ABUSE?
“Sexual abuse” is a term that people use in different ways. Some use it to refer to sexual crimes committed against children. Others use it to describe unwanted sexual contact that does not rise to the level of a sexual assault. For example, some states have a legal definition of sexual abuse that includes misdemeanor offenses, while sexual assault is a felony level offense.
WHAT IS SEXUAL ASSAULT?
“Sexual assault” refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without consent of the victim. This can include sexual acts committed using force or threats – or against someone who is unable to legally consent. For example, the person may be too young, unconscious, or incapacitated for any reason (including drugs or alcohol, as well as severe disabilities).
Some forms of sexual assault include:
- Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape
- Attempted rape
- Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as penetrating the perpetrator’s body or forcing the victim to put his or her mouth on the perpetrator’s genitals
- Unwanted sexual touching
Legal definitions of sexual assault vary across states, territories, and tribes. People also use the term in different ways, which do not always match with the legal definitions.
Crimes involving sexual penetration are typically felonies, meaning that the defendant could be sentenced to prison if convicted. Unwanted sexual touching is typically a misdemeanor, however, in some circumstances, it might be a felony. Defendants convicted of a misdemeanor will typically be sentenced to local jail time or probation.
WHAT IS RAPE?
People use the term “rape” to mean different things. Often, it is used to refer to sexual penetration without consent. Again, this can be committed using force or threats, or against someone who is legally unable to consent. Penetration is often defined as “penetration, no matter how slight,” of the vagina or anus of one person, with an object or the body part of another person. It also includes nonconsensual oral sex. However, legal definitions vary across jurisdictions, and people use terminology in ways that don’t necessary match these legal definitions.
The important thing isn’t whether or not what happened to you meets the legal definition of rape. That is a legal issue. What matters now is that something happened that concerned you enough to find this website. Using our Guided Questions, you can learn more about your options and make decisions.
WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT?
Some people use the term “sexual harassment” to generally refer to sexual abuse or assault, but it specifically describes behaviors that are related to school or work. This can include crude sexual comments or jokes, propositions for sex, unwanted sexual acts, and other behaviors. It can happen at school or work or just involve a teacher, supervisor, or co-worker. Because it happens in the context of school or work, this type of behavior is a form of sex discrimination covered by federal civil rights.
Sexual harassment can include criminal offenses such as rape or sexual assault, but more typically it involves behaviors that are not crimes. For example, if you are sexually abused or assaulted by a teacher, supervisor, or co-worker – and the incident meets the legal definition above – then it is a criminal act, which can be reported to law enforcement, investigated, and possibly prosecuted. Of course, you can also report it at school or work.
However, if the behavior does not meet any of those definitions – for example, if it involves sexual comments or jokes, but no physical contact – then it is not a criminal matter. You can use the reporting process at school or work, to initiate an internal investigation. This might lead to sanctions for the person who did it. You may also be able to file a civil lawsuit. This requires hiring a lawyer, who can explain the process to you.
There are many steps a survivor must take on the road to moving forward. Some people find that connecting with victim services or police can help to give them a sense of control and start the healing process. But taking those first steps to speak up can be hard. That’s okay! We understand. By guiding you through a series of questions, we can help you gather information to figure out what options are right for you.
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