Sexual assault is not an isolated event that happens to a few individuals in a random, unpredictable way. It is a normalized pattern of behavior that is upheld by systems of oppression. Follow this article to learn more about why does sexual assault occur?

There are many factors that contribute to the occurrence of sexual assault. It is important to understand that perpetrators, not victims are responsible for sexual assault happening.  Perpetrators have a strong sense of entitlement and use power and control to commit acts of sexual assault. Most perpetrators adhere to rigid “traditional” gender roles that focus on the inequality of women. This allows them  to treat women and the targeted victim with no regard or respect.

It is also important to look at other factors that contribute to sexual assault occurring such as those  that are used  to justify or excuse sexual assault. Gender-based stereotypes reinforce inequality between genders.

For example, in a society where men are portrayed as being aggressive and women are seen as passive, a man who pressures a woman for sex is often perceived as behaving acceptably. Gender-based stereotypes are reinforced throughout society and can be seen in pop culture and media.

What is assault?

An assault is when someone physically attacks you, or threatens to attack you. This content has been written for children and young people. Assault might include things like being pushed, shoved, punched or kicked, and can even involve weapons. For example, if someone hits you with a bottle or threatens to stab you with a knife.

Even if the attack doesn’t result in physical injuries, it can still be regarded as an assault. Incidents can happen anywhere – at home, at school, in the street – and often the victim knows the person who attacks them. Whether you are physically hurt or not, being assaulted can have a big effect on you emotionally.

Traditionally, common law legal systems have separate definitions for assault and battery. When this distinction is observed, battery refers to the actual bodily contact, whereas assault refers to a credible threat or attempt to cause battery. Some jurisdictions combined the two offenses into a single crime called “assault and battery”, which then became widely referred to as “assault”. The result is that in many of these jurisdictions, assault has taken on a definition that is more in line with the traditional definition of battery. The legal systems of civil law and Scots law have never distinguished assault from battery.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is an act in which one intentionally sexually touches another person without that person’s consent, or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will. It is a form of sexual assault, which includes child sexual abuse, groping, rape (forced vaginal, anal, or oral penetration or a drug facilitated sexual assault), or the torture of the person in a sexual manner.

Sexual assault is the use of force, coercion, or an imbalance of power to make a person engage in sexual activity without their consent. Sexual assault is sometimes called sexual abuse. Rape is one form of sexual assault, but it’s not the only kind. Sexual assault can include forced kissing, touching, and groping, too. Legal definitions of these terms differ depending on where you live. Sexual assault can happen to anyone. It happens to women, men, and people of all genders.

However, women, people with disabilities, and people of color are more likely to experience sexual assault than other people. Sexual assault does not depend solely on contact with any specific part of the human anatomy but rather the act of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim. When investigating a sexual assault, there are certain relevant factors to consider:

  • The part of the body touched.
  • The nature of the contact.
  • The situation in which the contact occurred.
  • The words and gestures accompanying the act.
  • All other circumstances surrounding the act.
  • Any threats that may or may not be accompanied by force.

The victim of the sexual assault can be man or woman and the attacker can be of the same sex as the victim. A spouse may be charged with sexual assault upon the other spouse.

What are some of the types of sexual assault?

Sexual Assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Sexual Assault has no age, gender, disability, or socioeconomic boundaries. The following descriptions are types of sexual assault:

  • Child abuse
  • Rape
  • Stranger assault
  • Incest
  • Partner sexual assault
  • Same gender assault
  • Prostitution
  • Drug facilitated sexual assault
  • Indecent exposure
  • Gang rape
  • Child pornography
  • Sexual assault in prisons
  • Female genital mutilation

Child abuse:

Child abuse is not just physical assault directed at a child. It is any form of maltreatment by an adult, which is violent or threatening for the child. This includes neglect. When child abuse occurs in the home and the abuser is, for example, the child’s parent or care-giver, this is a form of domestic assault.


Rape is one of the most reported assault criminal acts because many survivors do not realize that they’ve been sexually assaulted.  Anytime a person forces, coerces, or manipulates another person to engage in sexual activity against their will or without their consent, that is sexual assault.  Sexual assault is not sex.  The perpetrator is motivated by a need to feel powerful by controlling, dominating, or humiliating another person.

Stranger assault:

Stranger sexual assault is a sexual act of assault outside of the victims normal relationships.  Stranger sexual assault almost always involves a certain degree of physical assault. If you have been a victim of a stranger assault, it is important that you consider reporting to law enforcement.  Offenders that attack someone that they do not know are often more violent and tend to be repeat offenders.


