The #MeToo movement has supported victim-survivors to speak out about a wide range of acts that constitute sexual violence. Reports have included those of rape, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, sexual coercion, sexual harassment, and behaviours that might not fit neatly into any of these categories.

These are all acts of sexual violence, but it’s important to define them separately to punish perpetrators appropriately. It’s also important these terms and the distinctions between them are clearly understood. Otherwise it makes it difficult for people to know how to label and describe their experiences.

Sexual violence

Sexual violence is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of sexual acts. The term can include rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, unwanted touching, sexual coercion, sex trafficking, female genital cutting, child sexual abuse, child marriage, enforced sterilisation, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution and forced pregnancy.

Sexual violence occurs in every country, during times of peace as well as during and after armed conflict. Sexual violence can also be perpetrated online or via digital technologies. Technology-facilitated sexual violence includes online stalking, gender-based hate speech, image-based sexual abuse, online rape threats and online sexual harassment.

Many victim-survivors don’t label their experiences as “rape”, and nor do the perpetrators.

Sexual violence disproportionately affects women and girls and is mostly perpetrated by men and boys. But it can affect anyone regardless of their gender, race, nationality, age, sexuality, disability or socioeconomic status.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016 Personal Safety Survey, one in five women (18% or 1.7 million) and one in 20 men (4.7% or 428,800) have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

Rape or sexual assault

In Australia, rape is defined in gender-neutral terms as the penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth without consent. Although in some countries, like Scotland, rape is limited to penile penetration, in all Australian states and territories, it includes penetration with the use of any body part or object.

What makes Australian criminal law confusing is the inconsistent use of terms and definitions in state and territory legislation. In the majority of Australian jurisdictions, a “sexual assault” refers to an indecent assault that does not involve penetration (and is therefore treated differently to “rape”).

However, an exception is New South Wales, which uses “sexual assault” to refer to a sexual offence involving penetration. In contrast, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria use the term “rape” in their criminal legislation. The Australia Capital Territory and Northern Territory refer to “sexual intercourse without consent” and Western Australia to “sexual penetration without consent”.

– Nicola Henry

Read more: The difference between rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment 

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