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What Is the Legal Definition of Sexual Assault?

Apr 18, 2024

Four out of every five women and nearly 45 percent of men say they have been the victim of some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault in their lifetimes. While there is general agreement and understanding among society that sexual violence and sexual harassment are wrong, there is less of an understanding of what constitutes sexual assault.

Understanding How Sexual Assault Is Defined

Every jurisdiction in the United States has different legal definitions of sexual assault. What must be proven to show sexual assault in your case will depend on what type of case you are bringing and the jurisdiction in which your case is filed. 

For example, the definition of sexual assault in a New York criminal trial would be slightly different than the definition the federal government uses in a workplace harassment lawsuit. 

Even so, there are examples of behaviors and actions that would constitute sexual assault in nearly every jurisdiction:

  • Fondling of your genitals or other private parts of your body
  • Kissing your lips, cheek, or body
  • Hugging and embracing
  • Giving a massage, shoulder rub, or neck rub

The list of actions that could constitute is broad and meant to encompass a wide variety of behaviors.

Three Key Components of Sexual Assault

No matter the precise words that a specific law uses to define sexual assault, all sexual assaults share three common characteristics. These characteristics are:

Someone Touches Your Body

First, all sexual assaults involve someone making some physical contact with your body. This contact can be made using their hand or other part of their body or an object the person is holding, such as a glove, broom handle, or food. 

The touch does not need to last any specific length of time to count as sexual assault. Nor does the touch need to occur on a specific body part. Any touch by any means on any part of your body could potentially qualify as sexual assault, depending on the circumstances.

The Touching Was Unwanted

Next, sexual assault requires that the touching you endured was not invited or consented to. You do not need to say “no” or object to the touch verbally. 

You can communicate that a touch is not welcome through body language alone. Or the touch you sustained could be found to be unwanted if a reasonable person in your situation would have found the touching unwelcome.

There Was a Sexual Component to the Touch

The final characteristic that must be present for a touch to be considered sexual assault is there must be a sexual overtone to the touching. This means the touching was done so as to satisfy the other person’s sexual urges or was an attempt to excite your own. 

Whether this circumstance is present depends heavily on where you were touched, with what you were touched, and the manner of the touch. If a reasonable person would view the touching as lewd or sexual under the circumstances, the touch will likely qualify as sexual assault.

The Benefits of a Clear Picture of Sexual Assault

These three characteristics distinguish sexual assault from hugs from family members, kisses from a significant other, or even a reassuring pat on the back from a coworker. No matter where you encounter it, sexual assault is illegal. Armed with the knowledge of what it is, you can be ready to protect yourself and report it to an experienced lawyer or law enforcement officer.