Experiencing any form of sexual assault can leave a person with many questions. At the same time, friends and family may not feel prepared to answer those questions or might have queries themselves.
In this section we explain some of the frequently asked questions related to sexual assault, which you may find useful if you want to know more about these issues.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is any sexual act that is unwanted and that no consent has been given in which a person is threatened, coerced, forced to comply against their will or unable to give consent to the activity.
The activity or conduct may include threat, the use of physical force, the use of coercion or manipulation into agreeing, causing the other person’s intoxication or incapacitation to give consent (usually through the use of drugs or alcohol) or taking advantage of the other person’s voluntary intoxication.
Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence and can include unwanted, non-consensual touching and/or oral, anal or vaginal sexual intercourse, penetration with a foreign object (i.e. fingers, sex toys, etc.). This could be perpetrated by a person known by the victim or by a complete stranger.
To learn more about sexual assault visit our About These Issues page.
What is rape?
Rape is a form of sexual assault and happens when there is the actual non-consensual oral, anal or vaginal penetration of the victim by body parts or objects.
When the act is intentionally performed penetrating the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with the perpetrator’s penis, the UK law refers to it as rape. When the act is performed through a part of the perpetrator’s body rather than their penis or any foreign objects, the UK law refers to it as sexual assault by penetration.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is a form of abuse that includes any sexual activity made with a minor, including penetration or any other sexual act that is harmful to a child’s mental, emotional, or physical status.
Child sexual abuse does not necessarily involve sexual contact, use of force or touching the victim and can refer also to any sexual behaviour such as grooming, exploitation, looking, showing or touching performed by the abuser on themselves (e.g. masturbation), in the presence of a child. It might also include the production, including persuading children to perform sexual acts, distribution and/or viewing of child pornography.
What is grooming?
Grooming is the process used by abusers with sexual interest in children to manipulate, coerce and prepare a child for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.
It is usually carefully planned and it is the most commonly recognised tactic used by paedophiles, not only on the child but also on their parents. It is important to say that, even if the term usually refers to child grooming, adults can also be groomed (e.g. by older adults, someone they admire, or someone in a position of power, etc.).
Grooming can happen when the predator use tactics to make the child believe that any type of sexual intercourse with them is normal or that they have no choice and cannot refuse (e.g. blackmailing, victim blaming). In most cases, predators do this by establishing a positive, emotional, trusting and friendly relationship with the child. In many cases, the abuser may also build the same type of relationship with the child’s friends and family, making them believe that they are someone who can be trusted with the child.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It involves behaviour such as unwanted sexual advances, coercion of a sexual nature to obtain what the perpetrator wants, and other conduct of a sexual nature which violates the dignity of the person, makes them feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated or creates a hostile or offensive environment. This could happen in person (e.g. on the street, at work, in public places), over the phone, or online.
What is dating violence?
Dating violence happens when one of the partners in a dating relationship use controlling, abusive and aggressive behaviour, including behaviour perpetrated to manipulate the other into having unwanted sexual contact. Dating violence can happen to everyone and it can include emotional, verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse.
What is stalking?
Stalking is defined as any unwanted, persistent and obsessive attention or behaviour by an individual or group towards another person.
Stalking involves serious alarm or distress, which makes it particularly hard to cope with it and makes the victim feels constantly anxious and afraid that violence might be used against them.
What is consent?
Everyone has the right to say ‘no’ to sex, to withdraw or withhold their consent for any sexual act, on any occasion and under any circumstances, regardless of whether they’ve given consent to sex with that person in the past and regardless of whether they’re in a relationship with the other person. Sex without consent is rape.
According to section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, someone consents when she or he “agrees by choice…and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”
There are no grey areas when it comes to consent for example:
- If someone is under the age of 16, they don’t legally have the capacity to consent to sex.
- If someone is asleep or unconscious, they don’t have the capacity to consent.
- If they’ve been kidnapped or held against their will, they don’t have the freedom to consent
To learn more about consent visit our Sexual Consent page.
Was it my fault?
Any type of sexual assault is against the law and it is considered a sexual offence. Nobody has the right to force someone into sex, or any unwanted act of sexual nature without their consent, and it is important for the victim to understand that it was not their fault if this happened to them.
