Even in 2019 there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the crime of sexual assault. Is sexual assault also rape, or vice versa? Does our legal system at the state or federal level accurately convict and punish perpetrators of sexual assault based on those legal definitions and sentencing guidelines? In today’s “rape culture” these are complicated questions to answer, so let’s start at the beginning.
Under federal law, “rape” is defined by an act of “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Legally, no force is required to commit the crime of rape.
Under federal law, “sexual assault” is defined by the National Center for Victims of Crime as “attacks such as rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats. Usually a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person’s body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person’s consent.”
The difference between rape and sexual assault is sometimes vague, as one is often included in the definition of the other. For the most part, rape is limited to a form of penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth — as long as there was not consent. Sexual assault, on the other hand, usually describes more forceful sexual activity that occurs without consent. The range of activities that may be used to describe sexual assault is also grander in scope, and can include anything from light groping to forceful rape.
Most agencies that do any kind of research into rape or sexual assault inevitably estimate that the vast majority of all related crimes go unreported, and that the vast majority of those that are reported do not go to trial or result in a criminal conviction. For every 1000 sexual assault cases, only 5 perpetrators will face a felony conviction and, oddly enough, slightly fewer will spend time in prison.
You can imagine the effect this has on the victims.
You can also imagine the reduced likelihood of a person who was sexually assaulted or raped just once ever coming forward again when the perpetrator of a similar crime walked free the last time. It’s a major obstacle to trying sexual assault or rape cases.
Many prosecutors in the United States decide not to prosecute sexual assault or rape cases based on the likelihood that a jury will not convict based on evidence that should convict. There’s an understanding that the typical American juror is biased by criminal justice shows like CSI, which teach the layman to expect a slam-dunk piece of evidence — which rarely exists in the real world.