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Was it sexual assault?

Sexual assault is confusing both legally and emotionally. We explain what sexual assault is, how it's viewed in law, and how to get help if you're worried you've been sexually assaulted.

What is sexual assault?

Firstly, it's worth us pointing out here that deciding if you've been sexually assaulted is a personal thing. What doesn't bother one person can deeply upset another. But the the law on sexual assault is actually quite clear - it describes it as being touched sexually without your consent. This includes what might be seen by many as harmless fun, like being groped in a club or forced into a kiss.

The fact is you don't have to put up with inappropriate behaviour, so if you didn't want to be groped or kissed, then in the eyes of the law it's sexual assault.

I think I've been sexually assaulted, but am I overreacting?

We live in a society where sexual harassment is so common it's almost accepted as normal. Who hasn't had their arse pinched in a club? Or had a guy push things just that little bit too far? These things happen so much that we don't often think it's an act of 'sexual violence'. But as a guide, if you feel what's been done to you is wrong, it probably is.

"Sexual violence covers a vast range of things," says Jo Wood, a Rape Crisis worker. "Different people accept different levels of violence, with some not even thinking it's violence," she says. "But just because something is acceptable to you, doesn't mean it's acceptable to someone else. And vice versa."

It's common to think you shouldn't feel upset about what's happened and that others will think you're just kicking up a fuss. But it doesn't matter if you're in a relationship with the person who did this. Or if you were really drunk. Or if you knew them beforehand because you're mates, or you work together.

If they sexually touched you, and you didn't want them to, the law says it's sexual assault. If you didn't consent, these are crimes.

A common feeling after being sexually assaulted or raped is that it might have somehow been your fault. It's important to remember you never asked for this to happen. You didn't 'deserve' it.

What's the difference between rape and sexual assault?

In many ways, there isn't one - both are crimes in which a person is forced into sexual activity they haven't consented to, and both can result in feelings of guilt, anger, shock and shame. But the law does view them differently.

In legal terms, rape is penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus with a penis. Only a man can commit rape, but the victim can be male or female. Confusingly, people often use the term sexual assault when talking about rape.

Another offence, sexual assault by penetration, was recently created to cover penetration with an object or another part of the body. Both men and women can commit this.

Who should I tell if I've been sexually assaulted?

This is down to personal choice, but it can help to talk to someone you completely trust or an organisation that can help you, like Rape Crisis or a sexual assault referral centre. They're certain to take you seriously, give you the support you need, and can discuss whether you want to tell the police.

"Some women get groped at a railway station and shrug it off," says Jo. "But it happened to one woman who rang us very upset and actually ended up getting the man successfully convicted."

Reporting a sexual assault to the police, again, is down to personal choice. This online leaflet talks you through what to expect from the legal process.

I feel really bad about this, will I ever feel better?

Good support is essential, so make sure you surround yourself with a network of friends and family who believe you. Counselling can also really help you work through what you're feeling, so it's worth talking to your GP or Rape Crisis about how to organise some sessions.

There's no time limit on therapy; your need for help may come a long time after this happened to you. Sometimes it can take weeks, months, or even years of feeling confused before you seek answers and help. But don't feel like you've acted in the wrong way, or that what happened to you is any less serious just because time has passed. Support is still there whenever you need it.

Photo of sad girl by Shutterstock

Updated: 15/08/2012

Holly Thompson

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