Sexual assault, in its various forms, affects many people’s lives. It is a subject most of us would rather ignore, because it is unpleasant. Ignoring it will not make it go away, so perhaps learning more about it, and doing something about it will help to decrease its incidence and effects.

What is it? Assault is an act of violence by one person against another. There are endless possible ways this may happen. An assault may vary from a threat, to a rape or a near-fatal bashing. Assault is a crime, and is punishable by law.

Sexual assault has many forms. It can happen to anyone, of any age (including children), and does not necessarily involve sexual intercourse. Any sexual contact which is unwanted, or which occurs without the consent of a participant constitutes sexual assault. It is behaviour of a sexual nature which makes the victim feel uncomfortable or afraid.

Incest is when the sexual assault involves two members of the same family, most commonly assault by a father on his daughter.

There are many different experiences which can be called sexual assault, so it is not easy to define. The Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) in Melbourne has created a working definition, in which the unwanted behaviours may include:

• touching, fondling, kissing

• being made to look at, or pose for pornographic photographs

• being masturbated or being forced to masturbate another person

• voyeurism

• exhibitionism

• oral/genital contact

• penetration of the victim’s vagina, mouth and/or anus with a penis or object (also called rape).

So the term sexual assault includes many criminal acts. There are several legal terms for the actual type of assault (like rape, aggravated rape, indecent assault, gross indecency, incest, etc.). The crime a person may be charged for, and the maximum penalty for the crime may vary in different states and countries.

Some other forms of sexual assault, such as sexual harassment in the workplace or at school, also constitute unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. This may take the form of ‘off jokes, suggestive comments, sexual propositions, or unwanted physical contact, for example. Sexual harassment is illegal in Australia. Employers are obliged to ensure that their staff are not subject to sexual harassment, and are advised to set up channels through which people can make complaints and take action. If these channels are not available or are insufficient, any person who is being, or has been, sexually harassed can take the matter to the Commission for Equal Opportunity.

Some people are more familiar with the term sexual abuse. Abuse is defined as ‘misuse, perversion, unjust practice, violation or maltreatment’. Sexual assault is abuse. A person’s emotional and physical state are abused in sexual assault.

Most sexual assault is committed against women. Most offenders are men. Social theories have been proposed to explain this, and it may be that the traditional roles and power balances of men and women in society play a large part in why sexual assault exists and is so prevalent. Understanding the reasons behind sexual assault may be useful in working towards decreasing, and eventually preventing, the high level of sexual assault in our society.

Boys and men can also be the victims of sexual assault. Again, it usually involves an unequal distribution of power (for example, an adult assaulting a child), and can be an act of aggression and hostility. Being a victim of sexual assault is just as much a violation and abuse when the victim is male as when the victim is female.


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