A guide to sexual violence terminology

[cn: sexual violence, including explicit references]

When I started out writing about sexual violence, I was confused about many of the terms surrounding it. I didn’t even know, until someone told me, that “sexual violence” was an all-encompassing term. So I’m writing a guide to terminology, of the kind I wish I had years ago. My aim is to go beyond a glossary, not just providing definitions but also commenting on connotations and practical usage.

Categories of sexual violence

Sexual violence – Sexual violence is a super-category that includes any sexual (or sexually charged) act that violates someone’s consent. That includes sexual assault, sexual coercion, sexual harassment, and child sexual abuse (all of which are to be defined later). Note that sexual violence is a term used by public health advocates and activists, not by the legal system; not all sexual violence is illegal.

In my experience, definitions of sexual violence can be confusing. For example, the NSVRC says sexual violence is when “someone forces or manipulates someone else into unwanted sexual activity without their consent,” and then proceeds to list examples which do not obviously fall under its own definition, such as spying on sexual acts. If you’re not sure whether to go with the explicit definition, or the list of examples, always go with the list, which has more consensus than the literal definition.

Sexual assault – Sexual assault is non-consensual sexual touching. Common examples include unwanted kissing, groping certain body parts, and rape. Sexual assault is also a legal term, although at least in the US, there is a distinction between assault (the threat of violence) and battery (the violence itself). Outside of legal contexts, “sexual assault” usually refers to what is legally called “sexual battery”.

Rape – Rape is a subcategory of sexual assault, referring to non-consensual sex. That’s the prescriptive definition, but sometimes people (including victims) seem to avoid the word even when they agree that a particular incident fits the definition.  I recommend adhering to the literal definition, otherwise you risk believing your own prejudices of what rape “should” look like.  It would be unwise to argue the point with a victim, however.

There are also a few disputes about the definition itself. There are multiple models of what counts as “non-consensual”, which I will talk about later. And since “sex” is such an ambiguous term, it’s common to substitute in a list of qualifying sexual activities. One thing everyone agrees upon is that it includes penetration of the victim’s vulva or anus by a penis. More generally, it could include any penetration of the victim with any object (e.g. with fingers or a prop). Activists like me argue that it should also include acts where the victim is made to penetrate someone, and some non-penetrative sex acts like manual sex, but health organizations, activist organizations, and legal jurisdictions are inconsistent on this point at best.  We know that being “made to penetrate” accounts for most male victims.

Sexual Harrassment – Sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. More specifically, it includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal harassment, or physical harassment.

The definition of sexual harassment is strongly influenced by the legal definition in the US. For a slightly less US-centric definition I would go with the United Nations, although they also reference the US definition. The US definition has some issues. Sexual harassment is only considered illegal when it is sufficiently severe or sufficiently frequent so as to create a discriminatory work or learning environment. It is odd to think of sexual harassment as a kind of sex discrimination, and to think it can only occur in work or learning environments. Activists generally prefer a broader definition of sexual harassment that extends beyond the workplace.  But the workplace is still where it most commonly gets applied.

Child sexual abuse – Child sexual abuse (CSA) is any sexual violence perpetrated against a child (i.e. a minor). Although you could probably divide CSA into sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment, it’s often discussed as a separate category with its own subdivisions. There’s a category called non-contact abuse, which includes exposing oneself to the child, persuading them to perform sexual acts, and distributing pornography of them. Other types of CSA include grooming and sex trafficking.

Sexual abuse – “Sexual abuse” refers to sexual violence where the perpetrator takes advantage of their power over the victim.  It’s not a very well-defined category, and I noticed that most organizations (e.g. CDC, RAINN, NSVRC) avoid using it, except when talking about child sexual abuse or elder abuse.

Sexual coercion – Sexual coercion is pressuring someone to have sex, by any number of means. Examples include social pressure, a threat of violence, an implied threat of violence, implied threat to employment, wearing the victim down with repeated requests, and getting the victim drunk.

Unless you’re using a very minimal model of consent, sexual coercion is a subset of rape. Nonetheless, in my experience it’s common for people to discuss sexual coercion separately, and I suppose the advantage of this is that we sidestep some arguments about definitions. This also allows us to discuss sexual coercion in a more abstract sense, like when people have sex because their culture teaches them that they have to, which doesn’t seem like an example of rape.

Models of consent

Note that these are not the only possible models of consent, but they’re the ones you’re most likely to have heard of.

Informed consent – Informed consent is a consent model that serves as the baseline for understanding sexual violence. It requires not just that people give consent, but that they do so with awareness of the risks, and while in possession of their cognitive faculties. People who are very drunk cannot give informed consent. When minors give consent to sex, it is presumed to be uninformed. There is also the category of rape by deception, like when someone claims to be the victim’s spouse.

