Contributed by Penny Pestano and Chrystina Stanford and current to January 2018

Sexual assault is an abuse of power and a crime. It does not discriminate, unfortunately anyone can be a victim of sexual assault: women, children and young people, men, older people, people with diverse identities and sexualities, people living with a disability, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people from all socio-economic backgrounds and people who are homeless.

Unfortunately, sexual assault is common, with a meta-analysis of studies showing that between 15 and 30 percent of females and 3 to 15 percent of males experiencing sexual abuse as a child (Fergusson & Mullen, 1999), and 1 in 6 adult women in Australia experience sexual assault after the age of 15 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1996).

Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; the perpetrator can be a parent or step-parent, a sibling, a relative, a partner, an ex-partner, a marital spouse, a peer or a colleague. Sexual assault can also be perpetrated by someone the person has just met or a complete stranger. One Australian prevalence study indicated that 41 percent of offenders were relatives, and 97 percent of offenders were male (Fleming 1997).

Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. It is a misuse of power that is unwanted and causes harm. Many perpetrators use tricks, threats or coercion or in some other way create vulnerability. Others will use physical force or violence which may result in physical injuries. Nobody ever asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted; there are no circumstances when it is okay. The person or people responsible for sexual assault are those who perpetrate it, those who sexually assault others are always responsible for their actions.

Sexual Assault is Not About Sex

It is important to know that sexual assault is not about sex, it is about power and control where someone acts in an abusive way over another person. Sexual assault takes place when a person disregards, ignores, or violates another person’s free will, thoughts, wishes and right to make decisions about their body. Sexual assault is never okay, it causes harm and often leaves the victim feeling humiliated, dominated and degraded.

You own your body and you have the right to choose who touches it and when!

A Few Words on Terminology

Except where the term ‘sexual assault’ is used within a legal definition, the terms ‘sexual assault’ and ‘sexual abuse’ are used in this chapter interchangeably and refer to the broad range of sexual behaviours and sexual conduct towards another person, including both contact and non-contact behaviours, which are unwanted or where the person is unable to give consent.

Different people refer to those who have experienced sexual assault as ‘victims’ and others use the term ‘survivor’. Individuals who have experienced sexual assault may prefer one word over the other and some use each of the terms to describe their experience at different times. When a person has experienced a trauma, they may feel overwhelmed or in crisis, their capacity to cope can be overloaded and they may feel paralysed. The word ‘victim’ can reflect this difficult and distressing time, which may last days, weeks, months and for some people years. It can also conjure up the sense that the person who experienced the sexual assault was subjected to the tactics of an offender. The word ‘victim’ is also used by police and in criminal proceedings to denote that the person who has experienced an offence is not responsible for the offence. The word ‘survivor’ is sometimes used in a therapeutic context and for some people it represents resilience and the ability to take action. The term can capture a sense of resourcefulness and strength in overcoming obstacles despite having gone through immense trauma. This chapter uses the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ interchangeably and sometimes uses the terms together.

The terms ‘offender’ and ‘perpetrator’ are used in this chapter for those who perpetrate sexual assault and sexual abuse, with the exception when reporting and legal processes, where the terms ‘defendant’ and ‘accused person’ are also used, reflecting the language used in criminal proceedings.

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