Distinguishing the Differences in Sexual Wrongdoing
Though there seems to be a new report of some sexual impropriety in the news on an almost daily basis, our culture seems to still have a serious problem with sexual wrongdoing. The terms sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment often get used interchangeably, but there are actually some differences in the legal meanings of these terms.
What Is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is a criminal act, which means that a person charged with the offense is prosecuted by the government (typically the state) and can face potential incarceration, as well as fines and other penalties. A defendant may be arrested, and can, in certain situations, be held without bail.
State laws governing sexual assault can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. There are, however, some common elements to a charge of sexual assault:
- The defendant had sexual contact with the victim—The contact constituting sexual assault can take a variety of forms, from touching, fondling, groping, hugging, or kissing to forced sexual penetration (oral, anal, or vaginal). A person may also be charged with attempted sexual assault, and the penalties are typically the same as for sexual assault.
- The contact was without consent—As a general rule, consensual sexual contact does not constitute sexual assault, unless the victim is under a certain age (or otherwise legally incapable of giving consent). For example, under federal law, a person under the age of 16 cannot consent to sexual contact with an adult. Many states set the age of consent at 18.
Examples of sexual assault include rape, attempted rape, molestation, and any other unwanted sexual touching.
What Is Sexual Abuse?
Sexual abuse, also a criminal violation, refers to wrongful sexual conduct by an adult involving a child or person under a certain age. While sexual assault is one type of sexual abuse, the term also encompasses a number of other activities:
- sharing pornography with minors
- taking sexual photos or video of a minor
- improperly exposing a minor to sexual organs
- engaging a minor in verbal interplay or innuendo related to sex
- solicitation of a minor
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is a civil, rather than a criminal, wrong. The remedy for sexual harassment is the recovery of compensation (also known as damages) for the wrongful behavior. Sexual harassment typically involves the victimization of a person by someone with acknowledged power over them, such as a work supervisor or boss, a minister or other member of the clergy, a therapist, or a teacher.
Sexual harassment generally takes one of two forms:
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment—This occurs when the person in power offers some kind of benefit to the victim in exchange for sexual favors. For example, a boss may promise a promotion in exchange for sex. It can also involve the threatened denial of benefits for refusal to provide sexual favors. A supervisor may threaten to deny a raise or other benefits if a worker does not submit to sexual overtures.
- The creation of a hostile environment based on sex—This involves the creation, fostering, encouragement, or condoning of an environment where sex and sexual matters are prevalent. It generally requires a pattern or repeated instances of such activity and can include allowing inappropriate images, emails, letters, desk art, words, innuendoes, or physical acts.