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What Is the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse?

Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Abuse

Recently, sexual assault and sexual abuse have cropped up more frequently in news stories around the country. 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 continue this important conversation.

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 sexual abuse. Sexual abuse may include the following:

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. Accidentally allowing a minor to see the genitals of an adult, however, does not constitute sexual abuse.

Sexual Contact, Including Fondling and Intercourse

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.

Obscene Messaging

Digital technology has increased abusers’ ability to contact their victims and the tools at their disposal. Obscene messaging on social media, via text, via video messaging, or through 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 messages can cause extreme psychological trauma in a minor child.

Sex Trafficking

Human trafficking can lead to extreme sexual abuse. 50 percent of human trafficking victims are children, and the majority end up forced into the sex trade. Many children have long-term psychological damage related to time spent in the sex trade.


Child pornography victimizes a child, not just during its recording, but over and over again, as new people watch the material. The FBI seeks to aggressively identify and punish the creators of child pornography.

Identifying Childhood Sexual Abuse

Many abusers start grooming children in early childhood so that the abusers 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.

Red flags for childhood sexual abuse include:

  • Withdrawal from friends and usual activities. Many victims 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 inappropriate given the child’s age. Children may naturally pick up some information about sexual behaviors in school, but 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, especially 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 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.

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, even causing a child to imagine behavior that did not happen or unintentionally placing a sense of guilt on the child. Working with a 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 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 include:

  • 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. An adult who steps outside that role, however, 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 he or she does 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.

Sexual Assault

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. Sexual assault may also include:

Forced Sexual Contact

Forced sexual contact can include rape, but may also involve forcing unwanted rectal or genital contact on the victim. Forced sexual contact can also include forcing a victim to perform sexual acts on the abuser. Many victims 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

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 victims may suffer unwanted fondling in the workplace or in an educational setting. Some victims 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.


Direct penetration, including oral, genital, and rectal penetration, all constitute rape. Rape includes any degree of penetration, including minor or slight penetration, committed as a deliberate act without the consent of the victim.

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.

What to Do After Sexual Abuse or Sexual Assault

Following sexual abuse or assault, many victims, or the families of minor victims, 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, eight out of 10 victims know their abusers. In the case of juvenile victims, approximately 93 percent know their attackers. This may make it even more complicated for some families to decide how to handle an assault or instance of abuse. However, the law clearly defines the steps that you should take following a case of sexual abuse or assault.

1. Seek medical care, if needed and/or desired.

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 the victim did not end up with an STD, but also it allows for DNA collection that could establish evidence related to the assault.

2. Report the assault or 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 victims do not want others to know about the abuse. Victims 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 abuse or assault, you may still have the ability to seek justice. Florida law recently eliminated the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse, which means that a child who suffered abuse in the past can seek justice years later.

3. Contact an attorney, if needed.

In some 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 victim 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.

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. Contact a sexual abuse lawyer as soon after the assault as possible to learn more about your rights.

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

Nationwide Clergy Sexual Abuse Lawyer