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What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any behaviour of a sexual nature that makes someone feel uncomfortable, frightened, intimidated or threatened.

It is sexual behaviour that someone has not agreed to, where another person uses physical or emotional force against them. It can include anything from sexual harassment through to life threatening rape. Some of these acts are serious indictable crimes.

The terms sexual assault and sexual abuse are often used interchangeably. Generally, the term sexual abuse refers to abuse that has happened in childhood and has occurred more than once. Sexual assault is often used to describe one-off incidents of sexual assault in adolescence and adulthood.

Sexual assault is an abuse of power. Sexual assault is never the fault or responsibility of the victim survivor.

Examples of sexual assault include:

  • Stalking: Repeatedly being followed or watched by someone.
  • Rape: Being forced to have vaginal, anal or oral sex.
  • Unwanted touching: Pinching, patting, embracing, rubbing, groping, flicking, kissing, fondling, being touched on the breasts, bum, legs etc.
  • Sexual harassment: Dirty jokes or rude comments about a person’s sex life
  • Obscene gestures: Simulating masturbation in front of a person
  • Voyeurism: Being watched doing intimate things without permission.
  • Unwanted sexual comments or jokes: Comments about a person’s body or relationships.
  • Sex-related insults: Calling someone a slut, dyke, homo, slag etc.
  • Pressuring for dates or demand for sex: Invitations that turn into threats or not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
  • Indecent exposure: Someone showing private parts of their body or ‘flashing’ their genitals.
  • Being forced to watch or participate in pornography: Taking a photo without permission, forcing someone to be on video, making someone watch a pornographic movie.
  • Offensive written material: Dirty notes, letters, phone messages, emails, SMS, pictures.

What causes sexual assault?

Sexual assault is both a consequence and a reinforcer of the power disparity existing largely between men, and women and children. It occurs within families and in multiple other settings and types of relationships.

What is the impact of sexual assault?

Impact of sexual assault on the lives of victim survivors is multi-faceted and complex.

It includes emotional, social, psychological, legal, health and political consequences. To facilitate a victim survivor’s recovery from sexual violence, Sexual Assault Services Victoria recognises the importance of responding to each aspect in an appropriate and effective manner.

The impact of sexual assault can be compounded by factors such as gender, culture, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, religion, ability and socio-economic class.

What does the law say about sex and sexual assault?

The basic laws about sex are that people can’t have sex together if:

  • One of them is under the age of consent
  • One person doesn’t want to
  • They are in the same family.
  • If you have sex with someone underage or against their will it is a serious crime, called a sexual offence. Maximum penalties are between five and 25 years in prison.

Understanding Consent

Consent is an agreement between people to engage in a sexual activity. It is needed for any kind of sexual activity from kissing to intercourse.

Core elements of Consent:

Consent needs to be mutual (both people have to agree) and must be continuous.
A person has the right to stop at any time or change their mind at any time, and just because someone has said yes to one thing doesn’t mean they have consented to anything else.

Enthusiastic consent should be obtained each and every time people have a sexual encounter, regardless of whether or not they have been intimate before.
The important part of consent is regularly checking in with your partner to make sure that they are still wanting to proceed.

Consent is FRIES:

  • Freely Given
  • Reversible
  • Informed
  • Enthusuastic
  • Specific

Consent and the Law

The law in Victoria sets out clear age limits for when you can legally have sex. This is called age of consent. A person can be charged with a sexual offence if they perform a sexual act that breaks these age limits, even if the younger person agrees to it.


There are many myths surrounding sexual assault. These myths serve to deny the reality of sexual assault, diminish the perception of the impact of sexual assault, blame the victims, and protect the offender by implying that they are not responsible for their abusive actions or behaviours.

Sexual assault is not really about sex, but rather about using sex as a means of exerting power and control over another person.


Whilst the common perception is that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers in streets or parks, the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim survivor and occur in places that are familiar or that seem non-threatening. These can be either in a private or public setting where people such as families, friends, colleagues and other groups of people considered non-threatening gather.

One in 3 girls is sexually assaulted and one in 6 boys is sexually assaulted before the age of 18.

Recent research revealed that when adults were asked if they would believe a child who told them they had been sexually assaulted 31% said that they would not believe the child.