What is Sexual Assault? Definitions & Meanings of Rape

This post is a part of our guide series to support anyone who may have been sexually assaulted or has questions around the topic:

What is Sexual Assault? Definitions & Meanings of Rape
Who Commits Sexual Assault & Why?
What are the Signs of Sexual Assault?
Date Rape & Staying Safe
What Impacts Does Sexual Assault Have on Victims and Their Family/Friends?
Coping, Healing & Recovering From Sexual Assault & Rape
How to Help Someone Who has Been a Victim of Sexual Assault
How to report Sexual Assault (and Who to Report it to)
How is Sexual Assault & Rape Proven in Court?
Punishment and Sentencing for Sexual Assault
How can Sexual Assault and Rape be Prevented?
Sexual Assault Data & Statistics
Sexual Assault Helplines, Support & Further Reading


Sexual assault is a crime under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and includes rape, child sexual abuse or grooming and crimes that exploit others for a sexual purpose. The impact of rape and sexual assault can have devastating effects on the survivor, these effects will vary for each victim as every individual will respond differently and will recover at different rates.

In this guide, we will discuss the different types of sexual abuse in more detail.

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is when a person sexually touches another without that person’s consent or if they are forced to do something sexual against their will. Sexual assault can happen with or without clothes.

How does the law define Sexual Assault?

The legal definition of sexual assault is when someone intentionally touches another person in a sexual manner, without that person’s consent. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that sexual assault is committed if all the following happen;

  • The perpetrator intentionally touches another person
  • The touching is sexual
  • The other person does not consent to the touching
  • The perpetrator does not reasonably believe that the other person consents to the touching
  • The touching can be with any part of the body or with anything else. This can include kissing attempted rape, or touching someone’s genitals or breasts through clothing.

Is Sexual Assault classed as a violent crime?

Sexual assault can be classed as a violent crime when the perpetrator physically hurts or threatens to hurt someone, this includes crimes in which weapons are used. Even if there is no physical injury, the crime will be recorded as violent if the perpetrator clearly intended to physically harm the victim.

What is the difference between first, second and third-degree rape?

Rape is a penetrative act of sex performed on another person without their consent. The different degrees of rape is determined by the circumstances surrounding the act and the actions of the perpetrator.

First-degree rape- is when the perpetrator engages in sexual intercourse with another with force, this will include the use of a weapon, kidnapping the victim or inflicting serious injury.

Second-degree rape- involves the perpetrator engaging in sexual intercourse under circumstances which do not meet the requirement for it to become first-degree, however, there are other factors that take away the victim’s consent. This can include force or if the victim is mentally or physically incapable.

Third-degree rape- can be described as when a perpetrator engages in sexual intercourse with the victim but the victim did not consent to the act and this was expressed by words or conduct.

What is marital rape, and how long has it been illegal?

Marital rape is also known as spousal rape, it occurs when an individual commits a sexual act without the consent of their spouse or against their will. Marital rape has been illegal since 1992, before this date forced sexual activity within marriage was not considered an illegal offence.

What does group sexual assault or gang rape mean?

Gang rape occurs when there are at least two or more violators participating in the rape of a single victim. Group sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act committed by multiple offenders.

What does aggravated rape mean?

Aggravated rape is when the act involves serious violence and injury or the threat of using such violence causing injury or humiliation of a grave nature to the victim. This can include the use of weapons.

What does statutory rape mean?

Rape is a sexual offence in which the perpetrator commits non-consensual sexual intercourse with the victim through force, threats or fear. Statutory rape is committed when one or both parties are below the age of consent. For example, if a 15-year-old girl cannot legally consent to have sex with her 16-year-old boyfriend, this would be considered unlawful.

What does forcible rape mean?

Forcible rape is when the perpetrator commits sexual intercourse forcefully without the victim’s consent.

What is birth rape?

Whilst in their most vulnerable state, women are at the mercy of healthcare professionals. Sadly, birth rape occurs when medical professionals abuse women during childbirth, this includes experiences where women’s bodies are violated by unnecessary procedures.

What does acquaintance rape mean?

This is when the rape is carried out by someone known to the victim, it is also referred to as ‘date rape’ if the victim is dating the perpetrator.  However the term ‘date rape’ can be misleading as the victim may not actually be ‘dating’ the perpetrator, they can be an acquaintance or a stranger.

What is classed as attempted rape?

A perpetrator can be accused of attempted rape if they clearly intended to have sexual intercourse with the victim without their consent but did not succeed at the time in question.

Can someone die from sexual assault?

It’s petrifying knowing that some rape or sexual assault victims are killed by the assailant having been assaulted. Others kill themselves due to the pain and stigma related to the act or die as a result of issues linked to the attack, some of these include;

  • Sexually transmitted diseases– this includes HIV as a result of rape or assault could lead to death
  • Mental health issuesthe experience can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, sleep disorder, substance abuse and behaviour problems leading to death
  • Suicide behaviour- victims of rape and sexual assault can struggle to recover from the trauma, having very little support or not being able to reach out can lead them to attempt or commit suicide.

Who is most vulnerable or likely to become a victim of Sexual Assault?

Unfortunately, some individuals are more vulnerable to sexual assault than others, they may lack the basic skills to look after and protect themselves. Individuals are more likely to become a victim if they;

  • lack mental capacity
  • are elderly
  • have a physical or learning disability
  • live in inappropriate accommodation
  • have mental health problems
  • have low self-esteem
  • lack support
  • misuse of drug and alcohol
  • have financial circumstances which increase their risk of being abused
  • be socially isolated

Although these factors contribute to making individuals more susceptible to sexual assault, the reality is sexual assault can happen to anyone, making everyone vulnerable.

We understand how difficult it is to experience abuse, whether it is yourself or someone you know, sometimes trying to find help is not easy. It’s important to remember that you are not alone and the first step that you should take is to talk to someone. No one should have to deal with abuse alone.

Here at the Criminal Injuries Helpline, we help victims of violent crime and abuse recover compensation. You may want to help the victim gain some justice, get in touch with us today to see if the victim would qualify.

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