What is sexual assault and sexual abuse?

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault can be a violent, unexpected, traumatic and sometimes life threatening event or series of events. Sexual assault is ANY unwanted sexual act or behaviour which is threatening, violent, forced or coercive and to which a person has not given consent or was not able to give consent.

Examples include:

  • Putting a penis, object or other parts of the body into someone’s mouth, anus or vagina.
  • Being forced to give or receive oral sex - putting a penis into someone’s mouth.
  • Being forced to masturbate or forced to watch someone masturbate.
  • Unwanted sexual touching - on private parts of the body.
  • Sexual harassment - making inappropriate sexual comments.
  • Voyeurism - someone exposing themselves to you.
  • Making someone watch a sexual act or pornography.

The term ‘sexual violence’ is often used to describe sexual assault and sexual abuse.

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse is when someone in a position of power or authority takes advantage of a person’s trust and respect to involve them in sexual activity. It can involve any of the examples above.

Sexual abuse can occur between:

  • A child and an adult
  • A child and an older child
  • A patient and a doctor
  • A student and a teacher
  • A parishioner and a priest
  • Sexual abuse is a crime
What is rape and what is date rape?

Rape is another word used for sexual assault. It is ANY unwanted sexual act or behaviour, which a person did not consent to or was not able to consent to.

Date rape happens when someone you have just met or are going out with forces or manipulates you into having unwanted sexual contact. Date rape can involve forced sexual acts or subtle or threatening sexual behaviour.

Regardless of your relationship, sexual contact without consent is against the law.

“If someone buys you a drink or dinner then you must have sex with them”.

This sort of belief contributes to date rape. Just because someone brought you a drink or dinner, it does not entitle them to have sex with you. Date rape is never okay.

What are the affects of sexual assault?

If you have been sexually assaulted you may be experiencing a wide range of emotions and reactions that can be very distressing. This is quite normal for someone who has been through such a traumatic experience.

The impact can be short or long term and can affect you in different ways.

You may be feeling:

  • Shock or disbelief – I feel numb. I never thought this could happen to me.
  • Shame and embarrassment – how can I show my face again? What will people think?
  • Fear – I’m afraid to be alone, to go out, to go to sleep because I’ll have nightmares.
  • Sad and worthless.
  • Angry – how dare they do this to me!
  • Guilt and self blame – if only I hadn’t…
  • Helpless.
  • Anxious – I’m having panic attacks.
  • Physically unwell – I feel sick in the stomach; my head aches all the time.

Some common reactions you might also experience include:

  • Feeling differently about sex, even with your regular partner.
  • Feeling responsible for the assault/abuse.
  • Feeling isolated, alone and out of touch with the rest of the world.
  • Believing no one can understand how you are feeling.
  • Unable to stop thinking about the assault.
  • Unable to think clearly or to concentrate.
  • Not wanting to be touched by anyone.
  • Feeling that you cannot trust anyone.
  • Feeling unsafe when you are alone.

Everyone has different feelings and reactions after a sexual assault and this may change from one day to the next. Talking to someone about the experience may help you to cope and to heal.

Remember that you are NOT to blame, regardless of whether:

  • The perpetrator was an acquaintance, date, relative, friend or partner.
  • You had been sexually intimate with that person or with others before.
  • You were drinking or using drugs.
  • You froze and did not or could not say “no” .
  • You did not fight back.
Partners, family and friends

When someone close to you has been sexually assaulted, it can have a devastating impact on you and on the family unit. It is important for partners, family and friends to be supportive and to help the person overcome the affects of the assault.

You can help by:

  • Being non-judgemental
  • Believing the person
  • Encouraging them to talk about their feelings and listening to what they have to say
  • Allowing them to be in control of what is happening
  • Reassuring them it is not their fault
  • Ensuring their safety

You may also be affected and experiencing a range of emotions yourself, including:

  • Grief
  • Frustration
  • Confusion
  • Guilt - for not being able to prevent the assault or abuse
  • Wanting revenge
  • Anger – at the person, at the offender

It can be just as important for you to seek support and to talk about your own feelings with a counsellor. You may find the information sheet "Caring for a Family Member or a Friend Following Sexual Assault" useful.

Why does sexual assault and sexual abuse happen?

Sexual assault and sexual abuse are perpetrated by both men and women, although the majority of perpetrators are male and are known to their victim. Usually incidents are planned and occur because the perpetrator wants to feel a sense of power and control over another person. It is usually NOT about sexual pleasure.

Sexual assault and sexual abuse do not discriminate. They can happen to women, men and children, regardless of age, race or culture. In Australia, statistics show that one in six women and one in 20 men over the age of 15 years will experience sexual violence at some stage in their life time.

It is important to know that sexual assault or sexual abuse do NOT happen because of the dress or behaviour of the victim.

Common myths

There are many myths and untruths about sexual assault and sexual abuse. These are often disguised as facts or are community held beliefs. These myths can make it hard for people to recover because they tend to blame the victim and defend the perpetrator.

To find out more about these myths and the real truth, you may find the information sheet Common Myths useful.