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.
Any sex act against your will, without your
consent, or when you are unable to freely give
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
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
that the person being acted upon knows what is
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.
Columbia University’s sexual misconduct panelist
Definitions of Sexual Assault & Rape
Care of Yourself
What Do I Say to Someone Who Has Experienced
Special considerations for diverse population
Entire Resource Page