We Break Down the Differences Between Sexual Harassment, Assault, Battery, and Rape

It can get very blurry with so many news stories covering the topics. 

With the #MeToo movement breaking open and women telling the stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and many other forms of sexual abuse that has happened to them or women they know, it can become hard to differentiate what is what under the umbrella of sexual wrongdoing. Who is a predator? Who got a little handsy on a date? What constitutes verbal abuse or harassment?

Since we have covered many of the stories since the Harvey Weinstein scandal kicked off an avalanche of abuse survivors coming forward, we thought defining the terms and what exactly they mean would be helpful. To start off, sexual misconduct is the broad term that covers any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature.

Falling under that definition is sexual harassment; according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general."

When it comes to reporting on these cases, the terms most often used legally and in the media are sexual assault, sexual battery and rape.

As the stats go, every 109 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in the United States; on college campuses, in Hollywood, in homes, in ordinary workplaces.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape.”

It gets even more specific when looking at it state by state. In some states, like New Jersey, “sexual assault” has replaced “rape” in legal books. While states differ in specifics, as general rule, sexual assault involves unwanted penetration. Rape often falls under sexual assault.

They define sexual battery as: “An unwanted form of contact with an intimate part of the body that is made for purposes of sexual arousal, sexual gratification or sexual abuse. Sexual battery may occur whether the victim is clothed or not.”

Rape is defined (legally) as, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” All genders and gender identities are included under the definition by the DoJ.

According to Quora, “Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact. This may or may not include ‘the worst case scenario,’ which would be forcible and/or violent penetration of the vagina and/or anus. When a sexual assault includes any penetration, it is technically considered rape. Battery, broadly defined, is when one person intentionally touches another, without the victim’s consent, in a manner that is harmful or offensive.”

The main factor in most cases is where the consent, if any, was given.

“If a person is incapacitated, then consent cannot be given. It does not matter if the victim is incapacitated through their own conduct. For example, if a person gets drunk and passes out, any sexual contact with that person would be sexual battery. Fondling a person while he or she is asleep constitutes sexual battery. Similar conduct against a person confined to a hospital bed would also constitute sexual battery,” Quora answers.

“The primary difference between sexual battery and rape is that with battery there is no penetration between the sexual organs. With sexual battery, all that matters is the non-consensual touching of another person’s sexual organs. Sexual assault, like the broader crime of assault, constitutes the threat of force. Battery, in contrast, is the actual contact between perpetrator and victim while assault is the threat of force to establish the intended contact.”

If you or anyone you know has been or is the victim of sexual assault in any form, RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, is available 24 hours a day for help at 1-800-656-HOPE.

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