Call us on 01736 367539

What is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is the general term we use to describe any kind of unwanted sexual act or activity, including rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and many others.

What is rape?

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone commits rape if all of the following happens:

  • They intentionally penetrate the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with their penis.
  • The other person does not consent to the penetration.
  • They do not reasonably believe that the other person consents.

In other words: if a person puts their penis in someone’s vagina, anus or mouth on purpose, when the other person hasn’t consented, then they have raped them.

The law also makes it clear that it is rape if:

  • Someone removes a condom without the other person’s permission – or lies about putting one on in the first place. This is commonly known as ‘stealthing’.
  • The victim or survivor consented to one type of penetration e.g. vaginal or oral sex, but not another e.g. anal sex.

Rape is often described as unwanted or forced 'sex' – or 'sex' that happened without consent. But, sex can only happen when everyone consents. Rape, on the other hand, is a form of sexual violence and a serious crime.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault happens when someone touches another person in a sexual manner without their consent. Or when someone makes another person take part in a sexual activity with them without that person's consent. It includes unwanted kissing and sexual touching.

Sexual assault refers to many different forms of sexual violence – the phrase we use to describe any sexual activity or act that happened without consent (scroll down for more on consent).

Any sexual assault is a serious crime that can have a lasting impact on the victim or survivor. No-one ever deserves or asks for it to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

You might have heard people talking about sexual assault on TV shows or in the news. However, because it's such a broad term, lots of people aren't sure what it really means.

In England and Wales, there are lots of terms that we use to talk about different sexual offences and forms of sexual violence. But, the most important thing to remember is: if someone has done something sexual to another person without their consent, it is sexual violence and is always serious.

How sexual assault is defined in law

The legal definition of sexual assault in England and Wales is when someone intentionally touches another person in a sexual manner, without that person’s consent.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone commits sexual assault if all of the following happens:

  • They intentionally touch another person.
  • The touching is sexual.
  • The other person does not consent to the touching.
  • They do not reasonably believe that the other person consents.

The touching can be with any part of the body or with anything else.

It could include:

  • Kissing.
  • Attempted rape.
  • Touching someone’s breasts or genitals – including through clothing.
  • Touching any other part of the body for sexual pleasure or in a sexual manner – for example, stroking someone’s thigh or rubbing their back.
  • Pressing up against another person for sexual pleasure.
  • Pressuring, manipulating or scaring someone into performing a sexual act on the perpetrator.
  • Touching someone’s clothing if done for sexual pleasure or in a sexual manner – for example, lifting up someone’s skirt.

However, please know that this is not a full list. Just because something isn’t included here doesn’t mean it isn’t sexual assault.

Causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent

In English and Welsh law, it is also a crime to intentionally ‘cause’ another person to engage in sexual activity without their consent.

This could include:

As you can see, the person committing the crime of ‘causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent’ here is not touching the victim or victims themselves. But, it is a very serious offence that can carry the same sentence as rape and assault by penetration.

  • Making someone masturbate or touch themselves sexually.
  • Making someone sexually touch or take part in sexual activity with another person – with or without that other person’s consent.
  • Making someone be sexually touched by another person or having another person carry out sexual activity with them – whether the other person is consenting or not.

The tactics a perpetrator could use to ‘cause’ someone to engage in sexual activity without their consent include physical force, manipulation and threats (see more examples below under 'What is consent?').

Indecent assault

Sometimes, people use the term ‘indecent assault’ instead of sexual assault.

Before the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force in 2004, indecent assault was the legal term used for what is now sexual assault. You might still hear people using the term ‘indecent assault’ when they mean sexual assault.

Related types of sexual violence

There are other forms of sexual violence that also involve the non-consensual touching of another person in a sexual manner. These include:

  • rape
  • assault by penetration (where someone penetrates another person’s vagina or anus with an object or a part of the body that’s not a penis, without their consent)
  • forms of child sexual abuse that involve contact

These are seen as different crimes in English and Welsh law. However, it's common to hear people using the terms 'sexual assault' or just 'assault' to describe any of them.

This might be because someone feels more comfortable saying 'sexual assault' (rather than, for example, 'rape'). Or it might be because they're not familiar with the legal definitions of these terms.    

Does sexual assault have to involve force?

It’s a really common myth about sexual assault, rape and other kinds of sexual violence and abuse that they have to involve physical force or leave the person with visible injuries. But that isn’t true.

There are many other ‘tactics’ that someone might use to sexually assault someone. For example:

  • pressure
  • manipulation
  • bullying
  • intimidation
  • threats
  • deception
  • drugs or alcohol

BUT, none of these have to have happened for it to still be sexual assault.

And if there’s no consent then it is always sexual assault.

Who commits sexual assault?

Many people find themselves unable to speak or move when faced with a scary, shocking or dangerous situation. If that happened, it does not mean the person gave their consent.

Sexual assault can be committed by a stranger or someone that the victim or survivor knows.

This could be:

  • a partner
  • an ex-partner
  • someone they were dating
  • someone they used to date
  • an acquaintance (someone they only know a little bit)
  • a friend
  • a colleague
  • a family member

It can be carried out by a person of any gender against another person of any gender.

What is consent?

Consenting to someone touching you in a sexual manner means agreeing to it by choice and having both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

It is NOT consent if you or someone else was:

  • Asleep, unconscious, drunk, drugged or 'on' drugs.
  • Pressured, manipulated, tricked or scared into saying yes.
  • Too young or vulnerable to have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Consent can be withdrawn at any time, including during sex or a sexual act. Just because someone consented to something before doesn’t mean they consented to it happening again.

If someone’s unsure whether the other person is giving their consent for something sexual, they should always check with them.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour that makes someone feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated, or is meant to make them feel that way.

Sexual harassment is a type of sexual violence – the phrase we use to describe any sexual activity or act that happened without consent. Other types of sexual violence include rape and sexual assault.

Victims and survivors of sexual harassment are often told that they are being 'unreasonable’ or 'too sensitive', or that they ‘can’t take a joke’.

But, sexual harassment is never funny and should not be happening.

It can often make victims and survivors feel upset, scared, humiliated or unsafe. For some, it can have a serious impact on their physical and mental health, and affect their quality of life.

No-one ever deserves or asks for sexual harassment to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

You might have heard people talking about sexual harassment happening at work. But it can happen anywhere and takes many forms.

So, what does the term actually mean? And how do you know if something is sexual harassment?

How sexual harassment is defined in law

In England and Wales, the legal definition of sexual harassment is when someone carries out unwanted sexual behaviour towards another person that makes them feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated.

It is also when someone carries out this behaviour with the intention of making someone else feel that way. This means that it can still be sexual harassment even if the other person didn’t feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated.

The Equality Act 2010 says someone sexually harasses another person if they:

  • Engage in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and
  • The conduct has the purpose or effect of either violating the other person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

This unwanted sexual conduct can happen in person, on the phone, by text or email, or online. Both the harasser and the victim or survivor can be of any gender.

Sexual harassment includes a really wide range of behaviours, such as:

  • Sexual comments or noises – for example, catcalling or wolf-whistling.
  • Sexual gestures.
  • Leering, staring or suggestive looks. This can include looking someone up and down.
  • Sexual ‘jokes’.
  • Sexual innuendos or suggestive comments.
  • Unwanted sexual advances or flirting.
  • Sexual requests or asking for sexual favours.
  • Sending emails or texts with sexual content – for example, unwanted ‘sexts’ or ‘dick pics’.
  • Sexual posts or contact on social media.
  • Intrusive questions about a person’s private or sex life.
  • Someone discussing their own sex life.
  • Commenting on someone's body, appearance or what they’re wearing.
  • Spreading sexual rumours.
  • Standing close to someone.
  • Displaying images of a sexual nature.
  • Unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature – for example, brushing up against someone or hugging, kissing or massaging them.
  • Stalking.
  • Indecent exposure.
  • Taking a photo or video under another person's clothing –known as 'upskirting'.

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

This means that people are legally protected from sexual harassment in certain places – for example, at work, on transport and at schools, colleges and universities.

So, if sexual harassment does happen in these places, victims and survivors have the right to take action to find a solution. This could include making a complaint or making a claim in the civil courts.

If you're experiencing sexual harassment at work, you can access free employment legal advice by phoning the Rights of Women helpline.

