What is Sexual Assault?

“Sexual assault is part of a continuum of violence.”

– Pru Goward (former Minister)

Across Australia, sexual assault is an umbrella term used to describe many different sexual offences, ranging from sexual touching to sexual intercourse without consent. Sexual intercourse is penetration of the mouth, anus or vagina by a penis, or penetration of the anus or vagina by any body part or object. This includes oral sex and digital penetration.

If you have had sexual contact of any kind without your consent, you have experienced a form of indecent or sexual assault.

Consent

Consent means freely saying ‘yes’ to engaging in sexual activity. Consent should be given by all parties and can be withdrawn at any time. In all states, consent cannot be given freely if someone is:

 

  • Under the age of consent (16 in NSW, VIC, QLD, NT, WA, ACT or 17 in SA and TAS)
  • Vulnerable (e.g. has an intellectual disability)
  • Forced or scared
  • Asleep or unconscious
  • Significantly intoxicated or affected by drugs
  • Unable to understand what they are consenting to due to their age or intellectual capacity
  • Intimidated, coerced or threatened
  • Unlawfully detained or held against their will
  • Consenting because of the abuse of a position of authority
  • Mistaken about the circumstances of the sexual activity (e.g. mistaken about identity of other person)
  • Mistaken about the use of a condom (in the ACT and VIC).

Enthusiastic Consent

Enthusiastic or affirmative consent involves an excited willingness to participate in sexual activity. 

It might look like:

  • Asking permission before changing the type of sexual activity with phrases like, “is this okay?”
  • Confirming that there is reciprocal interest before initiating physical touch
  • Periodically checking in with your partner, such as asking, “is this still okay?”
  • Providing positive feedback when comfortable with an activity
  • Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or using another affirmative statement, such as, “i’m open to trying”

(HelpingSurvivors.Org)

    Legal Terminology of Sexual Offences

    Different states use different legal terminology to describe sexual offences. For example:

    The legal terminology for sexual intercourse without consent is rape in VIC, QLD, TAS and SA, sexual assault in NSW and sexual intercourse or penetration without consent in ACT, NT and WA.

    The legal terminology for sexual touching without consent is sexual assault in VIC and QLD, sexual touching in NSW (formerly indecent assault), acts of indecency or indecent assault in the ACT, WA, TAS and NT, and sexual manipulation in SA.

    See each jurisdiction’s terminology and laws below.

    Aggravated Sexual Offences

    Some states have additional laws that treat sexual crimes more seriously when they are committed in circumstances of aggravation. Sexual offences are considered aggravated when:

    • The offender seriously injures or threatens to seriously injure the victim
    • The offender breaks into a home to commit the offence
    • The offender kidnaps the victim to commit the offence
    • A group of offenders commit the offence
    • The victim has a serious physical or cognitive disability
    • The victim is under the age of consent

    See each jurisdiction’s terminology and laws below.

    Child Sexual Offences

    Like adult sexual offences, child sexual offences vary among states. The crimes are generally of the same language and structure, but are specific to those under the legal age of consent. Moreover, punishments may vary depending on the age of the child.

    There are also a number of laws specific to child grooming. Grooming is when an adult engages in any conduct that exposes a child to indecent material, provides a child with intoxicating substances or with financial or any other material benefit with the intention of making it easier to procure the child for unlawful sexual activity with them or another person.

    See each jurisdiction’s terminology and laws below.

    Sexual Coercion

    Sexual coercion refers to unwanted sexual activity that occurs after someone is pressured, manipulated or threatened non-physically into ‘consenting’. It often looks like saying no several times before saying yes. Sexual coercion is typically seen as a bad sexual experience. This is because a victim did not want to engage in sexual activity (and likely refused at one stage), but was coerced into giving their ‘consent’. However, this consent was not given freely and voluntarily, and so this experience is actually sexual assault.

    Sexual coercion can also look like:

    • Saying yes after saying no several times 
    • Being told you’re a tease if you don’t engage in sexual activity
    • Having someone threaten to spread rumours about you if you don’t engage in sexual activity
    • Having an authority figure use their influence to pressure you into engaging in sexual activity

    It is difficult to recognise sexual coercion because it does not fit the stereotype of sexual assault. In addition, society views pressure and persistence as normal expressions of male sexuality, while women have learned to expect men to be unempathetic towards their discomfort. Male desire is something to give in to, or else the woman is a ‘tease’. 

    Sexual coercion is especially difficult to identify in relationships. In a healthy relationship, you should never have to engage in sexual activity when you don’t want to. Sexual coercion in a relationship is linked with other forms of violence and manipulation (AIC, 2021). Women who experience sexual coercion often experience coercive control, which can refer to a partner exerting financial control, controlling their activities, pressuring them to eat a certain way, and stopping them from seeing loved ones.

    Intimate Partner Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse

    Domestic abuse is any abusive behaviour in a family or intimate relationship where one person attempts to control another through power and fear. Abuse is not limited to physical or sexual violence; it might include emotional abuse and social or financial control. More broadly, the pattern of behaviour exhibited by domestic perpetrators is known as coercive control (see People Who Use Violence for more).

    Domestic abuse occurs across all ages and demographics, although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, pregnant women, women separating from their partners, women with a disability and women experiencing financial hardship are most at risk (ABS, 2023).

    In all jurisdictions, domestic abuse includes assault and personal injury (including sexual assault), intentional damage to the victim’s property, and threats of such behaviour. Domestic abuse also expressly encompasses intimidation in all jurisdictions other than the ACT.

    Sexual assault as part of domestic abuse is known as intimate partner sexual violence (IPSV), and includes any sexual activity that occurs without consent. Of women who experience sexual assault by a male, the most common perpetrator is the victim’s partner (ABS, 2023).

    If you have reason to suspect that your partner has perpetrated acts of violence, including sexual violence, in the past, some states are developing schemes where you may apply to see your partner’s potential history of domestic abuse. South Australia already offers the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, and NSW is developing the Right to Ask Scheme

    Terminology and Laws by Jurisdiction

    New South Wales

    Australian Capital Territory

    Victoria

    South Australia

    Queensland

    Northern Territory

    Western Australia

    Tasmania

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