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What is sexual assault?

In this section you'll find information about what is sexual assault and its various forms. Select a link below for more information about that topic

What is sexual assault ?

Sexual assault occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual acts against their will or without their consent, or if a child or young person under 18 is exposed to sexual activities.

Sexual assault is a crime. Sexual assault is not the victim's fault.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone in our community. This includes people who are young or old, male or female, from any cultural background, wealthy or not so wealthy, married or not. Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault.

Most victims of sexual assault know the person who assaulted them, such as a family member or friend or someone from work, school, church or another social group. A person you don't know or have just met can commit sexual assault.

Women and men as victims of sexual assault are treated equally under the law.

Throughout this site, the term sexual assault will be used, however, we know that sexual assault takes different forms.

Describing sexual assault

The terms used in the community to describe the different forms of sexual assault are different from the legal terms used to prosecute offenders in the courts. This section describes the different terms often used in the community when talking about sexual assault. Go to the section called commonly used legal terms for more details about how the law defines sexual assault offences.

Sexual assault is also known as sexual abuse, or rape.

Commonly used terms which describe sexual assault in the community are:

Rape is a term used in the community which describes the forced penetration of the vagina or anus of any person with any part of the body of another person, or any object, against their will or consent.  It also includes oral sex. In NSW Criminal Law, the term rape is no longer used. It has been replaced by the unisex term, sexual intercourse without consent. Click here for more details about  commonly used legal definitions.

Incest is known in the community as sexual assault by a family member or close relative. Some people in the community see incest as child sexual abuse, however, the legal definition of incest is different.

Indecent assault is unwanted touching of a person's body by another person. For example it can include kissing or inappropriate touching of a person's breasts, bottom or genitals.

Child sexual abuse is any sexual act or threat to a child or young person under the age of 16 that causes them harm or causes them to be frightened or fearful. Children and young people are sexually assaulted when a person uses their age, size, authority or position of trust to force the child into a sexual activity. This can include a range of behaviours such as forcing a child or young person to: look at pornographic magazines or DVDs; watch someone masturbate; be kissed, touched or fondled in a sexual way or to sexually penetrate them.

For more information about the possible signs of sexual abuse in children and young people, refer to the Family and Community Services webpage How do I know if a child or young person is abused? and the NSW Interagency Guidelines for Child Protection and Intervention, 2006.

Under the law, children under 16 years are not able to give consent or agree to any sexual act or threat.

Commonly used legal terms

It should be noted that these definitions are a guide only. Advice from a legally qualified practitioner should be sought if you think an offence has been committed against you.

Sexual Assault is a broad term describing all sexual offences against adults and children. It also describes a specific offence when a person has sexual intercourse with another person without their consent.


Consent occurs when a person freely and voluntarily agrees to sexual intercourse. Sexual assault occurs when someone is unable to and/or does not give consent. The law says that a person is unable to give consent when:

  • asleep or unconscious
  • significantly intoxicated or affected by drugs
  • unable to understand what they are consenting to due to their age or intellectual capacity
  • intimidated, coerced or threatened
  • unlawfully detained or held against their will
  • they submit due to the person being in a position of trust.

These laws do not generally apply to people under the age of 16 years and vulnerable people who, under the law, cannot be said to have consented because of their age and vulnerability.

Sexual intercourse is the penetration of the vagina or anus of any person with any part of the body of another person, or any object. It is also the insertion of the penis into the mouth of another person and cunnilingus.

Aggravated sexual assault is sexual intercourse with another person without their consent in circumstances of aggravation.

Circumstances of aggravation can include the:

  • offender also seriously injuring or threatening to seriously injure the victim;
  • offender being in a group of people when they commit the offence;
  • offender breaking into a home to commit the offence;
  • offender kidnapping the victim to commit the offence;
  • victim being under 16 years old;
  • victim having a serious physical disability or cognitive impairment.

Indecent assault is touching (or the threat to to touch) a person's body in a sexual manner without  consent by another person. For example it can include unwanted touching of a person's breast, bottom or genitals.

Act of Indecency is when a person does something of a sexual nature with or towards another person or makes the person do something of a sexual nature towards them. For example, it can include the offender masturbating in front of another person.

Incest is when a person who is 16 years and over has sexual intercourse with another person who is a close family member who is 16 years and over. A close family member is a parent, son, daughter, sibling (including a half-brother or half-sister), grandparent or grandchild, being such a family member from birth.    

More information
There are different penalties and definitions for different sexual acts.

More information about how the law describes the different forms of sexual assault is available on the NSW Legislation website: that includes information about the following Acts:

  • Crimes Act 1900 Division 10, 10A and 15A and 15B
  • Criminal Procedure Act 1986, s3
  • Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998.

Children, teenagers and young people

Children and young people who are sexually assaulted often find it difficult to tell anyone about what has happened to them. They might feel guilty or confused about the abuse. They might also feel frightened of the person who may be someone they know and who may have forced them to keep the abuse a secret.

Children and young people often fear that they may get into trouble or that they won't be believed. They often feel that they need to protect others.

More information is available on this website about: