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What’s the Difference Between Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault?

Published on Jan 9, 2024 by Thomas Law Offices.

What's the Difference Between Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault?

Sexual violence is a silent epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “one in 4 women and about 1 in 26 men have experienced completed or attempted rape.”

While exact figures vary due to gaps in reporting and different approaches to data collection, one thing is clear—survivors of sexual violence deserve help. Thomas Law Offices is the strong and compassionate advocate that survivors deserve.

With that in mind, let’s discuss the difference between sexual abuse and sexual assault. We’ll also address what the difference might mean for your right to take legal action.

Key Highlights:

  • “Sexual abuse” and “sexual assault” are sometimes used interchangeably but refer to different acts.
  • Perpetrators of sexual violence are often known to the victim.
  • Survivors of both sexual abuse and sexual assault can hold their attackers responsible for the harm they caused.

The Difference Between Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault

No two survivors of sexual violence are exactly the same. For some, there may be comfort in clearly defining the language they use to describe what happened to them. For others, the specific language matters much less than the justice they hope to find.

Thomas Law Offices recognizes the individual needs and wants of all survivors that we work with. It is never our intention to pick apart the way that any of our clients describe their life experiences.

Our only goal is to highlight the differences between how the law defines “sexual abuse” and “sexual assault.” These distinctions can be critical for those pursuing legal action.

In Illinois, victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault have the right to hold their attackers accountable for their actions. This type of legal action is limited by a time frame known as a statute of limitations. However, there are sometimes exceptions for victims of childhood abuse.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is a term that is generally used in reference to acts of sexual violence that are committed against minors. This term is also frequently used to refer to sustained patterns of abuse, although even one or two acts of violence can constitute sexual abuse.

In the state of Illinois, children do not reach the age of majority (the age at which they are considered an adult) until 18. Before turning 18, teenagers and children are minors who cannot legally consent to certain acts.

Under 720 ILCS 5/11-1.50, an act of sexual abuse may have been committed if:

  • The perpetrator committed a sexual act through the use or threat of force
  • The perpetrator was aware that the victim was unable to understand the nature of the act or unable to give their consent
  • The perpetrator was 17 years or younger and committed an act of sexual conduct with a victim between the ages of nine and 16

Abuse of a sexual nature can be committed by either an adult or a minor. And in most cases, the perpetrator is not a stranger. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 93% of minors who have suffered sexual abuse knew who the perpetrator was.

We understand just how difficult it can be for survivors of sexual abuse to take legal action when the perpetrator was a friend or family member. Some families discourage reporting in order to save face or protect certain members of the family. In other situations, victims may feel confused and guilty, unsure of what to do when the person who hurt them is also a loved one.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is a term that is typically used to describe sexual crimes that are committed against adults. This term is also generally reserved for isolated acts. It is not uncommon for patterns of sexual violence to emerge when perpetrators are brought to justice, though. A sexual assault can refer to any type of unwanted or nonconsensual act of a sexual nature, including inappropriate touching, threats of sexual violence, and rape.

Victims who have endured a sexual assault frequently know their attackers. Fewer than 20% of all rapes are committed by a stranger.

There is no such thing as a typical sexual assault victim. Regardless of your background, gender, looks, relationship status, age, or anything else, we never want you to refrain from speaking up out of fear that you won’t be believed. No matter what, you’ll have Thomas Law Offices in your corner.

Sexual Violence Statistics

Being a victim of sexual violence can be a devastatingly isolating experience. While we wish that we could say that these numbers were lower, we also recognize that there is comfort in knowing that you are not the only victim out there.

  • Nationwide, Child Protective Services agencies found evidence that 57,329 children had been sexually abused in 2016 alone.
  • One in 20 boys aged 18 and under will be the victim of sexual abuse or assault. For girls, it’s one in 9.
  • At least one sexual assault occurs every 68 seconds in America.
  • 55% of all sexual abuse or assault occurs in the victim’s home.
  • According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), approximately 50% of transgender people and bisexual women will experience at least one act of sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • In jail and prison settings, 60% of all sexual violence against inmates is committed by staff.

The implications of the above statistics can be startling, especially when you take into account that most sexual assaults are never reported.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), only 37% of rapes are ever reported to the police. The figure is even lower for minors, as only 12% of childhood sexual abuse is reported. And on college campuses, fewer than 10% of victims ever make a report, either to their institutions or local authorities.

Why Do So Many Victims Never Make a Report?

Sexual abuse and assault are acts that violate an individual’s personhood. Even though victims have done nothing wrong, many feel intense feelings of shame or guilt. This makes reporting feel like an impossible act.

Some of the most common reasons victims don’t report assault or abuse include:

  • Fear of not being believed
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Worry that they will be blamed for what happened
  • Concern for their family’s reputation

Enduring an act of sexual assault or abuse is a traumatic event. Thomas Law Offices is not here to judge you for how you handled what happened to you, even if you chose not to make a report. We are here to be your empathetic, understanding, and uncompromising legal advocates as you navigate a sexual abuse or assault claim.

Help for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault

You deserve every opportunity to heal and move forward with your life. This journey will look different for every sexual assault survivor, and what works for one person might not be helpful for another. With that in mind, don’t give up on seeking help because one resource didn’t work well for you.

If you’ve been the victim of sexual abuse or assault, we recommend some of the following resources:

Thomas Law Offices also has a long history of putting our clients first. While we cannot provide crisis services, we are able to direct our clients to services that may help them in their recovery. Whether you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or lingering physical injuries, you deserve the best possible chance at recovery. And we want you to have access to services that will help.

Thomas Law Offices Provides Compassionate Legal Guidance

When filing a civil claim for sexual violence, it is important that you work with a law firm that will prioritize you and your needs. The process of securing compensation for what you’ve been through should never force you to endure more trauma.

We’re here to answer your questions. Whether you’re wondering what’s the difference between sexual abuse and sexual assault, what your rights are, or how long you have to file a claim, you can trust that we’ll be on your side every step of the way.

Thomas Law Offices is a group of compassionate lawyers committed to advocating for victims of sexual violence. We provide completely free consultations to individuals in the Chicago area. We are also proud to take many cases on a contingency fee basis. This allows us to provide legal representation regardless of financial resources.

Contact us today so that we can schedule you for your first informational meeting.

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Meet Our Founder

Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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