What is Sexual Violence?

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Understanding a topic as broad and complex as sexual violence is not easy; however, we must commit to educating ourselves and others on the topic if it is something we wish to change. Oftentimes, common interpretations of terms and movements related to the topic of sexual violence are far from reality. Below, please find information on common terms and topics in relation to sexual violence.

To begin, we must understand that "sexual violence" and "gender-based violence" are overarching terms used to refer to various sex crimes. Sexual violence is a term that includes all forms of gender-based violence, including:

  • Sexual Assault
  • Domestic or intimate partner violence
  • Stalking

As our understanding of these crimes increases, so does the list of topic-specific vocabulary used to discuss them. Below, find background and explanations on some of the terms and phrases commonly used to discuss sexual violence:

It's not always easy to tell if a relationship will become abusive; oftentimes, abusive partners seem caring and loving at the beginning of the relationship. As the relationship grows, emotionally and physically violent behaviors can begin to slowly emerge. Domestic violence can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion or gender. It can happen to couples who are dating, living together or are married. Regardless of your situation, it is not your fault.

Domestic violence can look different from abuser to abuser. If you feel emotionally, financially or physically abused, seek help. According to The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, examples that your partner is abusive can include one or more of the following:

  • Emotional and Verbal Abuse 
    • Calling you names or putting you down
    • Telling you what to do or wear
    • Yelling or screaming at you.
    • Intentionally embarrassing you in front of others or starting rumors about you.
    • Preventing you from seeing or communicating with friends or family, or threatening to have your children taken away from you
    • Damaging your property (throwing objects, punching walls, kicking doors, etc.)
    • Using online communities or communications to control, intimidate or humiliate you
    • Blaming abusive or unhealthy behavior on you or your actions
    • Being jealous of outside relationships or accusing you of cheating
    • Stalking you or your loved ones
    • Threatening to harm you, your pet(s) or people in your life
    • Threatening to harm themselves to keep you from ending the relationship
    • Gaslighting you by pretending not to understand or refusing to listen to you; questioning your recollection of facts, events or sources; trivializing your needs or feelings; or denying previous statements or promises
    • Making you feel guilty or immature when you don’t consent to sexual activity
    • Threatening to expose personal details, such as your sexual orientation or immigration status
  • Financial Abuse 
    • Giving you an allowance or monitoring what you buy
    • Depositing your paycheck into an account you can’t access
    • Preventing you from seeing shared bank accounts or records
    • Forbidding you from working or limiting the hours you do
    • Preventing you from going to work by taking your car, keys or other mode of transportation
    • Getting you fired by harassing you, your employer or your co-workers
    • Hiding or stealing your student financial aid check or other financial support
    • Using your social security number to obtain loans without your permission
    • Using your child’s social security number to claim an income tax refund without your permission
    • Maxing out your credit cards without permission
    • Refusing to provide you with money, food, rent, medicine or clothing
    • Using funds from your children’s tuition or a joint savings account without your knowledge
    • Spending money on themselves while preventing you from doing the same
    • Giving you presents or paying for things with the expectation of something in return
    • Using financial circumstances to control you
  • Digital Abuse 
    • Telling you who you can or can’t follow or be friends with on social media
    • Sending you negative, insulting or threatening messages or emails
    • Using social media to track your activities
    • Insulting or humiliating you in their posts online, including posting unflattering photos or videos
    • Sending, requesting or pressuring you to send unwanted explicit photos or videos, sexts, or otherwise compromising messages
    • Stealing or pressuring you to share your account passwords
    • Constantly texting you or making you feel like you can’t be separated from your phone
    • Looking through your phone or checking up on your pictures, texts and phone records
    • Using any kind of technology (such as spyware or GPS in a car or phone) to monitor your activities
  • Physical Abuse 
    • Scratching, punching, biting, strangling, choking or kicking you
    • Throwing items at you like a phone, book, shoe or plate
    • Pulling your hair
    • Pushing or pulling you, or forcibly grabbing your clothing
    • Threatening to use or using a gun, knife, box cutter, bat, mace or other weapon against you
    • Touching any part of you without your permission or consent
    • Forcing you to have sex or perform a sexual act
    • Grabbing your face to make you look at them
    • Preventing you from leaving or forcing you to go somewhere
  • Sexual Abuse
    • Unwanted kissing or touching
    • Unwanted rough or violent sexual activity
    • Refusing to use condoms or restricting your access to birth control
    • Preventing you from using protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
    • Sexual contact with you while you’re intoxicated from drugs or alcohol, unconscious, asleep or otherwise unable to give clear and informed consent
    • Threatening, pressuring or otherwise forcing you to have sex or perform sexual acts
    • Using sexual insults toward you

According to The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, "abuse is a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over a partner." With so many different forms of abuse, it is sometimes difficult to understand the tactics used by abusers to keep you in the relationship. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline uses the Power & Control Wheel to describe what happens in abusive relationships, “The inside of the wheel is made up of subtle, continual behaviors over time, while the outer ring represents physical and sexual violence. Abusive actions like those depicted in the outer ring often reinforce the regular use of other, more subtle methods found in the inner ring."

Sexual assault is a term that describes any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. This term can be used to describe rape and/or attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, forcing a victim to perform sexual acts and penetration of the victim's body. Read more about sexual assault.

Stalking is a type of sexual violence characterized by repeated and unwanted attention, causing a person to feel fear. The actions of the stalker can vary greatly based on each situation and perpetrator and can include various types of repeated and unwanted contact, threats and harassment.

Many of us have heard casual comments, often intended as jokes, about stalking. We frequently hear the phrase "Facebook stalking" and hear people say "Are you stalking me?" when we coincidentally run into them. While legitimate instances of stalking can involve social media or following someone, we seldom hear people speaking about stalking in our daily lives in a serious manner. As a result of this, many people are aware that stalking occurs but don't recognize what it is or how dangerous it can be.

Additionally, individuals who share their fear that they are being stalked can often feel like people don't believe them or like people make light of their situation and brush it off. With this is mind, it is important to examine and understand the various forms stalking can take and the extreme danger that is present in any situation involving stalking. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, stalking can include:

  • Showing up at your home or workplace unannounced or uninvited.
  • Sending you unwanted texts, messages, letters, emails or voicemails.
  • Leaving you unwanted items, gifts or flowers.
  • Calling you and hanging up repeatedly or making unwanted phone calls to you, your employer, a professor or a loved one.
  • Using social media or technology to track your activities.
  • Spreading rumors about you online or in person.
  • Manipulating other people to investigate your life, including using someone else’s social media account to look at your profile or befriending your friends in order to get information about you.
  • Waiting around at places you spend time.
  • Damaging your home, car or other property.
  • Hiring a private investigator to follow or find you as a way of knowing your location or movements.

Stalking victimization is very real and very dangerous — not something to be joked about or shrugged off. The facts listed below, gathered by researchers and the Stalking Prevention, Awareness and Resource Center, illustrate the seriousness of the crime:

  • 46% of stalking victims fear not knowing what will happen next (Baum et al., 2009. "Stalking Victimization in the United States." BJS.)
  • 1 in 7 stalking victims move as a result of their victimization. (Baum et al.)
  • The prevalence of anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction and severe depression is much higher among stalking victims than the general population, especially if the stalking involves being followed or having one's property destroyed. (Eric Blauuw et al. "The Toll of Stalking," Journal of Interpersonal Violence 17, no. 1, 2002:50-63.)

For more information about stalking, including facts about stalkers, stalking laws, the impact of stalking, and what to do if you are being stalked, visit these resources:

You may have heard others talking about consent and its necessity in any sexual interaction — but what exactly is consent? First, it's important to understand that sex without consent is rape. Some have heard the phrase "no means no," but the absence of "no" does not constitute consent. Consent can be described as a conscious, ongoing, voluntary decision without coercion or intimidation and with clearly spoken boundaries. So ... what does that mean? And how do you make sure you have it?

When you are engaging in sexual activity, communication is the key to consent. There are many necessary elements to consent, but fortunately there are also many resources available to help us understand consent and healthy communication in relationships. According to RAINN and Loveisrespect, positive consent can look like this:

  • Communicating every step of the way. For example, during a hookup, ask if it’s okay to take your partner’s shirt off and don’t just assume that they are comfortable with it.
  • Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying "yes" or another affirmative statement like "I'm open to trying."
  • Respecting that when they don't say "no," it doesn't mean "yes."
  • Understanding that consent can be withdrawn at any time — if someone agrees any form of sexual activity, they can change their mind and say "no" at any time, regardless of how many times they have said "yes" previously.
  • Using clear physical cues to let the other person know you're comfortable taking things to the next level, and looking for affirmation from your partner in return.
  • Breaking away from gender "rules." Girls are not the only ones who might want to take it slow, and guys are not the only ones who can initiate sexual activity. No matter your gender identity, it is your job to make sure your partner is consenting.

Consent does NOT look like this:

  • Refusing to acknowledge "no."
  • Assuming that wearing certain clothes, flirting, kissing, accepting a ride, accepting a drink, etc. is an invitation or a way of consenting to anything more.
  • Saying yes (or saying nothing) while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Someone being under the legal age of consent, as defined by the state.
  • Saying yes or giving into something because you feel too pressured, intimidated, or afraid to say no.
  • Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you've done it in the past.

For more information on consent, visit these resources:

According to RAINN, drug-facilitated sexual assault ”occurs when alcohol or drugs are used to compromise an individual’s ability to consent to sexual activity." One example of this is the intentional giving of drugs without the victim's knowledge for the purpose of physically incapacitating the victim. Another form of drug-facilitated sexual assault is the perpetrator taking advantage of a victim's incapacitation due to voluntary use of drugs or alcohol.

Alcohol is the most frequently used substance in drug-facilitated sexual assault. Perpetrators can encourage binge drinking, pressure victims into drinking, or take advantage of someone's incapacitation due to voluntary drinking. While it may be easy to forget its dangers because it can be legally consumed, it is important to remember that alcohol can cause extreme disorientation, nausea and memory loss, much like other drugs used to facilitate sexual assault.

Commonly referred to as "date rape drugs," perpetrators can use a variety of substances that generally cause memory loss or "blackouts," disorientation, feeling very drunk and many extremely harmful side effects. These substances can range from street drugs such as rohypnol ("roofies") or ecstasy to prescription drugs like muscle relaxers, anxiety medications or sleep pills.

To understand drug-facilitated sexual assault, one must understand consent. If you haven't already done so, be sure to learn more about consent above.

According to the U. S. Department of Education, “Sexual harassment refers to sex-based conduct that satisfies one or more of the following: (1) quid pro quo harassment by an employee of an educational institution—meaning that an employee offers something to a student or other person in exchange for sexual conduct; (2) unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would find to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to an education program or activity; or (3) sexual assault (as defined in the Clery Act), dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking (as defined in the Violence Against Women Act). Each of these categories of misconduct is a serious violation that jeopardizes a victim’s equal access to education.” Read more about sexual harassment.

According to RAINN, sexual exploitation by a helping professional is defined as "sexual conduct of any kind between a professional and the person seeking or receiving a service. Helping professionals include doctors, therapists, professors, police officers, lawyers, religious leaders and any other professional who offers a helping service."

These terms are used to describe someone who has experienced sexual violence. You may hear or read of debates over the correct term to use; while both terms are acceptable, an individual may prefer one to the other, and it is important to respect that wish. "Victim" often refers to someone who experienced sexual violence recently. It is also used when discussing the criminal justice system or a specific crime. "Survivor" is often used to refer to someone who has had time to process and rebuild from the assault. The difference between the terms is important because of the unspoken message that each of them sends. While "victim" can remind individuals of feelings of helplessness that occurred during and after the assault, "survivor" alludes to the individual feeling like they've reclaimed their power and used their strength to move forward.