Education, study and knowledge

Difference between harassment, assault and sexual abuse

The sexual harassment is that behavior in which a person performs unwanted advances of a sexual nature towards another person. It can be presented in the workplace, educational context, as well as in the street or public spaces.

A sexual assault It is that action of a sexual nature against a person, without her consent, in which there is physical contact and use of force, physical violence, threats or intimidation. Sexual assault is considered a felony in many jurisdictions.

For his part, sexual abuse is an action or conduct of a sexual nature against the sexual freedom of a person who he is unable to indulge her, in which no direct physical violence or intimidation is used. The victims are mostly minors, which is why it is also considered a serious crime in many countries.

The way to legally interpret each of these behaviors varies slightly from country to country. However, sexual harassment, assault and abuse are generally considered forms of sexual violence, where there is never consent from the victims.

Despite the fact that anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, in the vast majority of cases The victims are women or minors, while the aggressors are usually men or people older than the victims.

sexual harassment

Sexual assault

Sexual abuse


It is the act of making advances, physical contact or requesting favors of an unwanted sexual nature, verbally, non-verbally and physically.

It is an action that involves non-consensual sexual contact by means of force, physical violence or threat.

It is the act of a sexual nature directed against a person without their consent, in which physical violence or direct intimidation is not used.


  • There is no consent on the part of the victim.
  • Create a hostile environment for the victim.
  • It is common in work environments, academics, and public places.
  • It manifests itself physically, verbally and gesturally.
  • There is no consent on the part of the victim.
  • There is physical contact with the victim.
  • There is use of force or threat.
  • It can take place in any space, public or private.
  • The victim is unable to give her consent.
  • Minors are the main victims.
  • The stalker uses manipulation, persuasion, and control against the victims.
  • It usually occurs in a private, familiar or trusted context for the victim.


They can be known or unknown, mostly men.

Relatives, acquaintances and strangers, mostly men.

Generally, they are relatives and acquaintances, mostly men and older people to the victim.

Main victims

They are mostly adult women and teenagers.

Generally women of all ages.

They are mostly girls and boys, as well as teenagers.
Examples A person makes obscene gestures and uses lewd language directed at another person when walking down the street, without their request. Forcibly taking a person against their will and committing a sexual act. Manipulating a child to view pornographic material.

What is sexual harassment?

The sexual harassment is defined as any behavior in which there is non-consensual sexual advances on a physical, verbal or non-verbal level (gestures), by one person against another person.

This type of harassment includes requests for sexual favors and creates a hostile social context for the victim, who may feel threatened by rejecting such advances.

Harassment is aggressive behavior, in which the harasser constantly intimidates or attacks the victim, in order to intimidate, control or cause harm. The stalker makes advances, threatens, blackmails, makes unwanted physical approaches, with the intention of obtaining sexual favors.

Both the United Nations (UN), the European Union, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other international organizations consider sexual harassment as a form of sexual discrimination that affects Specially to women.

In this way, those States that are part of these international organizations and their various agreements seek to eliminate harassment in all its forms.

See also:

  • Difference between harassment and bullying.
  • Types of bullying.

Characteristics of sexual harassment

  • It is sexual conduct by one person towards another without their consent.
  • Creates a hostile and threatening environment or context for the victim.
  • It is constant and repeats itself over time.
  • It is more common for the victims to be women and the bullies to be men.
  • It is considered a form of sex discrimination.
  • It manifests itself physically, verbally and through gestures.
  • It can cause permanent psychological damage, physical ailments and social problems to the victim.

Bullying quid pro quo

The term harassment quid pro quo refers to a type of harassment in which there is a hierarchy between stalker and victim. This type of sexual harassment is generally associated with work environment (Although it can occur in any context in which there is a position of power of one of the parties, for example, teacher and student).

The expression quid pro quo It comes from Latin and means 'this in exchange for that'. In this way, harassment quid pro quo refers to a type of harassment that involves the use of blackmail.

In this particular type of sexual harassment, someone in a position of power asks for favors and uses coercion against the victim. For example, when a secretary feels that her job is at stake or that she may suffer from a problem of not consenting to the sexual behavior of her boss.

Examples of sexual harassment

  • Compliments and sexual innuendo.
  • Insist on having conversations of a sexual nature.
  • Emotional blackmail.
  • Intrude on a person's sex life.
  • Looks or gestures with sexual connotations.
  • Calls, sending messages, letters, and any other contact without consent.
  • Different forms of siege.
  • Hugs, kisses, touches and any physical contact in a social context that is not reciprocal or desired.
  • Use of physical force to maintain physical contact.

What is a sexual assault?

The sexual assault refers to the action against the sexual freedom of a person that involves physical contact, through the use of force, physical violence, threat or intimidation.

This type of action implies that there is physical contact with the victim without her consent. The form by which the sexual assault occurs can be violent or through blackmail or threats.

Likewise, as a crime, and depending on the jurisdiction, it is considered if the contact has any type of penetration of body members or objects (even if the victim is a man and the aggressor is a woman). In this case, this sexual assault is considered a rape crime.

The vast majority of victims of sexual assault are women. However, even if it is in smaller numbers, men can also be and are victims of sexual assault.

Characteristics of a sexual assault

  • It involves physical contact.
  • It can occur violently or through threats and intimidation.
  • Most of the victims are women, although men can also be victims.
  • It is one of the most serious forms of sexual violence.
  • The aggressor may or may not be a person close to the victim.
  • Rape (physical) is the most serious form of sexual assault.
  • It can cause permanent psychological damage, physical ailments and social problems to the victim.

Examples of sexual assault

  • Make any type of sexual contact not consented to by the person.
  • Forcibly touching a person on their genitals.
  • When the aggressor forces a person to touch their genitals.
  • Threatening and blackmailing the victim into performing sexual acts.
  • When a person maintains physical sexual contact with another person who is not able to consent to it.
  • Forcing a person to have intercourse against her will.

What is sexual abuse?

In general, it is possible to consider sexual abuse as that action or sexual behavior against a person and without their consent, in which no use of physical violence or intimidation.

From among the general population, minors (boys, girls and adolescents) are especially vulnerable because they cannot consent to this type of behavior and acts. It is common for the abuser to use different tactics, such as manipulation and deception, in order to manipulate the victims.

Other victims of sexual abuse may be people with a physical or mental disability, since, in many cases, it is not possible for them to give consent. Likewise, people under the influence of alcohol and other drugs who are unable to consent can become victims of sexual abuse.

Abuse implies the misuse of an object, element, position of power, etc., in such a way that the action causes some damage to something or someone. Thus, abuse supposes an imbalance of power within a relationship (family, colleagues, work).

In this type of act, the victim is unable to express consent, for being in a state of health, physical or mental that incapacitates it to do so. Likewise, it also occurs when the victim feels that she cannot refuse to take part in a sexual act, directly or indirectly (forced to witness a sexual act).

It's important pointing that the definition of sexual abuse varies by law from each State and from different organizations. For example, sexual abuse may also be interpreted or defined as an act in which physical violence is present. That is why it is recommendedforever review the relevant legislation for specific cases.

Characteristics of sexual abuse

  • The victim does not have the ability to understand what is happening or to give her consent.
  • It is an act in which the use of manipulation or control tactics is common.
  • Depending on the jurisdiction, it is considered that there is no presence of physical violence (use of force).
  • Girls, boys and adolescents are the main victims of this type of sexual violence.
  • People with physical or mental disabilities are also common victims, as well as people under the influence (caused or not) of certain drugs or alcohol.
  • It can cause permanent psychological damage, physical ailments and social problems in the victim.

Child sexual abuse

When it comes to sexual abuse as a crime, each state defines the act and its nature relatively differently. However, a common factor is that crimes classified as “sexual abuse” include sexual acts where the main victims are minors.

Minors are particularly vulnerable because are unable to understand the situation, nor the abuse to which they are being subjected. These acts produce serious psychological problems in the victims.

Organizations such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) affirm that sexual abuse against minors is one of the most serious forms of violence against children.

According to UNICEF, one of the great problems in detecting this type of abuse is that the victims many times they do not know how to communicate it, they suffer coercion, they are afraid or they are manipulated to maintain be quiet. Also, many times it is not possible to physically identify the signs of it.

Relatives and people close to the victim make up the majority of abusers. Also, these abusers are generally male and older than the victims. In the case of the victims, these are mostly women, girls and adolescents.

However, not all abusers are adults. Despite being older than the victims, a considerable part of the abusers are minors.

The moment force or physical violence is used in a situation of sexual abuse, this is considered a aggravating circumstance for the application of a sentence in most jurisdictions.

Examples of sexual abuse

  • Touching and fondling a person unable to consent to the genital parts of her.
  • Penetrating with any part of the body or object the genitals of a person.
  • Encourage any type of physical genital contact, on the skin or clothing.
  • Using a person without their consent as an object to produce pornographic material.
  • Using language or talking about inappropriate topics for sexual purposes.
  • Maintain any type of non-consensual sexual relationship with a person.

Sexual violence

The World Health Organization, in the World Report on Violence and Health (2002) defines sexual violence as:

"Any sexual act, the attempt to consummate a sexual act, the unwanted sexual comments or innuendo, or the actions to commercialize or use in any other way the sexuality of a person through coercion by another person, regardless of their relationship with the victim, in any setting, including the home and place of job."

Thus, sexual harassment, abuse and assaults are forms of sexual violence. Furthermore, these are not mutually exclusive, occurring transversely. This means that there may be a situation of sexual abuse that ends in an act of sexual assault. As in a hostile environment created by harassment, the chances of sexual assault increase.

The relationship between the victim and the person causing the sexual violence can be horizontal (between co-workers or study), descending (an older person and a minor) or ascending (a subordinate and a figure of authority).

Different international organizations (UN, ILO, UNICEF), as well as public initiatives, private and civil society are constantly fighting to eliminate sexual violence in all its shapes.

Forms of sexual violence

  • Verbal: using lewd or sexualized language.
  • Non verbal: Lewd gestures, violating the privacy of the victim, exhibitionism, voyeurism.
  • Physical: fondling, instigating the victim to have sexual relations or perform sexualized acts, pimping, rape.

Who commits sexual violence?

  • Relatives: father, mother, siblings, cousins, etc.
  • Sentimental couple: spouse, boyfriend / girlfriend.
  • Close people, friends and girlfriends.
  • Known: work colleagues, people with whom common spaces are shared frequently.
  • Unknown: people in the street or public places.

Who are the victims of sexual violence?

The vast majority are usually women and minors. However, men can also be victims of sexual violence. Victims are generally characterized by being in a relationship in which there is an imbalance of power, or because whoever commits sexual violence considers that he has power over the victim, or that he lacks self-determination.

This type of relationship can be of the type employee / boss, student / teacher, daughter / father, among others.

Consequences of sexual violence

  • Physical health problems: sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies, infant pregnancy, abortions, physical trauma.
  • Mental health problems: Depression, socialization problems, psychological trauma, suicidal tendencies, anxiety.
  • Deadly consequences: suicide, death during the violent act, due to transmitted disease (AIDS), during unwanted motherhood.

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