Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

What is Rape?

Rape’s legal definition involves sexual assault that specifically includes sexual penetration without consent. The criminal classifications for rape may differ along with the statute of limitations to prosecute these types of offenses across each state.

Survivor Advocate

Key Takeaways

  • Rape is a form of sexual assault that involves non-consensual penetration and is classified as criminal sexual offense within the United States
  • There are legal definitions of rape and sexual assault, and there are personal definitions based on what you know happened to you and these may differ for a variety of reasons
  • The reporting of sexual abuse of any kind is dictated by the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil court. You can reach out to Helping Survivors to understand more about your reporting options

What is Rape? Have I experienced rape or sexual assault?

Rape is a form of sexual assault. Under federal law, all rape is sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape.

The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”

A sexual act doesn’t necessarily mean penetration occurred. Any contact between the genitals, anus, and mouth is considered a sexual act. If the contact is unwanted, it counts as sexual assault.

In most cases, an assault qualifies as rape if it involves nonconsensual penetration. In 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) updated its Uniform Crime Report Summary Reporting System (UCR SRS) to define forcible rape as:

“The 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.”

This update broadened the definition of rape beyond female penetration by a man. Now, a nonconsensual penetrative act counts as rape, no matter the individual’s gender. It also counts penetration with an object as rape.

Note that the definition of rape does not require physical resistance or a verbal “no.” If the person being penetrated does not actively consent, it is rape.

It’s common for rape victims to struggle to understand what happened to them. Validating your own feelings and experience as a survivor is the first step to healing and justice. Even if it turns out that the crime in terms of legal definitions by a different name, it’s nonetheless a violation, and you deserve support.

Criminal Definitions of Rape Across the United States

States have the freedom to define rape for purposes of legal prosecution. Forced intercourse without mutual consent is always against the law, but there are some differences in how states define “without consent.”

Some states offer more detail on what counts as not giving consent. In Pennsylvania, for example, an act is rape if:

  • The perpetrator uses force or threat.
  • The victim is unconscious or unaware of the act.
  • The perpetrator has intentionally impaired the victim’s awareness or resistance.
  • The victim isn’t mentally capable of consent.

Some states leave more room for interpretation. In Massachusetts, rape happens when someone “has sexual intercourse or unnatural sexual intercourse with a person, and compels such person to submit by force and against his will, or compels such person to submit by threat of bodily injury.”

If the language in your state is similarly nonspecific, it doesn’t mean you weren’t raped. It means you may need legal assistance to help you determine your options and help you evaluate them.

You can research the laws related to sexual assault and rape in your state by searching for the name of the state plus the phrase “definition of rape” or utilize sources like RAINN. Be aware of the risks of internet research. Not all websites will be accurate.

For the most reliable results, look for content from your state’s general assembly or legislature. It will be a website that has .gov in its web address.

If you can’t find or don’t understand the definition, don’t worry — and don’t give up. It’s not necessary to understand the legalities of rape to seek justice.

Last Date Modified
May 17, 2024

If you are not sure where to turn, RAINN can help.

Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk confidentially with a trained professional from RAINN.

They can put you in touch with local resources and organizations that can help in your healing journey.

Statutory Rape and Criminal Degrees of Rape

Statutory rape, or the rape of a child, is the act of nonconsensual intercourse with someone under the age of consent. That age, as well as the age of majority for the perpetrator, varies by state.

The victim’s and perpetrator’s ages might also determine the charge. As with murder, there are “degrees” of rape — first, second, third, and sometimes fourth. All are serious crimes and violations of the victim’s human rights and dignity.

What You Can Do After Experiencing Rape or Sexual Assault

Rape is an extremely traumatic experience for victims. As a victim, your physical and mental well-being is of the utmost importance. The National Sexual Assault hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 800-656-4673 (HOPE).

Caring for Yourself After the Rape

If you’ve just been raped, the most important thing is to get somewhere safe. If you’re not able to get yourself to safety, call 911.

If possible, have a medical examination before you change, eat, or bathe. Your first instinct might be to shower or wash yourself or the clothes you were wearing, which is entirely understandable. However, an immediate medical exam is best for your short-term and long-term health and safety.

Sexual Assault Forensic Exams: What To Expect

The medical professionals who perform post-rape exams — also called sexual assault forensic exams (SAFEs) — are specially trained to work with victims. Their goal is to take care of you and respect your wishes.

If you need immediate medical attention, they’ll take care of that first. They’ll ask for background information about your health and perform a complete physical exam. The exam usually involves internal examinations of sensitive areas.

With your consent, the medical professional will also take pictures and samples to document the incident.

They’ll collect these samples in a rape kit and send the kit to a laboratory for review. Authorities will retain the documentation for a state-specified period in case you want to report the incident.

You don’t have to report the rape to receive a medical exam, nor do you have to decide right away whether to report the rape. Although depending on your state’s laws, there may be a mandatory reporting policy such as for minors or other vulnerable groups.

If appropriate, the medical professional examining you will offer emergency contraception and preventive treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

It’s free and confidential. Sexual assault exams won’t cost you anything, provided you get them from a trained provider of medical forensic exams (MFEs). The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) can connect you with providers in your area.

It could help your case. If you decide to report the rape to law enforcement, medical evidence can increase the odds of the investigation and court process.

It protects your health. Rape and other sexual trauma can lead to future health problems. Medical examiners offer the preventive care you need to care for yourself.

Reporting the Rape

Rape is a crime. As an adult victim, you can decide when and whether to report that crime to law enforcement or not.

If you undergo a medical exam, you can report the rape to a law enforcement officer at the hospital. Another option is to call or visit your local police station. If you choose to call, an officer will come to your location.

Most stations have officers who have received training in working with sexual assault victims. That officer will talk you through the process and take your report.

The officer will ask you about the event and what happened afterward. They may prompt you to tell them about anything you’ve been dealing with due to the rape. That includes any emotional distress and difficulties with day-to-day functioning.

Experiencing sexual assault is a traumatic experience and deciding whether to report or not can take years. When you report a crime to law enforcement, this will trigger a criminal investigation between the alleged perpetrator and the state. It’s important to understand the reporting process and what it entails so you can make an informed choice and understand the entire legal process.

Coping with Trauma

There are many options available to rape survivors to help them cope with trauma.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline can help connect you with local support services and counseling options.

Alternatively, you can choose to seek out therapy on your own and look for a therapist with experience treating sexual assault survivors.

Want To Speak With A Lawyer?

Understand your legal rights and options as a survivor of sexual assault and abuse.