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 access help. According to The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, signs that your partner is abusive can include one or more of the following:

  • Emotional Abuse – Isolating you from friends and family members, insulting and demeaning you, intimidating you, threatening you, telling you the abuse is your fault, cheating to intentionally hurt you or to prove that they are more desired or worthy than you, pressuring you to do anything you do not wish to do (sexual contact, using drugs and/or alcohol, etc.), becoming jealous of others you interact with or spend time with while away from your partner, and preventing you from doing things like working or attending school
  • Financial Abuse – Strictly and unfairly controlling all of the household's money; denying you access to your paycheck; forbidding you to work or from making too much money; stealing money from you, your family, or your friends; living in your home but refusing to work or contribute to the household, or refusing to give you money to pay for necessities.
  • Digital Abuse – Telling you who you can and cannot be friends with on social media, puts you down in their status updates, sending you negative messages, looking through your phone frequently and tagging you unkindly in picture on social media.
  • Physical Abuse – Pulling your hair, preventing you from seeking medical attention, abandoning you in unfamiliar places, driving recklessly or dangerously when you are in the car with them, or forbidding you from eating or sleeping

According to The National Domestic Abuse Hotline, "abuse is a repetitive pattern of behaviors to maintain power and control over an intimate 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 (shown below) to describe what happens in abusive relationships, indicating that "while the inside of the wheel is comprised of subtle, continual behaviors, the outer ring represents physical, visible violence. These are the abusive acts that are more overt and forceful, and often the intense acts that reinforce the regular use of other subtler methods of abuse."

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 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 individual 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 Department of Justice, stalking can include:

  • Repeated, unwanted, intrusive and frightening communications from the perpetrator by phone, mail and/or email.
  • Repeatedly leaving or sending victim unwanted items, presents or flowers.
  • Following or laying in wait for the victim at places such as home, school, work or recreation place.
  • Making direct or indirect threats to harm the victim, the victim's children, relatives, friends or pets.
  • Damaging or threatening to damage the victim's property.
  • Harassing victim through the internet.
  • Posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place or by word of mouth.
  • Obtaining personal information about the victim by accessing public records, using internet search services, hiring private investigators, going through the victim's garbage, following the victim, contacting victim's friends, family, work or neighbors, etc.

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 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.)
  • 76% of intimate partner femicide (meaning the murder of a woman) victims have been stalked by their intimate partner.
  • 54% of femicide victims reported stalking to police before they were killed by their stalkers.

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:

Drug-facilitated sexual assault is the term used to describe the use of alcohol or drugs during any act of sexual assault. One example of this is the intentional distribution 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. In this case, the perpetrator has taken advantage of the victim's inability to consent (defined above) 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.

In order 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. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment." 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 heal 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.