Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Harassment

 Sexual assault refers to a perpetrator intentionally touching someone without their consent, such as rape, attempted rape, or unwanted sexual touching, whereas sexual harassment is any unwanted gesture or action that is sexual in nature. If you have experienced sexual assault and harassment, report the incident to the police and relevant authorities. You should also consider filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator.

What is sexual harassment?

The definition of sexual harassment depends on the state. However, it generally refers to unwanted sexual actions, comments, or gestures that make someone feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid. It may also include:

  • In certain states, rape and attempted rape
  • Coercing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex
  • Unwanted sexual touching

Examples of sexual harassment may include:

  • Unwanted repeated requests for dates or sexual favors
  • Insults directed at a person or a group based on sexuality or gender identity
  • Lewd or degrading comments about someone’s appearance, sexuality, sex life, or body
  • Requests for dates or sexual favors to a student in a K-12 setting
  • Sexuality or gender-based slurs
  • Jokes about sex or gender identity, such as “women are always asking for it”
  • Leering, staring, or making sexual gestures
  • Flashing
  • Receiving unsolicited explicit pictures or videos

Sexual harassment often occurs in the workplace, but it can happen anywhere.

woman asking for a person to stop

Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Harassment

As you can see, sexual assault refers to a different set of actions than sexual harassment. Here’s a summary of sexual harassment vs. sexual assault:


Definitions of sexual harassment vs. sexual assault are generally similar across the board. However, some states have broader definitions of the crimes, while others are more specific. Wisconsin, for instance, treats rape and sexual assault as the same crime. 

In the same vein, some states don’t have a specific definition or section for sexual harassment. For example, New Mexico separates sexual harassment into separate sections, such as Section 30-3A-2 for harassment and stalking and Section 30-37A for distributing sensitive images with the intent to harass and intimidate.

Legal Implications

The legal implications of sexual assault and sexual harassment depend on the state.

Generally speaking, however, sexual assault is always a criminal offense, while sexual harassment is not necessarily illegal under criminal law. You can seek remedies for prohibited forms of sexual harassment under federal or state civil rights laws.

Statutes of Limitations

The statute of limitations for sexual assault depends on the state and the type of sexual assault. Most states have a statute of limitations of one or two years from the incident date. 

Similarly, the statute of limitations for sexual harassment varies with the state, especially since the actions that constitute sexual harassment are typically classified on a state-by-state basis. 

However, most states classify sexual harassment as a type of harassment. For example, California lists sexual harassment as a type of harassment under its list of unlawful employment practices. As a result, the statute of limitations is usually one to three years. It may go up to five years in certain states if the harassment occurs at work and involves employee discrimination.

What Should You Do If You Experience Sexual Assault or Harassment?

Immediately report the perpetrator(s) to the police and relevant authority figures if you experience sexual assault or harassment. For example, if you’re a high school student, report the perpetrator(s) to your homeroom teacher and principal. If you’re a college student, report the perpetrator(s) to the Office of the Dean of Students or campus law enforcement.

If you were sexually assaulted or harassed in the workplace, report the incident by following your company’s workplace sexual harassment policy. If the perpetrator(s) continue harassing and assaulting you, consider reporting them to the police.

If you were the victim of sexual assault or rape, be sure to visit a medical center after reporting the crime, even if you are not injured. Medical centers can perform sexual assault forensic exams, which can strengthen your case if and when you choose to pursue your case in court. 

The next step is to seek emotional support from a therapist, support group, or counselor. These services can help you manage stress and negative emotions, explore thoughts you can’t explore at home or with friends, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Alternatively, you can reach out 24/7 to the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

Finally, consider hiring a personal injury lawyer to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. An experienced personal injury lawyer can walk you through the filing process, file your paperwork on time, and help you get the compensation you deserve for your pain and suffering.