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.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 says that someone commits rape if all of the following happens:
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:
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.
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.
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:
The touching can be with any part of the body or with anything else.
It could include:
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.
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.
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?').
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.
There are other forms of sexual violence that also involve the non-consensual touching of another person in a sexual manner. These include:
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.
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:
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.
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:
It can be carried out by a person of any gender against another person of any gender.
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:
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.
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?
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:
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 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:
Some forms of sexual harassment automatically break criminal law in England and Wales, and are therefore crimes. These include:
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:
Everyone responds differently to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence – so whatever someone feels is a valid response.
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’?
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
You can find more information about FGM and the support available for those at risk and victims or survivors in the following places:
‘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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
These drugs are sometimes used by people who want to commit a form of sexual violence or abuse for several reasons:
The effect on the victim or survivor will depend on several factors:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.