What Is Sexual Assault?

What Is Sexual Assault?

What behaviors or acts constitute sexual assault? It’s important to define sexual assault for these reasons:

  1. Many victims experience the confusing and isolating effects of abuse because they are unclear on what sexual assault entails. This leads to denial and minimizing of the suffering of victims.
  2. Studies indicate that most people, and especially those in the church, don’t understand the dynamics of sexual violence and have little or no experience helping others deal with it.



Sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained, and it is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority. There are three main parts to this definition and we will look at each of these separately.


Sexual Behaviors or Contact

Sexual assault is mainly about violence, not sex. It is not a product of an “uncontrollable” sexual urge. Even though perpetrators use sexual actions and behaviors as weapons, the primary motivation is to dominate, control, and belittle another. This can be done with physical sexual contact as well as through non-physical sexual behavior. Sexual assault occurs along a continuum of power and control ranging from non-contact sexual assault to forced sexual intercourse. Sexual assault includes acts such as non-consensual sexual intercourse (rape), non-consensual sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, exposure, voyeurism, or attempts to commit these acts.



Consent is when an individual is freely able to make a choice based upon respect, equal power, and with the understanding that there is the freedom to change her or his mind at any point. There are three main considerations in judging whether or not a sexual act is consensual or is an assault:

  1. Are both people old enough to consent?
  2. Do both people have the capacity to consent?
  3. Did both agree to the sexual contact or behavior?

If any of these are answered “No,” it is likely that sexual assault has occurred.

Consent requires communicating “yes” to engaging in a particular act. Consent is not given when one person says “no,” says nothing, is coerced, is physically forced, is mentally or physically helpless, is intoxicated, is under the influence of drugs, or is unconscious. Having given consent on a previous occasion does not mean that a person has consented for any future encounter. The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believe they are undergoing a medical procedure.



There are varying methods perpetrators use to violate victims. In some cases, sexual assault may involve the use of force, which may include but is not limited to physical violence, use or display of a weapon, or immobilization of victim. Sexual assault may also involve psychological coercion and taking advantage of an individual who is incapacitated or under duress and, therefore, is incapable of making a decision on his or her own.

Sexual assault occurs when a nonconsensual sexual act or behavior is committed either by:

  • Physical force, violence, threat, or intimidation
  • Ignoring the objections of another person
  • Causing another’s intoxication or impairment through the use of drugs or alcohol
  • Taking advantage of another person’s incapacitation, state of intimidation helplessness, or other inability to consent


Why It Matters

There is an epidemic of sexual assault and victims need the kind of hope and healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide. Tragically, most churches and Christians are woefully unprepared to help the one in four women and one in six men who have been abused sexually. Helping victims of sexual assault starts with knowing what “sexual assault” is.


To be continued.


Justin and Lindsey Holcomb are the authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault