From Tracie: What Is Sexual Assault?

Monday, October 10, 2016

What Is Sexual Assault?

What is sexual assault? What is the actual definition of sexual assault? 

This term seems to be super confusing for people this week, primarily Donald Trump supporters, many of whom are scrambling to defend him since the release of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape

There is a lot to be said about what you see and hear on that tape, all of which is bad, but today I'm only going to focus on this section:
Donald Trump: "I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” 
*Billy Bush: "Whatever you want.” 
Donald Trump: "Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
There are a lot of defenses going around as people try to fix these unfixable words, most of them center on focusing on the date the tape was made or comparing Trump to other people (as if their moms never taught them "two wrongs don't make a right").

Senator Jeff Sessions took his defense a step further, after the second presidential debate, when he was interviewed by The Weekly Standard:
Jeff Sessions: This was very improper language, and he's acknowledged that. 
TWS: But beyond the language, would you characterize the behavior described in that [video] as sexual assault if that behavior actually took place? 
Jeff Sessions: I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch. I don't know what he meant— 
TWS: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that's not sexual assault? 
Jeff Sessions: I don't know. It's not clear that he—how that would occur.
According to Jeff Sessions, he doesn't know if grabbing a woman by the genitals is sexual assault. You would think a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama would understand the definition of sexual assault, but maybe it never came up in his law classes.

What is sexual assault?

The Justice Department defines sexual assault like this (emphasis mine):
Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.
That is a pretty heavy list of things that fall under the definition of sexual assault. Let's break this down further.

You may not know (although I would hope that former U.S. Attorney-turned-Senator Jeff Sessions does) that different states have different laws around sexual assault. RAINN has a great resource for viewing the sexual assault laws for each state, including information on statutes of limitations. I won't walk you through all of them here, but let's take a look at the sexual assault laws in the State of New York, where Donald Trump lives.
Forcible Touching - Misdemeanor 
Intentionally, and for no legitimate purpose, forcibly touching the sexual or other intimate parts of another person for the purpose of degrading or abusing such person; or for the purpose of gratifying the actor's sexual desire. (N.Y. Penal Law § 130.52)
This crime is considered a misdemeanor in the state of New York, and the possible punishment is a maximum of 1 year in prison.

Now let's take a look at the sexual assault laws in the state of Alabama, where Jeff Sessions lives, and used to be a U.S. Attorney:
Sexual Abuse In The First Degree
An actor commits sexual abuse in the first degree if he:
1. subjects another person to sexual contact by forcible compulsion; or
2. subjects another person to sexual contact who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless or mentally incapacitated. (
Ala. Code § 13A-6-66)
Alabama takes a tough view of this crime, they consider it a Class C Felony and the possible punishment is imprisonment of not more than 10 years or less than 1 year and 1 day as well as a fine not exceeding $15,000.

As to Senator Sessions comment about not being clear how grabbing a woman by the pussy would occur, I would invite him to spend some time reading the responses Kelly Oxford received on Twitter after she asked women to share the stories of the first time they were sexually assaulted.
That was sexual assault.

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

But it's more than that.

The words sexual assault seem so big, so damning, so grave to those who are trying to dance around them right now. How can you possibly use something that serious to describe this bus conversation? But to those of us who have experienced sexual assault, the words feel almost sterile. Small. Not enough. It's impossible to take two words, and fit into them all of the feelings, the violation, the trauma, of being the victim of sexual assault.

I was four years old the first time my uncle touched me. That was not the last time it happened. Every time was an act of sexual assault.

The definition of sexual assault isn't hard, unless you are trying to excuse it.

It's actually quite clear. And it's always wrong.

*This is the same Billy Bush who once told Mackenzie Phillips that incest should be a "private thing" and didn't want to talk about it on tv.


If you have been the victim of sexual assault and need help, or you want to help a loved one, you can contact RAINN or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.

If you suspect that a child is being abused, or if you are a child or teen who is being abused, you can contact Child Help or call the National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD.


  1. Agreed, and so many people don't get it

  2. We've got our own fair share of similarly "blind" judges up here, or I'd invite you to Canada. Take good care of yourself – I can only imagine how it must feel to be in the middle of that circus.