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What is Sexual Violence, Sexual Abuse, and Sexual Assault?

The terms "sexual assault," "sexual violence," and "sexual abuse" are often used interchangeably, though it may be more common to hear one term versus another in certain circumstances. Sexual violence is commonly used when referencing violence on a global scale, or in combination with domestic violence.  Sexual abuse is more commonly used when talking about the sexual assault of children and youth. 

WCSAP generally uses the term sexual assault to encompass a range of experiences identified by survivors. 

Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced, and/or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity.  Sexual assault is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of victimizations which may or may not involve force or be illegal.

The dynamics of sexual assault are complicated. Typically, sexual assault is not about sex, but because of society’s conflation of sex and violence it is hard to separate motivation in terms of power and sexual desire. In general, sexual assault is about manipulation, exploitation, and exerting power and control over another person. Perpetrators use sexual assault as a weapon to humiliate and dominate others.

We know that sexual assault affects people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The stories and statistics show us that sexual assault crosses boundaries of race, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexuality.  There is no one kind of person sexual assault happens to.

This website will use all of these terms as appropriate.


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Reviewed: April 22nd, 2011