Sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape — although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably and they have many similarities, these terms all mean something different. Let’s break it down.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault is defined as sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. This can include any of the following, according to RAINN:

  • Penetration of the victim’s body
  • Attempted rape
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching

Assault is something that occurs infrequently and for a short amount of time. It might be coerced sex with a friend at a party, groping by a stranger in a public place, or retaliatory sex by a partner.


Rape is a legal term defined by the FBI as “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.”

The state of Michigan does not use rape as a legal term. Instead, Michigan laws refer to sexual crimes as criminal sexual conduct in the first, second, third or fourth degree. Each “degree” addresses different types of contact by the perpetrator.

As a victim of sexual assault, it is not up to you to know the precise term for what you’ve experienced when speaking with a WISE advocate or anyone in the legal system. However, this information might be helpful if you are trying to understand a troubling sexual experience.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is also unconsented sexual contact. Unlike sexual assault, sexual abuse is something that occurs for a prolonged period of time. Sexual abuse is sometimes called molestation.

Spousal sexual abuse

Spousal sexual abuse is common in relationships where there is domestic violence. One partner might use sex as a means of controlling the other. The abusive partner might tell their victim they can’t have or do something without first engaging in sexual activity.

Childhood sexual abuse

When we talk about sexual abuse, we often talk about childhood sexual abuse. This is a form of child abuse, and it is a crime. Children can never consent to sexual activity, especially with an adult or authority figure.

Parents might recognize some of the warning signs of childhood sexual abuse before their child discloses anything about the problem. RAINN provides a list of indicators of sexual abuse.

  • Physical signs might include one or more of the following:
  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Bloody, torn, or stained underclothes
  • Bleeding, bruises, or swelling in genital area
  • Pain, itching, or burning in genital area
  • Frequent urinary or yeast infections
  • Behavioral signs might include one or more of the following:
  • Shrinks away or seems threatened by physical contact
  • Exhibits signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Expresses suicidal thoughts, especially in adolescents
  • Self-harms
  • Develops phobias
  • Has trouble in school, such as absences or drops in grades
  • Changes in hygiene, such as refusing to bathe or bathing excessively
  • Returns to regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking
  • Runs away from home or school
  • Overly protective and concerned for siblings, or assumes a caretaker role
  • Nightmares or bed-wetting
  • Inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors

One in four girls and one in six boys will experience childhood sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.

Need Help?

Advocates are available 24/7 to speak with survivors of domestic or sexual violence. Call our crisis line at (231) 796-6600.
More Ways We Can Help

Learn more about abuse and its many forms: