The exact definition of “rape,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” and similar terms differs by state. The wording can get confusing. For a precise legal definition, you need to check the law in your state. But here are some general guidelines based on the definitions used by the U.S. Justice Department. Please note that these definitions are a bit graphic, which is inevitable when describing crimes this violent.
Rape is forced sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration. Penetration may be by a body part or an object.
- Rape victims may be forced through threats or physical means. In about 8 out of 10 rapes, no weapon is used other than physical force. Anyone may be a victim of rape: women, men or children, straight or gay.
Sexual assault is unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling.
So, how can you decide if what happened was rape?
There are a few questions to consider.
There are three main considerations in judging whether or not a sexual act is consensual (which means that both people are old enough to consent, have the capacity to consent, and agreed to the sexual contact) or is a crime.
1. Are the participants old enough to consent? Each state sets an “age of consent,” which is the minimum age someone must be to have sex. People below this age are considered children and cannot legally agree to have sex. In other words, even if the child or teenager says yes, the law says no. In Connecticut, the age of consent is 16.
2. Do both people have the capacity to consent? States also define who has the mental and legal capacity to consent. Those with diminished capacity – for example, some people with disabilities, some elderly people, and people who have been drugged or are unconscious – do not have the legal ability to agree to have sex.
3. Did both participants agree to take part? Did someone use physical force to make you have sexual contact with him/her? Has someone threatened you to make you have intercourse with them? If so, it is rape. Did you say yes? Did you then change your mind and ask the person to stop? Both people must consent and be willing participants at all times.
Common Questions (click on each to read more)
I didn’t resist physically – does that mean it isn’t rape?
People respond to an assault in different ways. Just because you didn’t resist physically does not mean it wasn’t rape – in fact, many victims make the good judgment that physical resistance would cause the attacker to become more violent. Lack of consent can be express (saying “no”) or it can be implied from the circumstances (for example, if you were under the statutory age of consent, or if you had a mental defect, or if you were afraid to object because the perpetrator threatened you with serious physical injury).
I used to date the person who assaulted me – does that mean it isn’t rape?
Rape can occur when the offender and the victim have a pre-existing relationship (sometimes called “date rape” or “acquaintance rape”), or even when the offender is the victim’s spouse. It does not matter whether the other person is an ex-boyfriend or a complete stranger, and it does not matter if you’ve had sex in the past. If it is nonconsensual this time, it is rape.
I don’t remember the assault – does that mean it isn’t rape?
Just because you don’t remember being assaulted does not necessarily mean it didn’t happen and that it wasn’t rape. Memory loss can result from the ingestion of “rape drugs” and from excessive alcohol consumption. That said, without clear memories or physical evidence, it may not be possible to pursue prosecution (talk to your local crisis center or local police for guidance).
I was asleep or unconscious when it happened – does that mean it isn’t rape?
Rape can happen when the victim was unconscious or asleep. If you were asleep or unconscious, then you did not give consent. If you didn’t give consent, then it is rape.
I was drunk or he was drunk – does that mean it isn’t rape?
Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse – or an alibi. The key question is still: did you consent or not? Regardless of whether you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape. If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape.
I thought “no,” but didn’t say it. Is it still rape?
It depends on the circumstances. If you didn’t say no because you were legitimately scared for your life or safety, then it may be rape. Sometimes it isn’t safe to resist, physically or verbally – for example, when someone has a knife or gun to your head, or threatens you or your family if you say anything.
If you have been sexually assaulted, or even if you are not sure, please call our Hotline at 203-731-5206 for free, confidential help and to look at all of your options.