Sexual assault is any type of forced or coerced sexual contact or behavior that happens without consent. Sexual assault includes rape and attempted rape, child molestation, and sexual harassment or threats. In the United States, nearly one in five women has been raped and almost half of women have experienced another type of sexual assault.1 If you have been sexually assaulted, it is not your fault.
Sexual assault is any type of sexual activity, including rape, that you do not agree to. Also called sexual violence or abuse, sexual assault is never your fault.
The Department of Justice defines rape as "The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."2 This legal definition is used by the federal government to collect information from local police about rape. The definition of rape may be slightly different in your community.
Rape also can happen when you cannot physically give consent, such as while you were drunk, passed out, or high. Read more about alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault. Rape can also happen when you cannot legally give consent, such as when you are underage.
Sexual assault can include:3
Sexual assault can also be verbal or visual. It is anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. Examples can include:4
Consent is a clear "yes" to sexual activity. Not saying "no" does not mean you have given consent.
Your consent means:
Sometimes you cannot give legal consent to sexual activity or contact. For example, if you are:
Not all sexual assault involves a physical attack. Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after someone is pressured, tricked, or forced in a nonphysical way.
Anyone can use coercion — for example, husbands, partners, boyfriends, friends, coworkers, bosses, or dates.
Sexual coercion can be social or emotional pressure to force you into sexual activity that you do not want or agree to. See the chart below for ways someone might use sexual coercion:
|Ways someone might use sexual coercion||What he or she may say|
|Wearing you down by asking for sex again and again, or making you feel bad, guilty, or obligated||
|Making you feel like it's too late to say no||
|Telling you that not having sex will hurt your relationship||
|Lying or threatening to spread rumors about you||
|Threatening your children or other family members||
|Threatening your job, home, or school career||
Sexual coercion is not your fault. If you are feeling pressured to do something you don't want to do, speak up or leave the situation. It is better to risk a relationship ending or hurting someone's feelings than to do something you aren't ready or willing to do.
Some possible responses include:
Be clear and direct with the person coercing you. Tell him or her how you feel and what you do not want to do. If the other person is not listening to you, leave the situation. If you or your family is in physical danger, try to get away from the person as quickly as possible. Call 911 if you are in immediate danger.
Sexual coercion is a type of sexual assault. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online with a trained hotline worker on the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at any time to get help.
Some sexual coercion is against the law or violates school or workplace policies. If you are younger than 18, tell a trusted adult about what happened. If you are an adult, consider talking to someone about getting help and reporting the person to the local authorities. You could talk to a counselor, the human resources department, or the local police.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age, race or ethnicity, religion, ability, appearance, sexual orientation, or gender identity. However, women have higher rates of sexual assault than men.
Sometimes, sexual assault is committed by a stranger. Most often, though, it is by someone you know, including a friend, acquaintance, relative, date, or your partner.
Both women and men commit sexual assault, but nearly 99% of all people who are reported for sexual assault are men. Six in 10 of those are white.8 The majority of sexual assault victims know the person who assaulted them.1
Yes. Sexual assault is unwanted sexual activity — no matter whom it is with.
Sexual assault by an intimate partner is common. More than half of female rape victims were raped by their partner.1
If you are in danger or need medical care, call 911. If you can, get away from the person who assaulted you and get to a safe place as fast as you can.
If you have been physically assaulted or raped, there are other important steps you can take right away:
After a sexual assault, you may feel fear, shame, guilt, or shock. These feelings are normal. But sexual assault is never your fault. It may be frightening to think about talking about the assault, but it is important to get help. You can call these organizations any time, day or night. The calls are free and confidential:
Each state and territory has organizations and hotlines to help people who have been sexually assaulted.
You cannot always prevent sexual assault. If you are assaulted, or if you find yourself in a situation that feels unsafe, it is not your fault. But you can take steps to help stay safe in general:9,10
Yes. Sexual assault and alcohol often go together. Research shows that up to three out of four attackers had been drinking when the attack happened.11
Research also shows that about half of sexual assault victims had been drinking.11 However, this does not mean that drinking causes sexual assault. Many perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to lower a person's ability to give consent, resist, understand what is happening, or remember the assault. They may take advantage of a victim who has already been drinking or encourage her to drink more than she might normally drink.
Some perpetrators also use drugs called "date rape drugs." These drugs are slipped into drinks — even nonalcoholic drinks — or food without the victim's knowledge. The drugs can cause memory loss, so victims may not know what happened. Some attackers also use other drugs, such as ecstasy, marijuana, or prescription pills. They may give drugs to someone who takes them willingly or may drug her without her knowledge.
Someone who is drunk, drugged, or high on drugs cannot give consent. Without consent, sexual activity is sexual assault.
Yes, sexual assault can have long-term health effects. People who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to report:1
Other health effects can include:12
You can help a friend or family member who has been sexually assaulted by listening, offering comfort, and not judging. Reinforce the message that she or he is not at fault and that it is natural to feel angry, confused, or ashamed — or any combination of feelings.
Ask your loved one if she would like you to go with her to the hospital or to counseling. If she decides to report the crime to the police, ask if she would like you to go with her. Let her know that professional help is available. Let her know about the hotlines to call and talk to someone. Get more tips on helping a friend who has been sexually assaulted or abused in our Violence Against Women section.
For more information about sexual assault, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the additional reviews by:
All material contained on these pages are free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.
Page last updated: April 28, 2017.
Content last reviewed: May 21, 2015.