sexual assaultLast updated
The US Department of Justice defines “sexual assault” as nonconsensual sexual behavior that is against the law. It can include rape, attempted rape, and unwanted sexual contact.
The terms “rape” and “sexual assault” are not interchangeable. Rape is a type of sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults are instances of rape. The term “sexual assault” can be used when discussing the issue generally, but when possible, specifying the allegations or actions involved can provide vital context and clarify whether you are reporting on allegations of illegal activity. If quoting statistics, using ones that align with the specific relevant terms (i.e., if talking about sexual assault, use statistics for sexual assault, and if talking about rape, use statistics for rape) is important for accuracy.
Young people and those who are a part of groups subjected to systemic discrimination can face heightened risk of sexual assault. For example, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, the largest survey to date of transgender people in the US, 47 percent of transgender individuals have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes.
Rape and sexual assault can present unique challenges for reporters covering them: there is often a lack of physical evidence and witnesses, and victims often do not come forward immediately, because of a fear that they will be disbelieved or their own character called into question. Many victims never report the crime to law enforcement; even when an official report is made, trials and convictions are rare. In the absence of witness statements or court documents, reporters can use other means to verify reports of rape or sexual assault to the best of their ability.
Due diligence is especially important because people who come forward as victims or survivors of sexual assault are often subjected to intense scrutiny; careful reporting and fact-checking can help identify areas that need clarification and forestall surprise criticisms. In the absence of witnesses, many reporters in recent years have relied on contemporaneous accounts — friends, relatives, or others that the victim or survivor told about the incident at the time it is said to have occurred. In addition, the existence of others who report rape or sexual assault by the same alleged perpetrator can help bolster a victim or survivor’s account.
When writing about a person who’s experienced sexual assault, mirroring the terms they use and describing their assault in the same way they do, with attribution, is a way to ensure that you’re capturing their account on their terms. People often define different types of sexual misconduct in different ways, and being specific and using the terms used by the victim or survivor will paint the clearest picture of the conduct they are reporting. It is worth noting, however, that the terms “sexual assault” and “rape” have legal meanings while “sexual misconduct” does not. This is one of many reasons that getting legal advice on stories involving these issues can be helpful to ensure accuracy and reduce both the risk of libel and potential harm to individuals involved.
Alleged and allegedly are legal terms that can shape your coverage in profound ways and can sometimes be read as casting doubt on someone’s account. Attribution to specific sources is key. Also, a sentence can often be recast to avoid these terms entirely — for example, “Police say X sexually assaulted Y.” Using alleged and accused to describe actions (“Y alleges X raped them,” “Y accused X of raping them”) is clearer and less stigmatizing than using these terms to describe people (“accused rapist X,” “alleged victim”). It can often be clearer still to use the more neutral “reported” or simply “told” or “said” (“Y told police X raped them,” “Y reported that X raped them.”)
There are ways to report on the issues of rape and sexual assault without focusing solely on specific individuals and instances. Reporting on the prevalence of rape and assault and how institutions handle such accusations, for example, can also have an impact. As Nieman Reports writes: “By examining how rape and sexual assault are handled by institutions including universities, police, and the courts, journalists can shed light on processes that ordinarily operate out of sight of average citizens — yet can have tremendous impact on justice for women and men who have been subjected to sexual violations.”
- Sexual Assault (RAINN)
- What’s the difference between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape? (The Conversation)
- Groping is a crime (Vox)
The US Department of Justice defines “sexual assault” as nonconsensual sexual behavior that is against the law. It can include rape, attempted rape, and unwanted sexual contact. The term “sexual assault” can be used when discussing the issue generally, but when possible, specifying the allegations or actions involved can provide vital context and clarify whether you are reporting on allegations of illegal activity. People often define different types of sexual misconduct in different ways, and being specific and using the terms used by the victim or survivor will paint the clearest picture of the conduct they are reporting.