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What Is the Difference Between Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault?

Posted on May 24, 2021 in Sexual Abuse

During a case involving any type of sex crime, you may hear the terms, “sexual abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment” and “sexual violence.” Although sexual abuse and sexual assault are often used interchangeably, they have different definitions on a legal level in California. Learning the difference between these two types of crimes can help you understand your legal rights as a survivor. Read on the learn about the difference and reach out to a Los Angeles sexual abuse lawyer if you have further questions about your legal rights.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is a term used mainly to describe sex crimes committed against minors under the age of 18. It generally refers to ongoing sex crimes against a child for a period of time, such as a pattern of abuse. Legally, children cannot give their consent to sexual activities. Even if someone under the age of 18 consents to a sex act, the act will constitute the crime of sexual abuse in California.

Child Sexual Abuse Crimes

Child sexual abuse crimes can describe any type of sexual contact between a minor and an abuser – either an adult or an older child. This can include kissing, touching, fondling, child molestation, rape, statutory rape and sodomy. It can also include nonphysical acts, such as forcing a child to touch his or her own intimate parts, forcing a child to watch the abuser masturbate, and taking sexually explicit images or videos of children.

Child sexual abuse can impact a child in many different ways, physically and emotionally. The signs of child sexual abuse can include withdrawal, depression, fear or anxiety, outbursts, personality changes, mood swings, decreased performance in school, and inappropriate or unexpected knowledge of sexual topics. It can also cause physical signs, such as unexplained injuries, injuries to the genital areas, bruising and sexually transmitted diseases.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is most often used to describe sex crimes committed against adult victims. Sexual assault is also more commonly used in reference to isolated acts, such as a single incident of inappropriate or nonconsensual sexual touching. Sexual assault is a broad legal term that can refer to many different sex crimes, including sexual touching, sexual behaviors and rape.

Sexual Contact

Any sexual act that is unwelcome or was not consented to by the victim can constitute sexual assault. California Penal Code Section 243.4 defines sexual assault and battery as touching the intimate part of another person while the victim is unlawfully restrained, and if the touching is against the victim’s will and for the purpose of sexual abuse, arousal or gratification. The crime of sexual battery is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. These penalties can be enhanced, depending on the circumstances.


Sexual assault can also refer to the specific crime of rape. California Penal Code Section 261 defines rape as sexual intercourse with someone who is not the spouse of the perpetrator, under the following circumstances:

  • When the victim is incapable of giving legal consent (and this is known at the time of committing the act)
  • When it is accomplished against the victim’s will
  • When the victim is prevented from resisting by intoxication
  • When the victim is unconscious or asleep
  • When the victim submits under the belief that the perpetrator is someone else due to intentional fraud or artifice
  • When the victim is forced to submit due to fear of retaliation
  • When the victim is forced to submit due to threats relating to incarceration or deportation

Statutory rape, on the other hand, is sexual intercourse between someone who is 18 or older and someone who is under the age of 18. Even if the sex is consensual, the fact that one of the parties was a minor makes it statutory rape under state law.

For more information about sexual abuse and sexual assault cases, contact a sexual abuse attorney today for a free and confidential consultation.