Understanding Trauma & Violence
Meaning Making


Am I still allowed to call what happened sexual assault when it wasn't penetrative?


Thank you for asking this question. The short answer is yes.

When you go through a sexual experience that feels unwanted, it can often be difficult to label what just occurred. We might compare our experiences to the experiences we see on TV or read about online, causing us to question whether or not our experience “counts” as sexual assault.

First of all, you are not alone. According to a 2007 Department of Justice survey, 35 percent of sexual assault victims didn't report their assault because it was "unclear that it was a crime or that harm was intended." Only you can define your experience, but honor the feelings you are feeling.

Sexual assault can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never your fault. RAINN, the largest sexual violence organization in the US, defines sexual assault as "sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim."

For the definition of rape, RAINN quotes the FBI: "Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim".

While these are the official definitions, know that all of your feelings and experiences are valid. Trauma does not only consist of the event(s) that occurred, but it also involves how you experience those events as well as the overall effect the event has on you afterwards.

Sexual assault does not need to be penetrative to "count" in the eyes of the law. Also, remember that you are the expert of your own experience and whether or not your experience can be validated in a court of law does not need to define your experience.

People can respond to trauma in many ways. Resist the urge to be hard on yourself or compare your experiences to others. Remember that all experiences are valid and it is important to seek help if you need it regardless of the circumstances. You do not need to go through this alone.

Labeling your experience is up to you, but for many, putting a name to it allows them to more effectively deal with its aftermath. It is perfectly normal to have a delayed reaction: you just experienced something traumatic and it may take time to make sense of it. If you need more help figuring out if what happened to you is sexual assault, call RAINN’s hotline at 800.656.HOPE.

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