Ethical Definitions of Sexual Assault & Rape


These are the definitions in use on Duke University’s campus, in prevention education programs, publications and in our sexual misconduct policy. These definitions are based on NC law, but conveyed in non-legal language that is easier for students to understand.



Sexual Assault: Any sex act against your will, without your consent, or when you are unable to freely give consent.

Rape: Any sex act involving penetration of any body opening by any object, that is against your will, without your consent, or when you are unable to freely give consent.


"Against Your Will" implies that one partner said "no" to a sexual act, or gave another verbal or nonverbal indication such as pushing away or looking away, indicating such sexual contact was unwanted.

"Without Your Consent" implies that one partner did not agree–in other words, did not say "yes"–to a sexual act.

"When You Are Unable To Freely Give Consent"  implies that a given individual has had either the right or the ability to freely consent taken away by another person or by circumstances. This includes, but is not limited to, being intoxicated, scared, forced, bound/gagged, underage, passed out, intimidated, coerced, mentally impaired, beaten, high, threatened, isolated, physically impaired or the use of a weapon.


When we think of sexual assault and rape, what often comes to mind is an image of "clear" force, that is, the use of a weapon or physical assertion. What we know is that consent and force more accurately exist along a continuum and that much assault happens when neither consent nor force may be "obvious." Weapons and extreme physical force are not terribly common, especially considering that most  assaults happen between two people who know each other. This requires a broadening of our examination of what constitutes "force" to include such things as the use of verbal, physical or emotional pressure or manipulation, substances, threats and coercion.


Consent should be INFORMED–meaning that the person being acted upon knows what is happening –and MUTUAL–meaning that both parties have equal input/say-so and they both want to participate in a given sexual act. It is important to remember that being quiet is often NOT an indication of consent, but rather is a way of expressing discomfort, shock or disinterest. "The use of drugs or alcohol to increase the likelihood that someone will have sex or ‘fool around’ is a form of coercion. Overlooking or ignoring the fact that someone is drunk is a form of manipulation." **


The most effective way to ensure consent is to clearly communicate with your partner, even in a casual encounter. If there is any doubt about consent, it is best to STOP and ASK. If you can’t get a clear answer, wait until later.  




**from Columbia University’s sexual misconduct panelist training manual.









Ethical Definitions of Sexual Assault & Rape




Survivors' Experiences



Healing: Taking

Care of Yourself



What Do I Say to Someone Who Has Experienced Violence?



Special considerations for diverse population



Risk Reduction

& Prevention



Organizational Resources for Survivors



Recommended Readings








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