This Is the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment

difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment
Are you trying to figure out the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment? If yes, you should check out our guide here.

There’s no doubt that sex-related charges are serious. However, there’s also a significant difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment – and the consequences for each vary greatly.

If you’re not sure about the differences between assault vs harassment, you’re in the right place. The following guide will cover the definition of each, some real-life examples, and more. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have all the information you need to know.

What is Sexual Assault?

Let’s start with a simple definition. Sexual assault is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as any type of sexual behavior or sexual contact that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. 

This includes acts when the victim lacks the capacity to give their consent. The term “sexual assault” is sort of a catch-all that includes rape, attempted rape, fondling, incest, child molestation, and forcible sodomy.  

Generally, sexual assault can be divided into three categories:

  1. Penetration crimes (mouth, anus, or vagina by a penis or an object)
  2. Contact with the genitals, buttocks, breasts, or other intimate body parts
  3. Exposure of the genitals, buttocks, breasts, or other intimate body parts

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can include sexual assault, but it also covers a broader scope of activities that includes “creating a hostile environment,” making pervasive comments and jokes, and body language or looks that make an individual feel harassed.

Locker room talk,” as it’s sometimes called, isn’t usually considered a crime. However, it can feed a culture of sexual harassment and may be used as evidence to support a harassment claim. In some cases, it may also fall under the umbrella of creating a hostile work environment and would be considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is also typically broken down into three general categories.

1. Sexual Coercion

The legal term for this is “quid pro quo harassment.” It refers to explicit or implicit attempts to tie a person’s employment to sexual cooperation. In other words, “have sex with me or you’re fired.”

While this is what many people think of when they hear the term “sexual harassment,” it’s also the least common form of it.

2. Unwanted Sexual Attention

Unwanted sexual attention often involves physical contact. This may include actions such as unwanted hugging, touching, kissing, or stroking. Relentless pressure for an employee to go on dates or perform sexual behaviors also falls under this umbrella.

It should be noted that sexual overtures in the workplace aren’t always considered harassment. To fall under this category, sexual advances must be both unpleasant and unwelcome. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, they must also be “sufficiently pervasive or severe” so that they “create an abusive working environment.”

There are times when unwanted sexual harassment also falls under the legal definition of sexual assault. For example, if an employer forcibly groped and kissed an employee without her consent, this would be defined as both unwanted sexual attention and sexual assault. 

3. Gender Harassment

The most common form of sexual harassment is gender harassment, and this actually doesn’t involve any type of sexual advance. This occurs when a person disparages someone based on their gender, but don’t imply any type of sexual interest.

This includes using crude sexual terms to describe a person or making purely sexist remarks. This is considered “sexual” harassment not because they have anything to do with sexuality but because they are “sex-based.”

Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment: Legal Penalties

When a person is found guilty of sexual assault, the judge will determine their penalty. In most cases, criminal statutes define a minimum and maximum penalty range for specific types of sexual assault. If there are any mitigating or aggravating factors, these will often influence the ruling as well.

Every state has different laws regarding sexual assault and each also has its own sentencing rules. In Texas, for example, sexual assault is a second-degree penalty. This can carry a fine of up to $10,000 and/or 2 to 20 years in state prison.

Sexual harassment, on the other hand, isn’t as clear cut. It’s technically illegal because it violates state and federal civil laws. However, not all types of sexual harassment are considered a crime.

Texas laws regarding sexual harassment are covered under the Texas Workforce Commission. This clarifies the fact that “offhand comments, simple teasing, and isolated incidents” aren’t considered sexual harassment.

When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, it’s usually considered a civil issue. This means that the victim’s recourse is to sue. While they can sue the perpetrator, it’s more common to sue the employer for failure to stop the harassment.

When Sexual Harassment Becomes a Crime

There are some cases when sexual harassment falls into criminal territory. For example, repeatedly touching a co-worker’s breasts or buttocks or even rubbing their shoulders without consent may fall under the category of “assault” (but not sexual assault). In this case, it’s a class C misdemeanor that can carry a fine of up to $500 but no jail time.

“Criminal harassment” includes explicit sexual harassment with intent to “annoy, torment, alarm, harass, abuse, or embarrass” someone. It can also include persistently calling or texting a co-worker.

A criminal harassment charge is a class B misdemeanor. The punishment for this is up to 6 months in jail and a penalty of up to $2,000.

Get Help When Facing Charges

Understanding the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment is a good first step. However, if you’re facing charges, it’s not enough to just understand the differences.  It’s critical for anyone facing charges to get experienced legal help.

When your future is on the line, you need an experienced attorney who can present a carefully crafted defense on your behalf. Don’t leave this up to chance! Contact us today to schedule a no-obligation consultation call.