Feminism 101: What is Sexual Violence?

Design by Maddy Pease

Content warning: sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

In the past month, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and now Louis C.K.   their combined victim count currently hovering around 125 have been added to the ever-growing list of sexual abusers who occupy positions of power. Recent events have only served to highlight the massive misunderstanding many people still have when it comes to definitions of sexual violence.

Sexual violence is the non-legal blanket term that includes sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault, molestation and rape. These subcomponents, explored here, have been formally defined by leading organizations.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in a workplace or learning environment. It can include demeaning or violent “jokes” and comments targeted toward gender groups as a whole, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

Sexual harassment is something women and femmes experience frequently, particularly in traditionally masculine careers. Statistics are skewed due to variation in survey question phrasing some studies ask if participants have ever been harassed, while others ask if participants have ever been the recipient of unwanted touching, sexist jokes, inappropriate looks or proximity, and other violations. Conservative numbers tend to estimate around half of all employees have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. This number may be higher (estimated at 60%)  in the tech industry and other STEM fields where the majority of employees and employers are privileged white males who face few consequences for harassment one of the many reasons that leads to a 40% drop out rate for women.

Also under the umbrella of sexual violence, RAINN defines sexual assault as any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Until 2011, the FBI still defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” In a revolutionary (but still incomplete) decision, the FBI altered the definition to “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

In other words, all rape is sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape.

Not surprisingly, consent still turns out to be a point of confusion. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in 2015 that established a requirement of affirmative consent in California schools, otherwise known as “yes means yes.” One popular metaphor imagines consent as a cup of tea: just because someone said they love tea or once drank tea with you does not mean that they want tea right now, with you or while they are asleep. Unfortunately, both legally and socially, the definition of consent still has a long way to go.

Another point of confusion is that some states require proof of varying degrees of force in order to legally establish a lack of consent. Force can be physical, psychological, or emotional. It can include threats, coercion, or manipulation. While there may be a “yes” or other affirmation, this response may be extracted by force, which is, therefore, non-consensual.

Statistics for sexual assault and rape vary widely, also largely due to alternative definitions and underreporting. RAINN reports 1 in 6 American women are victims of rape or attempted rape, while other sources say 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted. Still others report the number as high as 1 in 3 for women in college.

These numbers only get higher for members of the LGBTQ+ community and minors: sexual assault rates in college are 32% for bisexual women compared to 18% for heterosexual women, while minors, especially girls, ages 16-19 are four times as likely as the general population to be raped or sexually assaulted.

Rape and sexual assaults are also vastly unreported crimes. The FBI estimates somewhere between 60-80% of cases go unreported, largely due to survivors’ fear of police, fear of facing their abuser, and fear that they will not be believed.

This fear is why we must use the correct language, and only the correct language when we discuss sexual violence. When we use euphemisms or incorrect words and phrases, we trivialize and often downplay a survivor’s experience; we feed into the idea that sex can be nonconsensual.

Guardian reporter Jessica Valenti aptly wrote, “‘Sex isn’t nonconsensual. Only rape is. Conflating the two gives credence to the myth that rape is just a particular shade of sex, rather than a violent crime.”

This change has already begun, with millions of people taking to Twitter and Facebook in the aftermath of Weinstein to raise awareness of sexual abuse through the hashtag #metoo. Thousands more male victims spoke up after Spacey, and the conversation continues with C.K. When understanding sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape, it’s essential to know and use the correct language in order to begin the healing process.  


If you or someone you know is a survivor, RAINN has a comprehensive guide to ensuring safety, beginning therapy, reporting the assault, and other helpful information (available in both English and Spanish). They also run the Nation Sexual Assault Helpline where you can call (800-656-HOPE) or chat in English or Spanish online. If you are a student on UCLA’s campus, CARE is available to you both by email or phone for consultations, as well as alternative healing programs and group therapies. All resources listed are free.


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