The Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment

in Legal Info

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. The use of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are often thought to be interchangeable, meaning the same thing, but that is not the reality. In reality, sexual violence, whether it be abuse, assault, or harassment, are different by definition and egregious offenses.


Sexual abuse occurs when an adult subjects a vulnerable population to an unwanted sexual act. A vulnerable population would be one that cannot give their informed consent to engage in the act. Children, the elderly, and the mentally incapacitated would be considered vulnerable populations. Any sexual acts, regardless of age, would be seen as sexual abuse in the eyes of the law.


  • One of the most notable sexual abuse cases in sports history involves USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar. Larry Nassar was the doctor for USA Gymnastics and at the University of Michigan for several years. Nassar was tried and convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse, some of which occurred during the 2012 Olympics in London. In the case, the judge gave him a sentence of up to 175 years in prison for his acts of abuse against the children on the USA Gymnastics team, which is believed to be in the thousands.
  • For years organizations like Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church have hidden the scandals that were eventually uncovered, causing them to file bankruptcy and settle lawsuits involving the sexual abuse of young boys within both of the organizations. Class action lawsuits have been filed against both of these organizations due to the negligence and lack of protection for the vulnerable young boys that entrusted their care.
  • In 2019, Quinlyn Harden was convicted of 29 counts of sexual abuse, rape, sodomy, and attempted rape of children attending his mother’s Oregon daycare, Stinky Feet. Harden was sentenced to 54 years in prison. New charges are now being brought against the state and the owner of the daycare by parents who said their children were not properly protected. Evidence surfaced that as far back as 2016, Harden was accused of sexual abuse, but nothing was done about it.

sexual harassment


Sexual assault occurs when one adult subjects another adult to unwanted or unwelcomed sexual acts. More attention has been brought forward on sexual assault cases through avenues like the #MeToo Movement in recent years. In many circumstances, sexual assault cases used to be swept under the rug, especially those that involved perpetrators who possessed power over the victim.


  • Sexual assault cases in Hollywood and politics seem to surface, whether the perpetrator wants them to or not. Cases like Kevin Spacey and Anthony Rapp made headlines when Rapp accused Spacey of sexually assaulting him at a party thrown by Spacey in 1986. The accusation was met with an apology and being blamed on alcohol consumption.
  • Rideshare companies Lyft and Uber have been met with lawsuits for not protecting passengers from the drivers they hire for their vehicles. Women began stepping forward when the companies did not do anything about the complaints made when drivers were sexually assaulting passengers.
  • In recent news, two gynecologists, Robert Hadden and James Heaps were charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. Although they live across the country and likely don’t know each other, both men are charged with using their practices as a front to sexually assault patients during “exams.”


Harassment is a category that is much broader than sexual abuse or sexual assault. Harassment can be divided into three impermissible behavior categories:

  1. Sexual Coercion – legally coined “quid pro quo harassment,” meaning that conditions are contingent on sexual favors. An example is “sleep with me or lose your job,” while being the most stereotypical type of harassment, it is the rarest form.
  2. Unwanted Attention – the most common form of harassment involves unwanted touching, hugging, kissing, etc. Unwanted sexual attention can even include sexual assault or rape.
  3. Gender Harassment – this form of harassment does not entail sexual advances but may include crude sexual terminology, images, or degrading comments.


  • Former President Bill Clinton was accused by one of his former state employees of exposing himself and asking for oral sex in a hotel room. The incident was brought up during the Clinton presidency when Paula Jones, a woman who worked for Clinton when he was the governor of Arkansas. Although Jones never received an apology and Clinton never admitted guilt in the situation, the case was settled for $850,000.
  • In 1998, Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing paid $34 million to female workers in Normal, Illinois. They were forced to work in a hostile setting. The women claimed they were routinely fondled, verbally abused, and subjected to obscene jokes, graffiti, and behavior. Some claimed that promotions were denied when they refused to grant sexual favors. Since then, the company has a zero-tolerance policy.

sexual harassment, sexual assault


No one wants to be sexually abused, assaulted, or harassed. The responsibility in these situations falls upon the perpetrator, not the victim of the crime. Understanding the differences between each type of sexually violent act can help stop violence before it happens.


Sometimes having the courage to stand up at the right time and in the right situation can help prevent these acts of sexual violence from occurring. If suspicious behavior comes up on your radar, you may be able to interject and confront the individual before the situation escalates. This act could be as simple as getting help for someone you think may have had their drink spiked or confronting friends who are making inappropriate comments.


In most workplaces, sexual harassment training has been adopted. This training helps to identify the inappropriate behaviors and giving employees the tools needed to report instances where they feel harassed. Many of the tools can be used confidentially if there is a fear of retaliation for coming forward.


Empowerment can go a long way in handling sexual violence prevention. Giving a voice to those who would not normally speak up can provide the platform to report harassers before they hurt another individual.

Creating safe spaces for survivors and their families allows for everyone to talk about it without fear or the threat of it happening again. Safe environments help provide survivors with the support they need to move forward and possibly help someone else experiencing the same thing.

sexual harassment, sexual assault


  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) – RAINN provides support and is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. They are also responsible for the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE)
  • NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center) – The NSVRC offers resources to survivors, friends, and families who have encountered sexual violence. They are spreading awareness and helping to educate sexual violence advocates.
  • Equality Now – Advocates for women’s rights all over the world and supports various women’s causes, including bringing an end to sexual violence.
  • 1in6 – 1in6 is an organization that advocates specifically for male sexual assault and abuse survivors. They hope to eliminate the social stigma around the sexual abuse of males and bring more resources to the population that needs them.
  • #MeToo – The Me Too movement helps sexual abuse and assault survivors that they are not alone. The organization provides education and resources and spread awareness about how big of a problem sexual assault, abuse, and harassment truly is.


Most sexual violence cases are considered criminal, but that is not the complete truth. There may be grounds for filing a civil suit against a perpetrator or a company that did not follow due diligence to protect the victim. Civil lawsuits often seek compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages, and other damages sustained.

As legal professionals, we look to ensure that the statute of limitations for your case has not passed. The criteria are different in each state. Some only have a small window for filing civil claims against those who have committed sexually violent acts. We understand that coming forward is a hard choice, no matter when you make the decision to do so. We are well versed in the statute of limitations in each state to better serve you as a client against your abuser. In most cases, the statute of limitations begins from the time the incident occurred or the age at which the realization was made that the incident was discovered.

The lawyers of TorkLaw understand the vulnerability a survivor feels in these types of cases. Our experience allows us to prepare cases and present them while protecting our clients in the process. Understandably, reliving the experience can be difficult, and we sympathize with our clients.

If you or a loved one are survivors of a sexually violent crime like abuse, assault, or harassment, we want to hear from you. Our case consultations are FREE and confidential. Our experts are waiting on the line at 888.845.9696. Call today and let us help you seek the justice you need.

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