Some important things to know about sexual harassment and the law:

  • It is the person receiving the sexual behaviour who decides if it’s unwanted – NOT the person doing the behaviour.
  • It doesn’t matter if other people think the unwanted sexual behaviour is okay. Or if it’s common in the place it’s happened in.
  • It can be a one-off incident or repeated.
  • Just because certain sexual behaviour was welcomed or not objected to in the past doesn’t mean that it can’t become unwanted. Or that other sexual behaviour is wanted.
  • Unwanted sexual behaviour doesn’t need to be intentionally directed at the victim or survivor – it can be something they witness or overhear.
  • If a victim or survivor of sexual harassment is treated badly or less favourably because of their reaction to that harassment, the Equality Act 2010 says that this is also harassment.

When sexual harassment is a crime

Some forms of sexual harassment automatically break criminal law in England and Wales, and are therefore crimes. These include:

  • stalking
  • indecent exposure
  • ‘upskirting’
  • any sexual harassment involving physical contact (this amounts to sexual assault in English and Welsh law)

Other forms of sexual harassment might also break criminal law, depending on the situation. For example, if someone carries out sexual harassment behaviours on more than one occasion that are intended to cause another person alarm or distress, they may be committing the crime of harassment.  

In cases of sexual harassment where a crime was committed, the following can happen:

  • Police can arrest the person who committed the crime.
  • This person can be charged with a crime and face trial.
  • If they are found guilty or plead guilty then they will receive a punishment. This might include a prison sentence.

Everyone responds differently to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence – so whatever someone feels is a valid response.

What is indecent exposure or flashing?

Indecent exposure or ‘flashing’ is when someone shows their genitals in order to scare or upset another person. It is a crime in England and Wales.

Indecent exposure is a form of sexual violence – the phrase we use to describe any sexual activity or act that happened without consent. Other types of sexual violence include rape and sexual assault.

Indecent exposure – or 'flashing', as it is sometimes known informally – is sometimes treated as something 'funny'. But, it's in fact a crime that is often upsetting and scary for the victim or survivor, and can make them feel unsafe. For some people, it can have a long-term impact on their wellbeing.

No-one ever deserves or asks for indecent exposure to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

It is common to hear of people being ‘flashed’ in parks, on the street and on public transport. However, it can happen anywhere and at any time of the day or night.

So, what exactly do people mean when they use the terms ‘indecent exposure’ and ‘flashing’?

How indecent exposure is defined in law

The term ‘indecent exposure’ is widely used in England and Wales, including by lawyers and police. However, in English and Welsh law, the offence is just called ‘exposure’.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says someone commits exposure if they:

  • Intentionally expose their genitals and
  • Intend that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.

Someone who commits exposure can be sentenced for up to two years in prison.

Some people who commit this offence show their genitals very quickly before covering them or running away – which is where the term ‘flashing’ comes from.

But, others might expose them for longer and/or sexually pleasure themselves at the same time.

No matter how long it lasted, exposure is always a crime.

Many people who commit exposure also go on to commit other sexual offences that involve physical contact. These include sexual assault and rape.

Victims and survivors of indecent exposure should never feel under any pressure to report what happened to them to the police. It is 100% their decision and they should always only ever do what feels right for them.

Those who do choose to report their experience to police or anyone else are never just ‘making a fuss’. Reports of exposure should always be taken seriously.

‘Cyberflashing’ and ‘dick pics’

Indecent exposure can happen in person but it can also happen online or via a text message. In other words, when someone sends another person an unwanted photo or video of either their genitals or someone else’s – what is commonly known as a ‘dick pic’.

This form of indecent exposure has become known as ‘cyberflashing’.

At the moment, cyberflashing isn’t a specific crime in English and Welsh law – but an organisation that recommends legal reforms thinks it should be.

The Law Commission says:

“…those who have been subjected to cyberflashing compare its impact to that of other sexual offences: for example, it can cause similar feelings of violation and sexual intrusion.”

Like indecent exposure or flashing that happens in person or over live video, seeing photos or 'dick pics' is often upsetting and scary for victims and survivors, and can make them feel unsafe. For some people, it can have a long-term impact on their wellbeing.

Everyone responds differently to indecent exposure – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

What is child sexual abuse?

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) happens more than many people realise. Around half of people who contact Rape Crisis Centres are adult survivors of child sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse of a child by an adult - or sometimes by an older child - is an abuse of power and of trust.