Incest is sexual contact between persons who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal (e.g., parents and children, uncles/aunts and nieces/nephews, etc.). This usually takes the form of an older family member sexually abusing a child or adolescent. If you have been a victim of incest or are currently a victim of incest, please talk to someone about what you are experiencing, get help.

Partner sexual assault:

Marital or intimate partner sexual assault is so destructive because it betrays the fundamental basis of the marital relationship, because it questions every understanding you have not only of your partner and your marriage, but of yourself.  You end up feeling betrayed, humiliated, and above all, very confused.

Many men/women who are victims of marital or intimate partner sexual assault have great difficulty in defining it as such. The traditional idea that it is impossible for a man to rape his wife/intimate partner and that somehow, in taking our marriage vows we have abdicated any say over our own body and sexuality, basically denies women the right to say “NO,” is still prevalent among married women as much as among men.

A wife/partner being sexually assaulted will often question his/her right to refuse intercourse with her husband/partner, and while she/he may realize that legally it constitutes rape, there are many reasons which may prevent him/ her from perceiving it in such a light.

Same gender assault:

Same gender assault is when a sexual assault occurs and the victim and the perpetrator are of the same gender.  This does not necessarily mean that they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT), however, same sex sexual assault does occur in the GLBT community. Same gender sexual assault is often referred to as “homosexual rape.”

This is not very accurate as many sexual assaults involve non-consensual acts other than “rape,” and because the perpetrators of this form of sexual assault are not always homosexual. The vast majority of same-sex assaults are committed during dating situations or as a part of a pattern of domestic abuse in same-sex relationships.

Gay men and Lesbian women who are victims of same gender sexual assaults may find it hard to come forward because they fear they will lose their jobs, family, friends, and housing when people find out they are GLBT.  Conversely, if the victim of a same gender sexual assault identifies as heterosexual they may be afraid to report for fear they will be thought of as gay or lesbian.


Prostitution is generally thought of as employment when, in actuality, it is ownership of and unconditional sexual access to women.  A woman’s choice to engage in prostitution happens within a social context which condones sexual objectification of women.  Culturally supported tactics of power and control facilitate the recruitment or coercion of women and children into prostitution and effectively impede their escape.

By maintaining a society in which women are kept economically marginalized, the system of male supremacy ensures that a pool of women will be vulnerable to recruitment and entrapment into prostitution.  Prostitution is sexual abuse because prostitutes are subjected to any number of sexual acts that in any other context, acted against any other woman, would be labeled assault, or, at the very least, unwanted and coerced.

Drug facilitated sexual assault:

Just as it is against the law to slip someone a drug to facilitate a sexual assault, it is also considered sexual assault if the victim/survivor knowingly and voluntarily ingests drugs or alcohol.  Performing any sexual act(s) on a person who is unconscious or asleep, too drunk to withhold consent, or unable to communicate is against the law.

The victim usually blacks out, and has no memory of the assault or the events surrounding the assault.  The drugs that are commonly slipped to the victim/survivors are eliminated quickly from the body, leaving no evidence that the drug was in the victim/survivor’s system, thus making it difficult to prove lack of consent.  This factor, along with loss of memory, often works against the investigation of Drug Facilitated Sexual Assaults.

Indecent exposure:

These are all forms of sexual assault.  Victims/survivors can experience the same short and long-term effects as victims/survivors of other sexual assault.  The offenders of these crimes come from all different backgrounds and environments.  The offender may have a long history of incidents of inappropriate behavior or it may be an isolated incident.  Any of these actions are crimes and it is important to report them to local law enforcement.

Gang rape:

Although gang rape is commonly used to describe this type of sexual assault, it rarely has anything to do with organized street gangs.  Sexual assault by multiple perpetrators can involve more physical harm and verbal insults to the victim than other types of sexual assault.  Group dynamics dictate this type of sexual assault; there is always a leader and at least one reluctant participant.

Victim/survivors of sexual assault by multiple perpetrators are usually isolated and seeking friendship, or vulnerable in other ways.  Responses and reactions to this type of sexual assault are similar to those in other cases but may be compounded due to there being more than one offender.

Child pornography:

Child pornography is defined as material that is either made using children, or through the use of modern technology, is made to appear that children are being used.  Child pornography does not have to involve obscene behavior, but may include sexually explicit conduct that is suggestive.  Production, trading, and possession of child pornography in the United States is illegal; Also, images from the Internet do not have to be saved for an offense to have occurred-they only need to have been accessed.

Sexual assault in prisons:

Prisoner rape for male and female inmates can vary between each institution. A recent study in four Midwest states found that approximately one in 10 male inmates had reported being sexually assaulted. Approximately one in five male inmates reported a coerced or forced act of sexual assault. In one institution, 27 percent of female inmates reported a coerced or forced act of sexual assault. In another institution, seven percent of females reported sexual assault.

Sexual assault runs an even higher risk of becoming deadly in prison due to rates of HIV being five to ten times higher inside of prison versus outside. It is known that sexual assault is an act of power and this becomes clear within prisons. Victims/survivors fear retaliation from those who hurt them.

Many times if it is a staff person who attacked him/her, that victim/survivor may feel that no one would believe them. Society may sometimes perpetuate the belief that inmates “get what they deserve.” It is important that victim/survivors of sexual assault within prisons know that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.

Female genital mutilation:

Female genital mutilation occurs in multiple countries.  Experiencing Female Genital Mutilation is painful and traumatic, both short and long-term. Female Genital Mutilation is sometimes practiced as part of a religion but not in all cases. Female genital mutilation is a harmful, oppressive practice.

What are the four degrees of sexual assault?

Sexual assault of any type is a serious offense. While many people understand the basic concepts of what constitutes sexual assault, the law differentiates between various degrees of the crime in order to more effectively prosecute offenders. In total, there are four degrees of sexual assault in California.

First degree sexual assault is the most severe type of offense, while fourth degree is the least. In some cases fourth degree sexual assault may be charged as sexual battery, and it’s up to the prosecutor to make that decision. Following are the degrees of sexual assault:

  • First degree sexual assault
  • Second degree sexual assault
  • Third degree sexual assault
  • Fourth degree sexual assault

First degree sexual assault:

First degree sexual assault (sometimes referred to as aggravated sexual assault) is the most severe degree of the crime. To be convicted of first degree sexual assault, the prosecution must prove that the following sexual penetration occurred:

  • The victim was under the age of 13
  • The victim ranges in age from 13-18, and one of the following:
    • A member of the same household as the perpetrator
    • A relative of the perpetrator
    • The perpetrator was in a position of authority over the victim
  • The perpetrator was aided by another person or assailant, and one of the following:
    • The victim was incapacitated
    • The perpetrator used some form of force or coercion to assault the victim
    • The perpetrator was armed with a weapon
    • The victim was injured
    • The assault occurred while another crime was being committed by the perpetrator

Punishments for first degree sexual assault, while ultimately up to the judge, can result in a life sentence to prison.

Second degree sexual assault:

Second degree sexual assault differs slightly from first degree in that it doesn’t include sexual penetration. However, from a legal standpoint, it is considered equally as damaging as first degree assault due to the violent nature of the crime and/or the victim’s inability to consent. To be convicted of second degree sexual assault, the prosecution must prove that:

  • Sexual contact occurred
  • Any of the situations listed in the requirements for first degree sexual assault (other than sexual penetration) occurred.

Convictions for second degree sexual assault typically do not result in life imprisonment, but sentences of up to fifteen years are common.

Third degree assault:

Third degree sexual assault, while less violent that first and second degree, is still a very serious crime. To be convicted of third degree sexual assault, the prosecution must prove that:

  • Sexual penetration occurred
  • One of the following circumstances:
    • The victim was a minor
    • The victim was forced and/or coerced
    • The victim was incapacitated at the time

Third degree sexual assault also carries a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison.

Fourth degree of sexual assault:

To be convicted of fourth degree sexual assault, the prosecution must prove that:

  • Sexual contact occurred
  • One of the following circumstances:
  • The victim was a minor
  • The victim was forced and/or coerced
  • The victim was incapacitated at the time

Punishments for fourth degree sexual assault vary more widely than the first three degrees, and heavily depend on the circumstances of the case.

How does sexual assault affect you?

Everyone reacts differently to sexual assault. All of the following responses are normal:

  • Shock and denial – You might think, ‘Did this really happen to me?’ or ‘Why me?’, and feel unable to accept that it actually happened.
  • Fear – You might experience fear of the offender, of being alone, or of not being believed.
  • Silence – You might find that you’re unable to talk about the assault, or to describe what it feels like to have been assaulted, out of fear of being judged.
  • Anxiety – You might feel unsafe or unable to relax.
  • Depression – You might feel sad, hopeless or down, or stop enjoying the things that you used to enjoy.
  • Guilt and blame – You might ask yourself, ‘Why did I go there/allow it/not fight back?’
  • Low self-esteem – You might lose self-confidence, and feel ‘unworthy’, ashamed or ‘dirty’.
  • Isolation – You might want to be alone, and to isolate yourself from family and friends.
  • Nightmares and flashbacks – You might have images and memories of the assault intrude on your daily life and sleep.
  • Mood swings – You might find that your mood changes quickly from anger and rage, to tears and despair, and back again.
  • Loss of confidence – You might worry about your ability to do your work or study, or lack confidence with friends or your partner.
  • Loss of trust – You might find it hard to trust people in your social circle or family.
  • PTSD – You might experience a particular set of reactions such as reliving the traumatic event with intrusive thoughts or memories, or feeling emotionally numb.
  • Memories – You might experience flashbacks or memories of the assault.

What to do if you are sexually assaulted?

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s not something you have to live with on your own. Here are some things you can do straight away:

  • Ensure your safety
  • Talk to someone
  • Get medical help
  • Contact the police
  • Trust yourself

Ensure your safety:

If you’re in immediate danger, or you’re worried about your safety, contact emergency services on 911 immediately and try to get to somewhere safe.

Talk to someone:

This can be tough, but is really important for your support and recovery. Find someone you can talk to, such as a friend or family member, or a professional like a GP, counselor or youth worker. Contact an organization in your state or territory that can give you relevant information on seeking help.

Get medical help:

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s possible to get medical support. If you decide to, try to get to a hospital or health center where they can give you appropriate medical care.

Contact the police:

You might find it hard to decide whether or not to report the sexual assault to the police. The most important thing is that you make the right decision for you. If you do decide to make a formal report, it’s helpful to know that procedures have been put in place to support you and reduce distress. It can help to take a support person to the police station so you don’t need to be on your own. You can also write down as much as you can remember about the sexual assault to help reduce stress at the time of reporting.

Trust yourself:

If someone has assaulted you, you may not feel confident about what to do next. Trust your instincts. Remember that it’s never okay for someone to assault you for any reason.

Why does sexual assault occurs?

There are many factors that contribute to the occurrence of sexual assault.  It is important to understand that perpetrators, not victims are responsible for sexual assault happening. Perpetrators have a strong sense of entitlement and use power and control to commit acts of sexual assault. Most perpetrators adhere to rigid “traditional” gender roles that focus on the inequality of women.  This allows them  to treat women and the targeted victim with no regard or respect.

It is also important to look at other factors that contribute to sexual assault occurring such as those  that are used  to justify or excuse sexual assault.  Gender-based stereotypes reinforce inequality between genders.

For example, in a society where men are portrayed as being aggressive and women are seen as passive, a man who pressures a woman for sex is often perceived as behaving acceptably. Gender-based stereotypes are reinforced throughout society and can be seen in pop culture and media.

Research indicates that alcohol and other drugs are often used by the perpetrator to incapacitate victims. That means that  alcohol and other drugs, while they do not cause sexual assault are contributing factors to the occurrence of sexual assault.

Finally, victim blaming behavior and beliefs create a culture where we disregard sexual assault by blaming a victim. While this is not a cause of sexual assault, it is a factor that contributes to a society where we do not hold perpetrators accountable for their behavior and therefore encourage and support further acts of sexual assault.

Victim blaming happens in many ways and can be defined as any assumption that a victim is responsible for the crime committed against them based on the way s/he behaves, dresses or lives. Such beliefs  add to the prevalence of sexual assault.

What are some of the causes of sexual assault?

There are many theories explaining the causes of sexual assault. These theories include:

  • During war
  • Socioeconomic situation
  • Anger
  • Power
  • Sadism
  • Psychological traits
  • No judicial system
  • Evolutionary pressures

During war:

Wartime sexual assault is rape or other forms of sexual assault committed by combatants during armed conflict, war, or military occupation often as spoils of war, but sometimes, particularly in ethnic conflict, the phenomenon has broader sociological motives. Wartime sexual assault may also include gang rape and rape with objects. A war crime, it is distinguished from sexual harassment, sexual assaults and rape committed amongst troops in military service.

During war and armed conflict, rape is frequently used as a means of psychological warfare in order to humiliate the enemy. Wartime sexual assault may occur in a variety of situations, including institutionalized sexual slavery, wartime sexual assault associated with specific battles or massacres, as well as individual or isolated acts of sexual assault.

Socioeconomic situation:

Poverty is among the root causes of sexual assault and often has a daily presence in a victim’s life. Sexual assault also can jeopardize a person’s economic wellbeing, often leading to homelessness, unemployment, interrupted education and health, mental health, and other daily stressors and struggles.

In turn, living without one’s basic needs met can increase a person’s risk for sexual victimization causing a difficult situation. Statistics show that poverty increases people’s vulnerabilities to sexual exploitation in the workplace, schools, and in prostitution, sex trafficking, and the drug trade and that people with the lowest socioeconomic status are at greater risk for assault.


