Understand the Language

As a survivor navigating your options to take action, you may be learning a whole new language of law, policy, and psychology. In this section, we will walk you through the most important terms related to rape, sexual assault, and sexual coercion.
Before we begin, we want to stress two things. First, anyone—no matter their sex, gender, age, race—can be the victim of rape, sexual assault, or sexual coercion. Second, rape, sexual assault, and sexual coercion are inexcusable. They are never, ever the fault of the victim.
Warning: The following information contains triggering and graphic definitions. Please feel free to skip this page altogether or come back to it at a later time.

Definitions to Know

The definitions below are general definitions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, and rape. For state-specific information, visit the accompanying links.


The legal definition of consent differs from state to state. In general, consent is an active, verbal agreement to engage in sexual activity with someone. Sexual activity without your consent is rape or sexual assault. If you are underage, under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or sleeping, you do not have the capacity to give consent. If someone pressures, tricks, or emotionally forces you to agree to sexual activity, this is considered sexual coercion.

Sexual Harassment:

Any person of any sex, gender, age, and race can be a victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment and is illegal. Sexual harassment includes any unwanted verbal or physical sexual behavior. This can range from sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy, or looks, to very serious acts that qualify as assault or rape. Sexual harassment is about the impact of the behavior on you, and the severity and frequency of the incidents. It is not about the intent of the person who is engaging in the behavior.

Sexual Coercion:

Any person of any sex, gender, age, and race can be a victim of sexual coercion. Sexual coercion means pressuring, tricking, threatening, or non-physically forcing someone into any sexual activity. This can also be in the form of requesting sexual activity in exchange for a professional or financial benefit. You do not owe anyone sex—not your investors, bosses, mentors, teachers, or anyone who does or does not have any power over you.
“Consent is the ability to choose, based on your own internal experience, what you want physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and sexually, and then to communicate those wants.”
Staci Haines, from the Survivor’s Guide to Sex

Sexual Assault:

Any person of any sex, gender, age, and race can be a victim of sexual assault—including spouses and long-term partners. Any sexual activity that you did not consent to is sexual assault. While the terms sexual assault and rape are sometimes used interchangeably, sexual assault also refers to non-penetrative sexual activity, including fondling and molestation.


Any person of any sex, gender, age, and race can be a victim of rape—including spouses and long-term partners. When someone penetrates your vagina or anus with any object or body part, or your mouth with their sex organ, without your consent, it is rape. Please know that consent to one sexual act does not imply consent to another sexual act. There can be rape even if the victim consented to certain sexual acts.
If you experienced an event that was traumatizing, or just didn't feel right, and you are not able to define it, you can talk to an attorney to help you understand the legal impact of what happened. Check with a local justice center or your local bar association to get information on their legal aid support.

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