As children, we look to adults and older children to help us figure out how to 'be' in the world, to show us what's OK and what's not. If a manipulative adult or older child abuses that trust and coerces a child into a sexual situation, maybe saying it is right or that something bad will happen if the child doesn't do as they're told, it is hard for the child to disobey, even when it causes them distress and confusion.

Child sexual abuse is never the fault of the child who has been abused. It is 100% the responsibility of the abuser(s).

To figure out whether the actions of an adult or older child amount to sexual abuse, we need to understand the motivation behind the behaviour; watching a child in the bath, for example, is not necessarily sexually orientated or abusive. Also, sexual abuse has nothing to do with 'sex play', which often takes place between consenting same-age children as part of their learning experience.

It's quite common for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to experience a range of health and other difficulties. For example, survivors often go through:

  • recurrent depression or anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and/or flashbacks
  • feelings of anger, shame and/or worthlessness
  • finding they cry a lot or find it difficult to show emotion
  • disturbing thought patterns and intrusive memories 

Survivors' feelings can also reveal themselves in physical symptoms, unexplained illnesses and so on. 

Some people find relief by self-harming, including cutting or burning themselves, neglecting their own needs and health or drinking and/or smoking too much.

Other common responses to experiences of childhood sexual abuse include:

  • feeling sick or afraid at the sound of the abuser's voice or a similar voice
  • having memories of the abuse, fear and trauma triggered by particular objects, places, TV programmes, smells etc.
  • feeling confused about what happened, only remembering bits of what happened or remembering it all in vivid detail
  • shame, guilt and blaming yourself over what happened

If you have been sexually abused as a child you might recognise some of these effects in your own life. You might even feel mixed emotions about seeing all these possible effects written down. However you feel childhood sexual abuse might have affected your life, whatever feelings you have about the abuse you’ve experienced, they are all valid and there is support available for you.

What is FGM?

The term 'female genital mutilation' – also known as 'FGM' – refers to procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is internationally recognised as a human rights violation and is illegal in England and Wales. It is sometimes inaccurately referred to as 'female circumcision'.

FGM procedures are usually carried out on girls aged between infancy and 15 years old, and cause a range of long-term physical and psychological health problems. They have no health benefits.

It's estimated that more than 20,000 girls under 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK every year. Another 66,000 women in the UK are estimated to already be living with the consequences of FGM procedures.

However, the true extent of FGM is unknown. This is because of the largely 'hidden' nature of the crime.

Getting help and support

You can find more information about FGM and the support available for those at risk and victims or survivors in the following places:

  • The NHS website.
  • FORWARD: an African women-led organisation working to end violence against women and girls.

What is spiking?

‘Spiking’ is when someone puts alcohol or drugs into another person’s drink or their body without their knowledge and/or consent.

There are several reasons why someone might decide to ‘spike’ another person with alcohol or drugs. It might be as a ‘prank’ or a ‘joke’, or to make it easier for them to commit a crime or form of violence or sexual violence against them, including:

  • rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault or sexual abuse
  • non-sexual physical assault
  • robbery

Whatever the motive, spiking is never funny. It can make a person extremely vulnerable and ill, and have a lasting impact on their life and wellbeing.

Spiking someone in order to commit a sexual offence against them is a serious crime – no matter whether any sexual offence took place. It carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison in England and Wales.

If the perpetrator also committed a sexual offence against the person they spiked, they will face additional sentences.

It doesn’t matter what a victim or survivor was wearing or doing before the spiking took place. It also doesn’t matter if they were drinking or ‘on’ drugs – or what quantities of alcohol or drugs they had chosen to consume beforehand.

No-one ever deserves or asks to be spiked. 100% of the blame, shame and responsibility lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

What is date rape?

So-called ‘date rape’ is when someone carries out rape or another form of sexual violence or abuse against another person after spiking them. It is also sometimes referred to as ‘drug or alcohol-facilitated sexual assault’.

The term ‘date rape’ refers to the fact that some perpetrators spike their victims while on dates with them or after meeting them on nights out.

BUT, spiking and sexual violence or abuse can also be committed by a stranger or someone known to the victim in another way.

It’s important to know that ‘date rape’ isn’t a legal term. All forms of rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault and sexual abuse are serious crimes.

How are people spiked?