A person experiencing anger will often experience physical effects, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Some view anger as an emotion which triggers part of the fight or flight response. Anger becomes the predominant feeling behaviorally, cognitively, and physiologically when a person makes the conscious choice to take action to immediately stop the threatening behavior of another outside force.

Anger can have many physical and mental consequences. The external expression of anger can be found in facial expressions, body language, physiological responses, and at times public acts of aggression. Uncontrolled anger can negatively affect personal or social well-being and negatively impact those around them.


Power is a behavior used by an abusive person to gain and/or maintain control over another person. Abusers are commonly motivated by devaluation, personal gain, personal gratification, psychological projection, or the enjoyment of exercising power and control. The victims of this behavior are often subject to psychological, physical, mental, sexual, or financial abuse.


Sexual sadism disorder is the condition of experiencing sexual arousal in response to the extreme pain, suffering or humiliation of others. Several other terms have been used to describe the condition, and the condition may overlap with other conditions that involve inflicting pain. It is distinct from situations in which consenting individuals use mild or simulated pain or humiliation for sexual excitement.

Psychological traits:

It is evident that a variety of individual characteristics are related to sexual aggression. However, less is known about how the overall personality constellation of perpetrators differs from that of non-perpetrators. Results have been inconsistent, but generally show that sexual offenders tend to be more depressed, irritable, angry, hostile, and have limited ability to communicate and empathize. Findings have demonstrated differences among types of sex offenders on characteristics such as introversion, abasement, aggression, deference, and nurturance.

Judicial system:

For many victims/survivors, the criminal justice system is therefore not experienced as a site of protection, but as a site of harm that compounds the trauma of rape and sexual abuse. The system is often re-traumatising, and for specialist sexual assault and abuse practitioners who support victims/survivors, profoundly demoralising.

Victims/survivors, overwhelmingly women and girls, will experience the criminal justice system in ways that will be shaped by race, age, faith, gender identity, migrant status, class and socio-economic background, disability, and sexuality. Addressing the challenges posed by gender-based assault for the criminal justice system and society more widely, requires a deeper understanding of the wide-ranging and intersecting and structural inequalities that drive it.

Evolutionary pressures:

Sociobiological theories of rape explore how evolutionary adaptation influences the psychology of rapists. Such theories are highly controversial, as traditional theories typically do not consider rape a behavioral adaptation. Some object to such theories on ethical, religious, political, or scientific grounds. Others argue correct knowledge of rape causes is necessary for effective preventive measures.

What are the three levels of sexual assault?

The crime of sexual assault is defined as an attack of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of the victim. The assault is not entirely dependent on physical contact with any particular part of the body. The main focus is whether the assault was of a sexual nature that compromised the victim’s sexual integrity. There are certain elements to consider when investigating a case of sexual assault:

  • The nature of physical contact.
  • The body part and region that was touched.
  • The factual situation leading up to the sexual assault and during same.
  • Whether there were gestures or words that accompanied the assault.
  • Whether there were threats that may or may not have been combined with force.
  • Other relevant circumstances involved in the assault.

Aggravated sexual assault occurs when the assailant, when committing the sexual assault, maims, disfigures, wounds or puts the life of the victim in danger. Sexual assault is not limited to one type of act. When the accusations are brought to the police, the accused will face one of three different charges:

  • Level one addresses sexual assault. This level indicates that the assailant committed an assault that was sexual in nature, but though it compromised the sexual integrity of the victim, no physical injuries were inflicted. This may include inappropriate touching, unwanted kissing and oral, vaginal or anal sex. On this level, the matter of consent is critical.
  • Level two addresses sexual assault that causes bodily harm or involves a weapon or threats to a third party.
  • Level three covers aggravated sexual assault.

The individual levels are differentiated by the severity of the physical injuries sustained by the person who filed the complaint.


There is a social context that surrounds sexual assault. Social norms that condone assault, use power over others, traditional constructs of masculinity, the subjugation of women, and silence about assault and abuse contribute to the occurrence of sexual assault.

Oppression in all of its forms is among the root causes of sexual assault. Sexual assault is preventable through collaborations of community members at multiple levels of society—in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, faith settings, workplaces, and other settings. We all play a role in preventing sexual assault and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality, and helping others.

The contributions and achievements that may never come as a result of sexual assault represent a cost to society that cannot be measured. Sexual assault weakens the basic pillars of safety and trust that people long to feel in their communities because it creates an environment of fear and oppression.


Nabeel Ahmad is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lone Mind. Apart from Lone Mind, he is a serial entrepreneur, and has founded multiple successful companies in different industries.

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