During a discussion, someone explained that rape is sexual assault. During his description, he stated, "assault = rape," but in context (he was differentiating between assault and harassment), he meant "sexual assault = rape." Someone else mistook his statement and thought that he meant assault was rape. In an attempt to clarify, I created a diagram with three concentric circles. The innermost circle was rape, the middle circle was sexual assault, and the outermost circle was assault. My thinking was that:

  1. all rape is sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape.
  2. sexual assault is (a type of) assault of a sexual nature.

Looking at definitions in Wikipedia (are there better options?) it appears to me that this is an accurate depiction of the relationship of these three terms.

assault - American common law has defined assault as an attempt to commit a battery.

battery - In the United States, criminal battery, or simple battery, is the use of force against another, resulting in harmful, offensive or sexual contact.

sexual assault - Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.

Is my understanding of these relationships correct?

2 Answers 2


"Sexual assault" is created by specific statutes, whereas assault and battery are defined by common law (though are also codified as crimes under statutory law). The standard definitions under American law are found in the restatements of law, the current version being the third (Restatement of the Law, Third, Torts). However, it is pricey, unless you can find the paperback version of the 2nd restatement. The fine-grained details are pretty complex, and can't be accurately summarized in a single sentence: but, your definitions of assault and battery are close enough, except that assault isn't an attempt, it is a successful act with the intent to cause harmful or offensive contact, or imminent apprehension of same.

Many crimes are subsumed under the rubric "sexual assault". In Washington state, there is no crime of "sexual assault", instead, there are specific crimes like rape (3 degrees), rape of child (3 degrees), child molestation (3 degrees), sexual misconduct with minor (2 degrees), indecent liberties, sexually violating human remains and voyeurism. Ohio has a different set of crimes, where "sexual assault" is not defined, but it is referred to. Florida talks about sexual battery, not assault. As far as I know, in no US jurisdiction is explicit consent required for sexual contact or behavior, in fact, that is kind of a logical impossibility. Asking a person to have sex with you is a form of sexual behavior, and so is asking permission to ask permission (you see the problem I assume). Even explicit consent from a minor (under statutorily defined circumstances) is irrelevant to distinguishing crime / not-crime. So the presupposition (that there is a crime "sexual assault") and its definition is very jurisdiction-dependent.

If you are dealing with popular understandings of terms, not legal ones, then "assault" would be stuff like hitting a person, and "battery" would be beating the tar out of them – scaring a person would be something else. I would advise against using popular misunderstandings of legal terms.

  • Assault is actually putting someone in fear of injury - for example, making them think you will hit them. Battery is actually hitting them.
    – Dale M
    Oct 17, 2017 at 20:13
  • I'm referring to §21 in the Restatement. Also, battery is not limited to hitting: it is about actual contact.
    – user6726
    Oct 17, 2017 at 20:16
  • So if I'm understanding this correctly, sexual assault could be a very specific type of assault (e.g. rape), or it could be something altogether different than any defintion of assault (e.g. voyeurism). In either case, sexual assault is defined independently of assault by the statutes of the jurisdiction in which the act takes place.
    – mathewb
    Nov 6, 2017 at 22:58
  • 1
    It seems then that in the USA, the same word can legally mean different things, depending on the state. And what the same word means to a layperson may be totally different again.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 17, 2017 at 1:35

From a comment:

So if I'm understanding this correctly, sexual assault could be a very specific type of assault (e.g. rape), or it could be something altogether different than any definition of assault (e.g. voyeurism). In either case, sexual assault is defined independently of assault by the statutes of the jurisdiction in which the act takes place.

It really depends on the jurisdiction. It would certainly possible for a code to define assault and then say that if some certain sexual element is also present that it is then sexual assault. However, the codes I checked before submitting this answer tend to define sex crimes separately from assaults.

For example, in New York, rape is not in the "assault and related offenses" article but in the separate "sex offenses" article. There is no crime of "sexual assault" but there is "predatory sexual assault" (as well as "predatory sexual assault against a child").

New Jersey, on the other hand, has no crime called "rape." Instead, it has a crime called "sexual assault," the definition of which describes a crime that one might expect to be called rape.

Since definitions are so inconsistent across jurisdictions, it's nearly impossible to evaluate whether your proposed hierarchy is accurate without reference to a specific jurisdiction, or perhaps to a custom set of definitions, although that would invite accusations of begging the question.

Another thing to consider is that crimes are often defined in a mutually exclusive way. For example, one of several conditions for aggravated sexual assault in New Jersey is "the actor uses physical force or coercion and severe personal injury is sustained by the victim," while the corresponding condition for sexual assault is "The actor uses physical force or coercion, but the victim does not sustain severe personal injury." Clearly, the same act cannot satisfy both conditions.

I suspect that you're looking to the legal definitions to provide precision, but unfortunately for the US context, that's too much precision, as we've seen. This leaves us with the dictionary definitions of these terms, which are not necessarily precise and which are fluid. For example, people can broaden definitions for rhetorical purposes, or use words metaphorically.

Still, in that context, it is certainly reasonable to assert that rape is a form of sexual assault, and that sexual assault is a form of assault. But, also in that context, it is not reasonable to make a formal, rigorous, or absolute statement about the truth of those assertions.

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