What Is the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse?

January 10, 2024 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
What Is the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse?

Understanding Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Abuse

Recently, sexual assault and sexual abuse have cropped up more frequently in news stories around the country and across various industries. The #MeToo movement has made more people than ever speak out about sexual abuse and assault. Defining the difference between sexual assault and sexual abuse is important to understanding your legal options.

As a survivor of sexual assault or sexual abuse, you may be entitled to recover compensation for the injuries and damages you sustained. Understanding how sexual assault is distinguished from sexual abuse is important to the process of filing a sexual abuse or assault claim. As a family member or friend of someone who suffered abuse or assault, it is also important to understand these differences so you can help your loved one find the support they need.

The main difference between sexual assault and sexual abuse is that sexual assault occurs to adults and sexual abuse occurs to minors or children. Dolman Law Group has been protecting and negotiating for survivors of sexual assault and abuse for over a decade. We encourage you to reach out to our experienced team to learn more about how we advocate for our clients.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Typically, sexual abuse describes behavior committed toward a minor child. In many states, children cannot consent to any type of sexual contact. If someone over the age of consent forces a minor into sexual interactions, especially if that crime continues over a period of time, that behavior constitutes child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse against minors may include one or more of the following offenses.

Child Sex Abuse Includes Exposing Oneself to a Minor

An adult who deliberately exposes himself or herself to a minor, especially in a provocative way, commits an act of sexual abuse against the minor. This includes an individual who deliberately masturbates or touches himself or herself in a sexual way in the presence of a minor. Both men and women can commit sexual abuse by exposing themselves to minors in an act called indecent exposure. Accidentally allowing a minor to see the genitals of an adult, however, does not constitute sexual abuse.

Sexual Contact, Including Fondling and Intercourse, is Abuse

Any type of sexual contact with a minor, from fondling to direct intercourse, constitutes sexual abuse. Any time an adult touches a child in a sexual manner, the adult abuses that child. Unfortunately, the perpetrator is often known to the child. This abuse can have a profound impact on the child and create mental health issues for them into adulthood.

Obscene Messages and Photographs Are Forms of Sexual Abuse

Digital technology has increased abusers' ability to contact their survivors because they now have more tools at their disposal. Obscene messaging on social media, via text, video messaging, or email, constitutes sexual abuse. Often, these types of messages may begin as simply as an adult male sending a child a photo of his genitals. These explicit messages can cause extreme psychological trauma in a minor.

Sex Trafficking Exploits Minors

The exploitation of adults and children through human trafficking happens every day across the U.S., including in Florida. Human trafficking can lead to extreme sexual abuse.  50% of human trafficking survivors are children, and the majority end up forced into the sex trade. In some cases, their parents are deceived by sex traffickers. Other times, neglectful or desperate parents willingly allow their children to be sold. Many children have long-term psychological damage related to time spent in the sex trade.

Pornography Exploits Children for a Lifetime

Child pornography victimizes a child, not just during its recording, but over and over again, as new people watch the material. Once an explicit video is shared, it can be difficult if not impossible to remove from the internet. The FBI seeks to aggressively identify and punish the creators of child pornography.

Identifying Childhood Sexual Abuse

Many sex abusers start grooming children in early childhood so that they can victimize the children later. Often, signs of sexual abuse take time to appear, as the adult gradually introduces the child to increasingly more sexual behaviors. Parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, and other adults should be aware of the common red flags for childhood sexual abuse.

Common signs of child sex abuse:

  • Withdrawal from friends and usual activities: Many survivors start to pull back from activities they usually enjoy. They may feel a sense of shame related to the abuse, which can cause them to avoid normal interactions with friends and loved ones.
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors on the part of the child: Some children will naturally touch themselves, regardless of age or gender. If the child begins acting out inappropriate activities or engaging in behavior with other children, on the other hand, it may indicate sexual abuse.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or signs of genital trauma: These physical signs of abuse should serve as a serious red flag of childhood sexual abuse and should receive immediate investigation and treatment.
  • Unexpected knowledge of sexual behaviors is inappropriate given the child's age: Children may naturally pick up some information about sexual behaviors in school. If they start showing unexpected sexual knowledge, especially if they display reluctance to tell an adult where they learned about it, it may indicate sexual abuse.
  • Reluctance to spend time with a specific individual: Reluctance to spend time with that individual alone. If a child starts displaying sudden reluctance to spend time with a friend or relative, even if that individual shows no signs of inappropriate behavior, parents should listen to the child's reluctance and investigate further.
  • Regression in behavior: The child may start wetting the bed or pick up former and soothing behaviors, including thumb-sucking or hair pulling.
  • Reluctance to remove clothing: Children may try to avoid taking off what they view as a protective layer of clothing even to bathe or swim. They may show reluctance to change clothes at all or wear the same outfit for several days, even when encouraged to change.

Therapy is Important for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Any suspicion of childhood sexual abuse should receive investigation by a licensed therapist with experience in dealing with sexually abused children. Even the most well-meaning parent can mistakenly mislead a child with their questions. They may even cause a child to imagine behavior that did not happen or unintentionally placing a sense of guilt on the child. Working with a child sex abuse therapist can make it easier to fully investigate the incidence of abuse and avoid further traumatization of the child.

Identifying Potential Sexual Abusers

Identifying potential behavioral signs of sex abusers may make it easier for parents to protect their children. Avoiding someone who shows signs of abusive behavior, including warning signs toward other children, will help prevent future abuse. Observing such behavior and reporting it when necessary will also help protect potentially vulnerable children.

Signs of a sexual abuser:

  • An adult who tends to want to spend excessive time with children, beyond their role in that child's life. An adult who naturally fills a role in a child's life, including a coach, teacher, or relative, may naturally spend time with the child. However, an adult who steps outside that role could be grooming that child for abuse. This could include a coach who wants to spend a great deal of time one-on-one with a specific child or a teacher who suddenly wants to have more interactions with a child outside of school.
  • An adult who does not respect a child's privacy or cues. This might, for example, include an adult who does not care whether a child wants to be hugged or kissed, even though a child may have expressed several times in the past that they do not enjoy such behavior.
  • An adult who spends more time with children and teenagers than their own adult friends. Some adults naturally enjoy the presence of children and teens. However, if these adults regularly surround themselves with children and teens and do not appear to have appropriate interactions with other adults, it could constitute a red flag.
  • An adult who regularly discusses sexual behavior or feelings with children and teens. That adult may also send teenagers inappropriate content, including videos and other sexual material.
  • Frequently has “special friends” of a certain age range or appearance, which may change from year to year. An adult may become closer to specific children than seems appropriate or necessary, including taking that child for special trips or spending excessive time alone with that child.

Institutions with a Reputation for Child Sexual Abuse Risk

There have been several high-profile recent sex abuse cases in the media. These cases highlight that sexual abuse does not occur in a vacuum. Often there are institutions that harbor these dangerous childhood sexual abusers. Institutions, managers, and coworkers who turn a blind eye to red flags can - and should - be held accountable for their actions. Some of the most recent cases of sexual abuse in the media have included cases against the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, and the Boy Scouts of America.

Institutions like these have a responsibility to protect young children in their care. This includes implementing protocols that reduce adult time alone with children, extensive background checks on employees, and employee training on child sexual abuse. It should also include strict protocols to follow when sexual abuse is reported or suspected.

What is Sexual Assault?

As mentioned earlier, in cases involving sexual assault vs sexual abuse, sexual assault typically involves an adult victim. Sexual assault often occurs as a one-time event and includes any sexual contact not invited or wanted by the victim. Most often, when defining sexual assault, people think of rape. However, rape does not represent the only type of sexual assault.

Forced Sexual Contact Constitutes Assault

Forced sexual contact can include rape, but may also involve forcing unwanted rectal or genital contact on the victim. For example, forced sexual contact can also include forcing a victim to perform sexual acts on the abuser. Many survivors of forced sexual contact feel that they do not have the ability or the right to say no due to the abuser's perceived power over them, even when the abuser does not physically force the victim into the contact.

Unwanted Fondling or Touching is a Form of Sexual Assault

Unwanted grabbing, fondling, or touching occurs when an abuser deliberately grabs or touches the victim, usually around the breasts or genitals, without consent. This type of touching may occur in any type of environment. In fact, many survivors may suffer unwanted fondling in the workplace or an educational setting. Some survivors go through this type of assault again and again due to their reluctance to call out the negative behavior or their fear that they, rather than the abuser, will end up punished for the action.

Defining Rape as a Type of Sexual Assault

While rape and sexual assault are often used interchangeably, this is not always accurate. Sexual assault describes a wide range of unwanted criminal sexual acts. Direct penetration, including oral, genital, and rectal penetration, all constitute rape.

Rape includes any degree of penetration, including minor or partial penetration, committed as a deliberate act without the consent of the victim. In 2012, the FBI updated its definition of rape to include any penetration without consent, no matter how slight. In addition, the law is gender-neutral meaning anyone can be subject to rape.

