Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

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.

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual assault typically involves physical sexual acts while sexual harassment encompasses a broader range of behaviors, including verbal and non-verbal misconduct
  • While sexual harassment is most commonly referred to as happening in the workplace, both sexual assault and sexual harassment can happen anywhere and to anyone
  • There are different legal routes and rights for survivors of sexual assault vs sexual harassment which vary across jurisdictions

Sexual assault and harassment are often confused with one another, but they are actually two different types of harm.

The precise legal definitions of sexual assault and sexual harassment vary by state, but sexual assault generally involves someone intentionally touching you without your consent.

Meanwhile, sexual harassment typically refers to unwanted sexual gestures, actions, and insults, such as leering, lewd comments, and sexuality and gender-based slurs. Oftentimes, sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, although it can occur anywhere by anyone. For example, cat calling is an example of sexual harassment. 

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is best to have a clear understanding of the differences and guidance regarding your options.

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault refers to sexual behavior or contact that happens without the victim’s explicit consent. It is a type of sexual violence and can occur with an acquaintance, stranger, partner, or family member. Common examples of sexual assault include:

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

What is Sexual Harassment?

Generally the definition of sexual harassment refers to unwanted sexual actions, comments, or gestures that make someone feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid.

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
  • 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.

Last Date Modified
March 22, 2024
Content Reviewed By:

Kathryn Kosmides
Managing Director | Helping Survivors

Sexual Assault vs. Sexual Harassment

As you can see, while there is some overlap between sexual assault and sexual harassment, their definitions, the actions involved, and their legal consequences differ.

Legal Definitions

Some states have broader legal definitions of these types of offenses, 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 definitions matter because it will dictate if and how the type of harm that happened to you can be criminally prosecuted and what laws, including statute of limitations matter. 

Legal Implications

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

In most states, sexual assault is always considered a criminal offense. While it might depend on the specific details of the harm that happened, it is generally prosecuted as a criminal offense. In order to start a criminal proceeding, victims file a police report documenting the harm. 

You can also file a civil lawsuit against an individual and/or institution for sexual assault. However, the ability to do this also depends on the statute of limitations and if you think this makes sense for you. Filing a civil lawsuit allows a victim to seek monetary compensation (damages) for the harm that happened to them.


On the other hand, sexual harassment may or may not be considered a criminal offense and illegal under specific laws, very much depending on the specific harm that happened. 

In most jurisdictions, of you are victim of sexual harassment, this is generally handled under federal or state civil rights laws and would be handled in civil court. This means you would need to file a lawsuit against the individual (or institution, such as the workplace that enabled the perpetrator). 

Statutes of Limitations

The statute of limitations for sexual assault depends on the state and type of sexual assault such as if the harm happened to a minor versus an adult.

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.

Statutes of limitations also vary between criminal proceedings and civil court proceedings.

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

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

If you are not in immediate danger and experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to seek real-time assistance.

If you were sexually assaulted and you wish to report the assault, you can contact local authorities to file a police report. You can also consider visiting a medical center to have a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) performed, even if you are not injured. You can visit a medical center even if you do not want to have a SAFE performed but are seeking STD or potential pregnancy intervention. You can find medical centers that offer SAFE exams via RAINN’s resource or by searching your local county/state and “SAFE exam”.

If you are not in immediate danger and experienced sexual harassment, you may want to contact a hotline or a sexual harassment lawyer

If you have been sexually harassed in a school setting, you can report the incident to relevant authority figures, such as a teacher or principal or campus law enforcement. You can also tell your parents or a trusted adult in your life who can help you report to these other authority figures if you feel safe doing so.

If the sexual harassment has occurred in a workplace, you can report the incident to someone in your organization whom you trust, such as a supervisor, HR representative, or employee counselor. This person can guide you through the reporting process, provide support, and advocate on your behalf if necessary. However, many legal professionals recommend contacting a lawyer prior to speaking to someone at your workplace.

Most reputable law firms will provide a free consultation to discuss the experience and let you know your options including reporting to your workplace, filing an EEOC claim, and other options. They can also help you understand your legal rights and what to do and what not to do in the reporting process to help protect yourself should the employer act in a negative or retaliatory way. 

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. We understand that these services can be cost prohibitive but there are options available to you such as discounted services or self-guided sessions such as Bloom by Chayn. We also recommend connecting with those that you trust such as friends and family who can provide further emotional support.

Finally, you may need to consider hiring a lawyer whether that is an employment lawyer or a personal injury firm to help. They will be able to help you file a lawsuit for either sexual harassment or sexual assault. An experienced lawyer can walk you through the process of filing a civil lawsuit, file your paperwork on time, and help you get the compensation you deserve for your pain and suffering.

Want To Speak With A Lawyer?

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