Many people believe that in some cases they contributed to the abuse and they are to blame, even partially, for what happened. This frequently happens when the person had been drinking alcohol or taking drugs at the time of the abuse; are in a relationship with the perpetrator or have had a sexual relationship, including kissing or touching, with them prior to the abuse; were with people of the same sex and don’t want to report such detail to the police or friends and family; were not able to say no, did not fight back or left the relationship; cannot really remember what happened due to different reasons, including trauma.
No matter what happened, only one person makes the choice to perform sexual violence, and it is the abuser, not the victim. It is never the victim’s fault and there are no excuses for sexual violence.
To learn more about consent visit our Sexual Consent page.
Can this happen to a man?
Sexual assault does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone and can be perpetrated by anyone, regardless of their age, social background, gender, religion, sexual identity, race, culture, ethnicity or disability.
Worldwide statistics show that one in four women and one in six men will experience sexual assault at some stage in their lifetime but at the same time, researchers do believe that official statistics vastly under-represent the number of male sexual violence victims. The evidence suggest that men might be less likely to report any form of sexual assault to the police due to many reasons including shame, fear of not being believed, guilt, several issues related to the idea of masculinity, personal reasons (e.g. do not want to reveal the sex of the perpetrator) or security reasons (e.g. fear of being prosecuted).
If you are a man who has experienced domestic violence or sexual assault, or if you care about a loved one and would like to support them, please visit our Supporting Men page.
What common feelings and effects do victims/survivors experience?
Everyone reacts to sexual assault in different ways. Children and adults may experience similar feelings and effects, but there are some emotions and reactions that are more common in one case or another. Men and LGBTQ+ people who have experienced sexual violence can also go through emotional patterns which are usually uncommon to other victims. All feelings and effects might be general, episodic or chronic.
The most common feelings and emotions include, but not limited to:
• Emotional shock
• Sense of vulnerability
• Physical stress
The most common mental health effects include, but not limited to:
• Suicidal thoughts
• Low self-esteem
• Drug and alcohol addiction
• Borderline personality disorder
• Sleep disorders
• Eating disorders
• Psychotic disorders
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
• Sexual dysfunction
• Sexual promiscuity
• Social dysfunction
• Dysfunction of relationships (including parenting)
• Negative attributions
• Aggressive behaviours
• Conduct problems
• Learning problems
• Becoming a perpetrator
Coping with the effects of domestic violence and sexual assault can be very difficult and victims/survivors might find themselves dealing with one of more feelings at the same time. It is usually common for them to experience an array of emotions which may cause even more anxiety, anger or confusion. There is no ‘right way’ to react to these experiences, and self-care, as well as external support, might be beneficial.
If you are worried about yourself or someone you love, visit the following pages to find out more about the support available:
Someone has disclosed to me about their experience of sexual assault, what should I do?
It is not always easy to know how to respond to someone who has told you they have experienced or have been experiencing a form of sexual violence, and you may not know how best to respond. It is important for you to acknowledge that there is no right reaction to hearing that someone you care about has been affected by sexual assault.
Your first aim should always be that of supporting the victim, but you also need to be careful in not pushing them into doing what you think it would be best for them to do. Listening is the most valuable and important thing you can do at first, as well as trying to understand the support the victim might need. Other practical things you can do to help are:
• Avoid judgement
• Believe them
• Never assume that the violence is not serious
• Do your research on what victims/survivors might experience
• Do your research on which type of support is available
• Ask for professional advice
• Help them explore options
• Give them the choice
• Remind them it is not their fault
• Remind them that they are not alone and you are there for them
• Remind them that they can trust you
You may also be affected and experiencing a range of intense and difficult emotions yourself, including:
• Anger – at yourself, at the person, at the perpetrator
• Guilt – for not being able to prevent what happened
• Wanting revenge
Self-care strategies and coping skills can help you move through these feelings and it can be just as important for you to seek support and to talk about your own feelings.
If you are looking for more information on how to help someone you care about visit our How To Help page.
If you are looking for specific information on how to support a male victim/survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault visit our Supporting Men page.
For information about abuse in the LGBTQ+ community, visit our dedicated LGBTQ+ page.
Some additional resources to help you identify sexual assault and offer support to a friend or family member:
- About Sexual Harassment | Rape Crisis
- Common feelings & effects that survivors experience | Survivors UK
- Consenting to sex: A factsheet | Galop
- For adults worried about a child | YoungMinds
- Stalking: The Facts | Equation