The most common way that people are spiked is by someone adding alcohol to their non-alcoholic drink, or extra alcohol to their alcoholic one, without their knowledge and/or consent (more on consent below).

However, drugs (legal or illegal) can also be added to drinks or put in someone’s body in another way, such as:

  • Giving someone a drug but telling them it is a different dosage or a different drug altogether – for example, a drug that is commonly prescribed or sold as medicine.
  • Injecting it into them with a syringe.

Please know that these are just two examples of other ways that people might be spiked with drugs ­­– it is not a full list.

Someone can be spiked with any type of drug, including:

Illegal drugs that are commonly taken on nights out or at parties – for example, Ecstasy (also known as ‘MD’, ‘MDMA’, ‘Pills’, ‘Mandy’ or ‘Molly’), Ketamine, GBL or LSD. These are sometimes known as ‘party drugs’ or ‘club drugs’.

Drugs that have become known for their use by people who commit spiking in order to rape, sexually assault or sexually abuse someone – for example, Rohypnol, GHB or GBL. These are commonly known as ‘date rape drugs’. However, people often also take these drugs out of choice, including on nights out or at parties.

Prescription medicines, such as sedatives, tranquilisers and opiates – for example, Valium or Xanax.

‘Date rape drugs’

These drugs are sometimes used by people who want to commit a form of sexual violence or abuse for several reasons:

  • They can make people become physically weak, feel ‘out-of-control’ or pass out.
  • They can be odourless, colourless and tasteless – so it can be hard to know if your drink has been spiked with them.
  • They leave the body within a short amount of time, making them hard to detect.
  • They can cause memory loss – so the victim or survivor might not remember exactly what happened to them or who the perpetrator was.

What happens when someone is spiked?

The effect on the victim or survivor will depend on several factors:

  • What they were spiked with.
  • How much they were spiked with.
  • If they had already consumed alcohol or taken drugs and how much they consumed.
  • Their size and weight.

As we’ve seen, so-called ‘date rape drugs’ can make someone weak, feel ‘out-of-control’ or pass out.

However, all alcohol and drugs can have this effect, depending on the factors listed above.

In fact, it is more common for perpetrators to spike someone with alcohol in order to commit a sexual offence against them.

Other symptoms of spiking include:

  • feeling or being sick
  • feeling ‘strange’ or drunker than expected
  • feeling confused or disorientated
  • feeling sleepy
  • blurred or slowed vision, or trouble seeing properly
  • loss of balance or coordination
  • having trouble communicating
  • having hallucinations
  • acting strangely or out of character

These symptoms might start to come into effect within 15 minutes, depending on what a person has been spiked with. Symptoms can last for several hours.

How can you help someone if you think they’ve been spiked?

It can be difficult to know what to do if you think someone’s been spiked. Especially if they are refusing help or won’t listen to you or cooperate.

The most important thing is to try to make sure that someone trusted stays with them until they have got home safely and – if possible – until the symptoms have worn off.

If their symptoms seem serious and you think they need urgent medical attention, call 999 to speak to emergency services.

Other things you can do to help include:

  • Try not to let them drink alcohol or take drugs.
  • Try not to let them go home with someone you don’t know or trust.
  • If you don’t know them or don’t know them well, try finding their friends or the people they were with.
  • If you’re at a pub, bar, club or any other venue, tell staff who work there.

Consent and spiking

Consenting to something means agreeing to it by choice and having both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Someone cannot consent to being given alcohol or drugs, or to taking them, if:

  • They don’t know it’s being put into their drink or into their body by some other means.
  • They are pressured, manipulated, tricked or scared into it.

It is not consent if someone consented to taking one type of drug but were instead given another. It is also not consent if they consented to drinking one type of alcohol but were instead given another. Or if they consented to a certain quantity of alcohol but were instead given more.

Consenting to sexual activity

As we’ve seen above, spiking can be used as a way of making it easier to commit a form of sexual violence or abuse against another person.

Consenting to any kind of sexual activity also means agreeing to it by choice and having both the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Spiking someone with alcohol or drugs takes away their freedom and capacity to make a choice about agreeing to sexual activity.

In other words: if someone has been spiked, they cannot consent to any kind of sexual activity.

Get help and support after spiking and/or sexual violence or abuse

A huge thank you to our main funders

Our Funders & Patrons
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram