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Sexual Assault: What to Know About the Changing Definitions and Laws

The Law Firm of Andrea M. Kolski

According to the Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network, sexual assault occurs every 98 seconds. Rape occurs in America every 108 seconds.

The good news is that these numbers have fallen by more than half since 1993. The bad news is that it’s still happening at all. No person should ever be the victim of unwanted sexual contact of any kind.

But how does the law define sexual assault? It can be confusing and overwhelming trying to understand. Continue reading to learn what you need to know about sexual assault laws in the United States.

How Does the Law Define Sexual Assault?

The term “sexual assault” can be confusing. While some acts may be considered sexual harassment, they aren’t considered assault. The difference between these two is the severity of the action and whether physical contact was made.

Another difference between the two is that sexual harassment is generally a misdemeanor, while sexual assault is a felony. A felony is a more severe crime. As such, it levies more prison time and fines than a misdemeanor would.

Different states may call this other things. You might also hear the terms “sexual battery” or “criminal sexual penetration” instead of sexual assault. But what acts does the law considered sexual assault?

What Acts Are Considered Sexual Assault Legally?

Sexual assault involves unwanted sexual contact. This is any contact where the victim says no or cannot give consent (see below). Sexual assault doesn’t have to be done by brute force but can also be done through coercion.

Coercion is when someone forces you to do something against your will. Instead of brute force, they make threats or otherwise make the victim feel as though they have no choice but to do as asked.

The problem with sexual assault that occurs through coercion is that it can be harder to prove or make a case. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But, there is often a lack of physical evidence (such as bruises) that appear in more violent cases.

But it’s essential to understand precisely what the law defines as sexual assault. By law, the term includes the following:

  • Rape or attempted rape
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts they don’t want to participate in
  • Unwanted sexual touching of any kind
  • Unwanted sexual penetration of any orifice with any body part or object
  • Sodomy without consent
  • Sexual contact with minors, with or without consent
  • Sexual contact with anyone mentally incapable (permanently or temporarily) of granting consent

Sexual Assault vs. Rape

Although the two are often confused, sexual assault and rape are two different things. Rape is a type of sexual assault often considered, legally and morally, as one of the worst sexual crimes a person can commit. This is because rape involves penetration, whereas other forms of assault do not have to.

How Does the Law Define Rape?

The law defines rape as unwanted penetration of any depth. “Unwanted” means a person hasn’t given consent and can include penetration of the anus or vagina with any body part or object. It includes penetration of the mouth with a person’s sexual organ.

The key to sexual assault is that it’s sexual contact without consent. This makes it essential to understand what consent is and when someone can give it.

Consent never has to be given. No person is under any obligation to have sex or sexual contact without another person, under any circumstances. If you are dating or married to a person, this doesn’t mean they’re allowed to use your body whenever they wish.

Sexual assault between intimate partners is a crime and is called marital rape or spousal rape. If a significant other says “no,” this means they haven’t given consent.

By law, consent is saying yes to sex or sexual contact. The person giving consent must be legally and mentally capable of doing so.

Consent may be taken away at any time, and saying yes once does not equal lifelong permission. Yes to one type of sexual contact does not equal consent to other forms.

Anyone under the age of thirteen is not able to give consent. When it comes to sexual intercourse among teenagers of roughly the same age, the laws vary by state and can be tricky. Of course, any unwanted physical contact among teenagers is still assault or rape.

Any contact with a minor by a legal adult is automatically considered statutory rape. This is regardless of whether the minor gave their consent. Since they’re unable to do so, the consent does not count, and the adult can still be prosecuted for sexual assault.

There are many circumstances where a person may be temporarily or permanently mentally incapable of giving consent. Any person with a documented mental illness that affects their ability to understand on a significant level can’t give consent. But what falls under temporary incapable?

If a person is intoxicated for any reason, they’re incapable of giving consent. This includes intoxication through street drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs, and anesthesia.

Any person who is sleeping is incapable of giving consent. If someone gave permission while awake but then passed out or fell asleep, it is automatically withdrawn.

Do You Have More Questions About Sexual Assault Laws?

Sexual assault is defined as any unwanted sexual contact. Although the two terms are used interchangeably, rape is a form of sexual assault. There are some situations where a person is legally or mentally incapable of granting consent.

Do you have more questions about sexual assault laws?

Contact us today. One of our associates would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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