For example, date rape occurs when an abuser forces penetration on a victim in a date setting. Date rape occurs any time the victim does not feel that he or she can safely say no or when the victim cannot give consent due to intoxication or inebriation. Any type of assault, including sexual contact with a victim who cannot consent, still constitutes sexual assault.

Learn more: Sexual Assault in an Uber or Lyft

What to Do After Sexual Abuse or Sexual Assault

Following sexual abuse or sexual assault, many survivors, or the families of minor survivors, may have no idea what to do first. Should you take legal action? How can you protect yourself or your family and prevent it from happening again?

Unfortunately, on average, 8 out of 10 survivors know their abusers according to RAINN. In the case of juvenile survivors, approximately 93 percent know their attackers. This may make it even more complicated for some families to decide how to handle a sexual assault or instance of sexual abuse. However, the law clearly defines the steps that you should take following a case of sexual abuse or sexual assault.

1. Seek medical care after sexual abuse/assault

Ideally, you should seek medical care following any type of sexual assault or abuse. Minor children, in particular, should receive care and an evaluation to ensure that they have not contracted an STD or suffered genital trauma that may lead to long-lasting suffering. Having a medical evaluation immediately after an assault can also allow doctors to utilize a rape kit. A rape kit not only ensures that someone who was assaulted did not end up with an STD, but it also allows for DNA collection that could establish evidence related to the assault.

2. Report the sexual assault or sexual abuse

Some survivors of sexual assault or abuse struggle with the decision to report the abuse to the police. They may worry about victim shaming or feel that they will get someone in trouble. Many survivors do not want others to know about the abuse. Survivors may attempt to cover it up or prefer not to mention it to anyone. Reporting the abuse as soon as possible, however, can facilitate justice and ensure that the abuser does not have the opportunity to assault someone else in the future.

Even if you have allowed some time to pass since the sexual abuse or assault, you may still have the ability to seek justice. Florida law recently eliminated the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. For survivors, this means that a child who suffered abuse in the past can seek justice years later.

3. Contact a sexual abuse attorney

In many cases, you may have the right to compensation following an act of sexual abuse or assault. If someone else owed a duty of care to keep you safe at the time of the assault, but failed in that duty, you may have the right to file a sexual abuse claim against the party that failed to prevent your suffering.

For example, in cases of nursing home sexual assault, the survivor may have the right to file a claim against the nursing home. Likewise, in the case of sexual abuse perpetrated at school or daycare, parents and the child who suffered the abuse may have the right to file a claim against the institution if it failed to conduct a background check on the abusive employee or to take appropriate steps to protect the children in its care.

Why Should I Choose Dolman Law Group to Represent Me in a Sexual Abuse or Sexual Assault Lawsuit?

The sexual abuse lawyers of Dolman Law Group are aware that handling claims of this nature require a certain level of sensitivity and experience. We can offer you and your family expert legal advice to navigate the complex process of filing a claim for damages, even if the assault or abuse happened years prior.

Our award-winning team will dedicate itself to pursuing a fair settlement outcome that acknowledges the mental, physical, and emotional impact sexual assault and abuse can have on a survivor. We have a proven track record of securing maximum compensation for our clients, and we are prepared to do the same for you.

Choosing a reputable personal injury lawyer to advocate for you or a loved one after sexual abuse or assault has occurred is a very personal choice. We encourage you to review our client testimonials in addition to our recent case results so you can see for yourself the type of respectful, supportive treatment you will receive from our team.

Contact Dolman Law Group for Help With Your Sexual Abuse or Sexual Assault Lawsuit

If you suffered sexual assault, or you have a child that suffered sexual abuse, a Florida personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights and seek compensation for any resulting injuries. The damages suffered in these kinds of cases are especially severe not just in physical terms but emotional as well. Just because these damages are less tangible, it does not mean that they are any less deserving of compensation through a sexual abuse lawsuit.

The lawyers of Dolman Law Group have been assisting sexual abuse survivors for years with seeking compensation for these damages and can provide you with award-winning legal representation that can hold those involved in your suffering accountable. Our sexual assault and sexual abuse attorneys have been successful in securing fair settlements in negotiations and in court for cases ranging from Uber and Lyft sexual assault to hotel human trafficking.

Consider contacting our firm as soon as possible about a free consultation about your case. Our sexual abuse lawyers are happy to sit with you and discuss the details of your case and determine how Dolman Law Group can help you. Contact our firm today by either calling our main Clearwater office at (727) 451-6900 or filling out a contact form online.

Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765
(727) 451-6900



Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

Learn More