Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act that involves force,
threat of force, or illegal seduction. It ranges from the more
serious crime of rape to unwanted touching of the sex organs.
Illegal seduction is nonviolent, coercive coaxing, often directed
toward children. This includes obscene telephone calls,
exhibitionism, and voyeurism.
In the past, forced sex was called rape. It was the only term for
sexual assault that appeared in the law. The term was only applied
to men forcing women to have vaginal intercourse. Sexual assault is
a broader term that also recognizes that women and men can be the
perpetrators as well as the victims of sexual assault.
Sexual assault against adults
Sexual assault occurs most commonly between people who know each
other. This is often called acquaintance rape. When two people are
dating, sexual assault is called date rape. Sexual assault within
marriage is a more recently recognized crime.
Sexual assault commonly occurs on college campuses and military
bases and often involves drug and/or alcohol use. There can be one
offender or a group of offenders. When more than one assailant is
involved, the crime is often called gang rape. Most sexual assaults
are committed by men against women. But women can also coerce men
into unwanted sex.
Laws about sexual assault vary from state to state. In some locales,
the victim must physically resist the assault in order to press
legal charges, even if resisting may be life-threatening. Some laws
require proof of assault, such as physical injury or semen in the
vagina. Knowing this, some assailants use condoms to avoid
depositing semen inside their victims. In some states, the use of
force or the threat of force, regardless of physical injury, can
A victim's privacy is legally protected in many states. The victim's
name or picture may not be printed in a newspaper or appear on
television, without her or his permission. During trial, "rape
shield" laws prevent the victim's sexual history from being
discussed in court. If the assailant has been convicted of past sex
crimes, however, these crimes may be brought forward as evidence.
In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. Under this
law, women can charge their assailants in civil court. Under certain
circumstances, they can also sue property owners and institutions
such as colleges for not providing adequate security to prevent
sexual assault. Federal judges are now deciding whether the Violence
Against Women Act is constitutional.
Marital rape is considered the last frontier in sexual assault law.
In many societies, wives are considered the property of their
husbands, who have the right to force their wives to have sex
against their will. In some states, this is still true. In one study
of American women, one out of every seven was raped by a husband or
an ex- husband. Of 400 battered women, more than half said that they
had been raped by their husbands.
New Jersey was the first state to pass a law against sexual assault
in marriage. Now most states have laws that provide at least partial
protection against spousal sexual assault. Usually, severe violence
must be proved for assault charges to be upheld. Only 17 states
provide married women full protection against sexual assault.
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