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. 

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.

woman asking for a person to stop

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. 


In general, across the United Sates, the definitions and differences of sexual harassment versus sexual assault are similar. 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. There are different legal pathways for sexual harassment versus sexual assault. 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. 

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 although there may be certain circumstances, such as child sexual assault, where the statute of limitations does not apply. 

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?

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 advice. 

If you are not in immediate danger and experienced sexual harassment, there are a few options available to you. You can call a hotline such as the one above who can guide you to local resources or you can see if your state has a government-run hotline such as New York’s Division of Human Rights hotline.

If you were sexually assaulted and you wish to report the assault, you can contact local authorities. 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 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 filing process, file your paperwork on time, and help you get the compensation you deserve for your pain and suffering.