Sexual assault has become a flashpoint throughout the country. And with the recent revelations about the alleged actions of Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault has exploded into the mainstream and generated fierce debate on social media.
But what may be getting lost in all the noise are several important questions, namely:
What is sexual assault? How is sexual assault different from rape? Is there a statute of limitations on sexual assault, or does it depend on the state where the assault occurred?
Let’s dive into these answers, and see what we can learn about sexual assault, and how it is handled in a court of law.
What Is Sexual Assault?
The legal wording of sexual assault is different in each state.
For example, Florida law states that sexual assault occurs when a victim is forced into a sex act or sexual contact that is against their will.
In California, a person is guilty of sexual assault and battery if the touching is against the will of the person touched and is for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse.
Washington D.C. law goes even further, and defines first degree sexual abuse as any sexual act that includes:
- Force against a victim
- Threats of death, harm or kidnapping against a victim
- Causing the victim to become unconscious
- Use of a drug to incapacitate the victim
And in Washington D.C., if there is unwanted contact as opposed to an unwanted act, the defendant is charged with third-degree sexual assault.
Yet despite these differences in legal terminology, the common definition of sexual assault is any type of sexual touching that is unsolicited and offensive.
This definition is broad enough to include unwanted groping of a person’s private parts, assault and battery, and attempted rape.
Probably the key factor in a sexual assault case is that the contact was involuntary, and that can include forcible contact, or contact that occurred as the result of the victim’s physical incapacity.
That incapacity can result from inebriation, or from the victim being given a date rape drug, but in either instance, the victim would not have been able to consent to a sexual act.
One other thing that’s important to mention is that sexual assault in most states includes unwanted sexual touching between people of the same gender, as well as between children, and between older and younger people.
In the past, sexual assault did not include spousal assault, which meant that a spouse who suffered from unwanted sexual contact could not pursue a sexual assault claim.
But nearly every state now allows a spouse to file a sexual assault claim, so there is no indemnity for a person in a marriage.
And there are also degrees of sexual assault, which means that unwanted sexual contact that also includes penetration of any kind could result in an aggravated sexual assault charge, or a rape charge, which carries a harsher prison sentence.
How Does Sexual Assault Differ From Rape?
One of the common misconceptions is that sexual assault and rape are an interchangeable term, when in fact, that isn’t true at all.
Again, legal wording may vary, but in most states rape is defined as unsolicited or unwanted oral, vaginal or anal penetration.
The key difference with a rape is that penetration must occur, whereas in a sexual assault, the unwanted touching does not progress to penetration.
It’s important to understand, however, that in some states, sexual assault may include some form of penetration.
What Is the Statute of Limitations For Sexual Assault?
Unfortunately, there is no uniform law regarding the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases, because every state has its own specific conditions.
For example, in Washington D.C., a victim has only 15 years to report a sexual assault, but if the assault occurred prior to the victim turning 21, then the victim has 15 years after the age of 21 to report a sexual assault case.
In Florida, however, there is no statute of limitations if the sexual assault occurred before the victim turned 18. But if the victim is 18 or older, he or she has four years to report the assault if the assault included threat or force, and three years in all other cases.
The state of California recently passed a bill that abolished the statute of limitations on all sexual assault and rape cases, and the Governor admitted that one of the big factors in him signing the bill was the number of women who had come forward with sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby.
Many of those women could not file charges due to California’s former statute of limitations, but going forward, that will no longer be the case.
The statute of limitations will play a large role in whether or not Harvey Weinstein will face sexual assault charges in the future.
Dozens of women have now come forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual assault, but because the alleged assaults took place in three different states – California, Utah and New York – the date each assault occurred will determine whether the victims can still file a criminal complaint against Weinstein.
Complicating matters even more is the question of whether Weinstein would face charges of sexual assault or rape, because some states have no statute of limitations for first-degree rape.
Protect Your Rights
If you are the victim of a sexual assault, you don’t have to feel alone. Public awareness of sexual assault and rape is at an all-time high, and victims are being encouraged to come forward and file charges against their victimizers.