The issue of sexual assault garnered widespread publicity when former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was convicted in March 2016 of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman and sexually penetrating an intoxicated and unconscious person with a foreign object. His victim wrote an eloquent letter in response to his extremely lenient sentence, prompting heated discussion on the topic of sexual assault.

More recently, multiple stories of sexual assault and abuse have hit the media, most notably involving Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore and Louis C.K. These cases involved heterosexual and homosexual sexual abuse, rape, masturbation, unwanted fondling, underage sexual misconduct and other coerced, unwanted activities. The victims’ stories and perpetrators’ responses have sparked some confusion about the types of behaviors that constitute sexual abuse or assault.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim, including:

  • Attempted rape
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
  • Forced sexual acts (e.g. oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body with an object)
  • Penetration of the victim’s body (rape)

The FBI revised its 80-year-old definition of rape in 2013, defining it as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Every state has its own laws pertaining to rape.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

The definition of sexual abuse varies, depending on the source. Sexual abuse by a partner can include:

  • Derogatory name-calling
  • Refusal to use contraception
  • Deliberately causing unwanted physical pain during sex
  • Intentionally transmitting sexual diseases/infections
  • Using objects (e.g. toys) during sex without consent to cause pain or humiliation

When a person is in a committed relationship, it can be harder to recognize the signs of sexual abuse or admit something is wrong. Yet nearly one in 10 women and one in 45 men have been raped by an intimate partner.

Sexual abuse can impart physical, emotional and mental side effects. Physical signs include bruising, soreness, bleeding (vaginal or anal), difficulty walking, broken bones, sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. Emotional responses such as anger, self-blame, shock, numbness, fear, helplessness and feeling vulnerable are common.

About 81% of female victims and 35% of male victims report significant short-term or long-term side effects. Signs and symptoms of trauma/PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts. Additional mental effects related to sexual abuse include depression, suicidal ideation/attempts and disassociation.

The mental and emotional repercussions of sexual assault, including PTSD, can last for years, as evidenced by the recent “celebrity” victims who have come forth with their stories. If you are the victim of sexual abuse, it’s important to seek professional treatment, even if the incident occurred years ago.


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