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Understanding the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse

It’s normal to come across news stories or people talking about sexual assault and abuse. In most cases, these people refer to the same thing.

Even though sexual assault and sexual abuse are often used interchangeably, these words don’t mean the same thing in legal language.

If you ever have to go to court for any of the above, you have to understand what they mean so that you can fight for your legal rights appropriately. 

So, what’s the difference between sexual assault and sexual abuse? This article explains everything you need to know.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual abuse happens when a person in a senior position or power takes advantage of another person’s respect for or fear of them to get them to engage in sexual activity. Sexual abuse often involves minors and can be committed by their parent, teacher, coach, or relatives.

Many states consider minors incapable of consenting to any sexual act. So, anyone involved in any sexual activity with a child commits sexual abuse. Even if they agree to it, it will be considered abuse as long as they’re under the legal age of 18 years.

Sexual abuse can involve any type of behavior that is believed to violate the child’s innocence. Some offenses that constitute sexual acts include:

Exposing One’s Body to a Minor

An adult who deliberately exposes their body to a child is considered a sexual abuser. They could do this in a seductive way with the intention of provoking some feelings. 

The act could involve things such as masturbation or sexually touching themselves in front of a minor. A sexual abuser can be male or female. However, if they do this accidentally, it will not be considered sexual abuse.

Sexual Contact

Any form of sexual contact, including fondling, is considered sexual abuse. An adult who touches a child indecently is committing a sexual abuse act. Any form of contact will be considered an offense as it might have a long-lasting psychological effect on the minor.

Obscene Messages or Photographs

Sending minor seductive messages or images is also sexual abuse. Thanks to digitalization, sexual abusers often find ways to send their victims images, videos, texts, and emails that are inappropriate. A child is still naive; if an adult sends them their genitals, it could cause psychological trauma.

Sex Trafficking 

Sex trafficking is also considered sexual abuse if it involves minors. Children are more often involved in human trafficking and are sexually abused in the process. They may end up in the sex trade or abused by their traffickers. 

Child Pornography

When children are forced to shoot pornographic content, they suffer physically and mentally. They suffer during the recording and even later when the videos are circulated online, exposing them to the world.

How to Know If a Child Is Sexually Abused

Unlike adults, children rarely speak up when they’re sexually abused due to fear. At times, the offender may gradually introduce the child to the sexual behavior making it hard to know if the act takes place. Some common signs of a child who’s sexually abused include:

  • Withdrawal: A sexually abused child may appear less lively than before and may not want to play with their friends. They may not want to engage in activities they used to enjoy. The withdrawal usually happens as a result of fear and shame they have after the act.
  • Inappropriate behavior: A sexually abused child may feel that it’s okay to touch themselves or others in the same way that their abuser does. The child will not learn to act that way unless someone introduces them to it. So, if a child acts indecently, they’re more likely abused and introduced to the act.
  • Refusing to spend time with the individual: When a child doesn’t want to be left alone with a specific person, they might have been abused. Parents should pay more attention to their child’s behavior and investigate the matter.
  • Too knowledgeable about sex: Depending on the child’s age, knowing too much about sexual matters should be a red flag. When a child tends to comfortably discuss sexual matters that are above their age, they might have been exposed to it. You should take time to investigate and know where they learned about it.
  • Sexually transmitted infection: Sexually transmitted infection is an obvious sign of sexual abuse. This can also involve genital trauma. In any case, the child needs immediate medical intervention and therapy.
  • Reluctant to remove their clothes: If the child is still way below the adolescent age, they shouldn’t be ashamed to remove their clothes in the presence of adults. If they don’t want to take off their protective layer of clothing to bathe or swim, they may be reacting to abuse.
  • Regressive behavior: A sexually abused child may adopt unusual behaviors such as suckling their thumb or hair pulling. Others may start wetting their beds.

While many children may not speak up or stand up to their sexual abusers, the above signs could show the signs. If you notice any of the above, take time to investigate and protect the children from sexual abuse.

What Is Sexual Assault?

While sexual abuse involves minors, sexual assault is the same offense directed toward adults.

When an adult is forced to engage in sexual activity without their consent, they are sexually assaulted. The sexual offender may use force, violence, threats, or drug the victim to assault them sexually. 

Sexual assault may occur one time or repeatedly. Many sexual acts fall under the broader term, and they include the following:

Sexual Contact

Forced sexual contact happens when the abuser inappropriately touches the victim in a manner that they cannot resist.

Sometimes, this may involve non-physical force. In many cases, the victim may not be able to resist because their abuser holds a powerful position.


Rape is a more common form of sexual assault where the abuser uses physical force on the victim. It’s defined as forcing intercourse with someone who’s not their spouse. Rape involves direct penetration, including oral, genital, or rectal.

The action happens in various circumstances, including:

  • When the victim is intoxicated and unable to resist
  • Accomplished against the victim’s will
  • The victim is unconscious or asleep
  • The victim is incapable of legal consent
  • The victim fears the abuser due to their power

Any sexual penetration without the other party’s consent is considered rape and heavily punishable by law. Rape can happen to either a man or a woman. Regardless of gender, the offenders receive the same type of punishment.

Touching or Fondling

When the abuser purposely touches the victim around their genital areas without their consent, it constitutes sexual assault. These usually occur in environments such as the workplace or school.

The abuser may happen to be a colleague, supervisor, or manager. For fear of being punished or fired, the victim may endure the assault for a long time.

What to Do If You’re Sexually Assaulted

Many victims of sexual assault do not know what to do or how to react, especially if the offender is a powerful person in their presence.

No matter the situation, you must protect yourself and prevent the behavior from happening again.

Below are some actions you should take after a sexual assault or abuse.

Seek Medical Help

Before anything else, victims of sexual assault or abuse should seek medical intervention. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or genital trauma may have a long-lasting effect on the victim if not treated.

Immediate medical intervention will also help doctors collect DNA samples that the victim may use to sue the offender.

Report the Offender

The next thing to do after seeking medical help is to report the abuser and have them face the law. Even if you can’t identify the assaulter or the abuser, it’s still important to let the police know about the matter.

Reporting may facilitate justice and prevent the offender from repeating the assault/abuse on the victim or someone else.

Contact an Attorney

Getting the help of a lawyer after sexual abuse will help you get justice sooner. You may even be entitled to compensation if you can prove that someone owed you a duty of care and failed to keep you safe, exposing you to the abuse.

For example, if a sexual assault or abuse happens at a nursing home or school, the facility may need to compensate the victim. The attorney will help you file a claim against the institution and ensure you get the justice and settlement you deserve.

Bottom Line

Sexual abuse and sexual assault happen every day, and victims suffer both physically and psychologically as a result. The impact of sexual offense has almost the same impact on the victim regardless of their age or gender.

Many victims even feel embarrassed to talk about it or even report it, allowing their offenders to continue assaulting or abusing them for a long time.

Adults need to protect themselves and their children against any form of inappropriate sexual activity and report the matter as soon as it happens.

No matter the position or power that the offender holds, the law is stringent on sexual abusers, and they may face very harsh punishment.

Consider working with a qualified attorney to ensure you get the justice you deserve in case you or your loved one is sexually assaulted or abused.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is provided for general education and informational purposes only, without any express or implied warranty of any kind, including warranties of accuracy, completeness or fitness for any particular purpose. It is not intended to be and does not constitute financial, legal, tax or any other advice specific to you the user or anyone else. TurtleVerse does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or reliability of the information and shall not be held responsible for any action taken based on the published information.



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