Enthusiastic consent – Enthusiastic consent is a consent model that emphasizes that it’s not just about whether people say “yes” or “no”, it’s about whether they actively want it. In particular, in sexual coercion you can imagine the victim says “yes”, or just passively goes along with the activity, not because they really want to, but because they feel pressured to, or because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t. This does not constitute enthusiastic consent. Another aspect, sometimes overlooked, is that the consent must be continuous throughout the activity.

Sometimes proponents summarize enthusiastic consent as a “Hell yes!” but this appears not to be the literal expectation.  This framing makes “enthusiastic consent” an unpopular model in ace communities, and I discourage this framing.

Affirmative consent – Affirmative consent is not so much a consent model, as it is a legal standard for how to determine whether consent was present. Affirmative consent states that clear permission must be given (although it does not need to be verbal). Silence, or lack of resistance, are not evidence of consent. This should be obvious, but it’s worth having a law that says so explicitly, instead of leaving it up to jurors.  Affirmative consent is commonly confused with enthusiastic consent.

Terms for victims and perpetrators

Perpetrator – Perpetrator is the term most commonly used for a person who committed sexual violence. It is more generic than “rapist” and doesn’t inspire the same degree of pushback.

Victim/Survivor – “Victim” and “survivor” are two alternative terms used for a person who was subject to sexual violence. They have slightly different connotations, with “victim” placing more focus on the event itself, and “survivor” placing more focus on life after the event. “Survivor” has a stronger connotation of empowerment and agency, although in some contexts this is not an improvement. Some victims/survivors have a preference for one term over the other, although in my experience it’s hard to offend people over it.

PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an officially recognized condition that sometimes occurs in response to a traumatic incident. Some people with PTSD experience “flashbacks” to the event, and some people simply experience negative feelings and beliefs in relation to the event. PTSD can last months or years; it’s not considered PTSD if it lasts only a few weeks.

A wide variety of traumatic incidents can cause PTSD, including natural disasters, military combat, and of course sexual violence. Not every traumatic experience leads to PTSD, and some types of experiences are more likely than others. Sometimes people get PTSD in relation to an incident which they only witnessed or heard about. Sometimes people don’t get PTSD initially, but get it later. My sources say PTSD has affected 3.5% of people in the US in the past year, and 7.8% within their lifetime.

Discouraged terms

The following terms aren’t necessarily offensive, but they can be ambiguous or misleading.

Sexual molestation – Sexual molestation is an archaic term, sometimes referring to any child sexual abuse, and sometimes referring to what I would describe as child rape. I recommend against it unless you’re deliberately trying to be vague.

Date rape – Date rape and acquaintance rape refer to rape in which the perpetrator is an partner or acquaintance. RAINN discourages these terms, because the majority of rape falls into this category, so it’s misleading to separate it out.


  1. sennkestra says

    With regards to how “sexual harassment” is used in US legal parlance – i.e., how it’s often defined as something more like “harassment based on sex [sex as in gender], which may or may not be of a sexual nature”, whereas in colloquial language most people would call many of those instances just “sex discrimination” or “sexism”, and reserve “sexual harrasment” for something more like your “unwanted sexual advances” – I think it’s a lot easier to understand if you know the legal circumstances of how sexual harassment prosecution work in the US.

    Because, the thing is, there aren’t actually any federal laws in the US explicitly barring [colloquially-defined] sexual harrasment (aka, unwanted sexual advances or comments). Are they considered rude, or sexist, or immoral? Maybe. But there are no actual legal restrictions against them, and therefore no reason to consider them a legal class. Because of this, activists’ attempts to legally prosecute “sexual harassment” had to use a bit of an adjacent loophole – which they found via Title VII, which bans “discrimination on the basis of sex”. So while the law didn’t really care about you making sexual advances to your employees, if it could prove that an employer was only making advances on the women, and not the men – well, now that’s discrimination based on sex, and that is something that an employer can be made liable for*. Which is why so many legal definitions of “Sexual harassment” focus on the gendered nature of comments rather than any sexual/intercourse related aspects or overtones – because the latter holds no weight in courts and the former is fundamental to making any kind of official charge.

    (*This also leads to the bizarre “bisexual” or “equal-opportunity offender” defenses – i.e. “I made lewd comments about all genders equally so it’s not illegal!” )

    This is also why legal definitions of “sexual harrassment” mostly talk about workplace environments – because those are the only situations to which Title VII protections apply. And this “sexual harassment = sex discrimination” just gets replicated in office seminars about “how not to sexually harass”, because the end goal of those is just to stop the behaviors that will get the company sued – not necessarily to make a moral stand against all kinds of sexual harassment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *