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December 7, 2023 Dec 07, 2023 13 min read

What is Sexual Abuse?


  • Sexual abuse refers to any type of non-consensual, forced, coerced, manipulated, or otherwise unwanted sexual contact or behavior
  • There are four main types of sexual abuse – physical, verbal, visual, non-contact, and online abuse
  • While rape and molestation are the two most commonly understood forms of sexual abuse, there are unfortunately far more examples, including some which are harder to recognize and may not involve direct contact between the perpetrator and victim(s)
  • Some of the most common ways that sexual abuse shows up in our lives are through intimate partner sexual abuse, workplace sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, and covert sexual abuse
  • Sexual exploitation, sexual extortion, and sex trafficking are commercial forms of sexual abuse wherein money, services, jobs, or other forms of power are used as manipulation tools to gain sexual access to another person or people
  • Regardless of which type of abuse you’ve experienced, it wasn’t your fault and healing is possible

Understanding what qualifies as sexual abuse can feel complicated and overwhelming, so let’s break it down. In this article, we’ll go over the basic definition of sexual abuse, provide some common examples, and then dive into the different types of sexual abuse one might experience.


What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse refers to any type of non-consensual, forced, coerced, manipulated, or otherwise unwanted sexual contact or behavior. This can include both physical and verbal abuse, such as assault and harassment. Sexual abuse also includes behaviors that can’t be classified as either physical or verbal, such as visual, non-contact, and covert abuse. Despite persistent stereotypes about sexual abuse victims, abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, age, or social standing.


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A Note on Consent

To understand sexual abuse, it’s important to develop an understanding of consent. Unfortunately, defining consent is infamously complicated, and legal definitions vary dramatically from place to place.


Generally speaking, consent is freely and clearly agreed upon between adults of legal consenting age. Consent cannot be acquired through manipulation, force, threats, intimidation, or coercion, and it can be withdrawn at any point before or during a sexual interaction.


If anyone pressures you into partaking in a sexual activity, this is still sexual abuse even if you technically agree or even verbally say “yes.” Persuasion is not consent.


To learn more about consent, check out our article “What is Consent?”

Legal Definitions of Abuse

Legal definitions of sexual abuse are determined by individual governing bodies and often change throughout history. Definitions also vary from region to region and country to country.


Victim and survivor advocates generally agree on a more all-encompassing definition of sexual abuse that accounts for a wider array of behaviors than some legal definitions recognize. Remember that even if what you’ve experienced does not fit into the definition of sexual abuse as defined by your local or national government, this does not necessarily mean that what you’ve experienced is not abuse.

The 5 Main Types of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can take many different forms. To help us narrow it down and understand each type, let’s go over the five main categories of sexual abuse – physical abuse, verbal abuse, visual abuse, non-contact abuse, and online abuse.


Physical Abuse

Physical sexual abuse can be defined as unwanted, coerced, and/or forced physical contact with another person or group of people for sexual purposes. 


The most well-known forms of physical sexual abuse are rape and molestation (unwanted sexual touching), but this can also include groping or any other unwanted sexual contact.


Other common examples of physical sexual abuse include:

  • Being forced or coerced to kiss someone
  • Being forced or coerced to engage in any sexual activity
  • Any unwanted physical contact of a sexual, suggestive, or flirtatious nature
  • Refusing to use safe-sex practices (ex. refusing to wear a condom, intentionally removing or damaging a condom, etc.)
  • Forcing, coercing, or intimidating someone into removing clothing or performing any sexual act alone or with others, even if the act does not involve direct physical contact with the perpetrator

Verbal Abuse

Verbal sexual abuse refers to any unwelcome sexual remarks, jokes, advances, descriptions, or threats. The terms “verbal sexual abuse” and “sexual harrassment” are often used interchangeably, although sexual harrassment can also take on other forms. While all verbal sexual abuse is sexual harrassment, not all sexual harrassment is verbal.


Examples of verbal sexual abuse include:

  • Cat-calling
  • Unwelcome and/or inappropriate sexual jokes, remarks, or descriptions
  • Sexual threats
  • Unwanted verbal sexual advances

Visual Abuse

Though less commonly discussed than other forms of abuse, visual sexual abuse refers to any unwanted exposure to sexual images, content, or nudity.


Examples of visual sexual abuse include:

  • Unwanted exposure to pornography or other sexually explicit media
  • Unwanted exposure to graphic or suggestive gestures or motions
  • Unwanted exposure to nudity or sexual behavior
  • Exposure of a minor to any sexual content or behavior

Non-Contact or Voyeuristic Abuse

Often overlooked in conversations about sexual abuse, voyeuristic or “non-contact” abuse refers to the act of watching, recording, spying on, or following someone without their consent and/or knowledge for sexual purposes.


Some examples of this type of abuse include…

  • Photographing someone without their knowledge or against their will for sexual purposes
  • Spying on someone for sexual purposes (also known as “peeping”)
  • Upskirting
  • Installing cameras in a private or public place to observe or record people for sexual purposes

Online Abuse

Online sexual abuse is on the rise and involves a range of non-consensual sexual behaviors that happen online. While online sexual abuse can happen via any online platform, it often occurs through social media and other social networking tools.

Some common examples of online sexual abuse include:

  • Sending unsolicited messages, photos, or videos of a sexual nature, including nude content
  • Sharing, posting, or selling nude or sexual content of another person without their consent or permission
  • Stalking, harassing, or spying on someone via the internet for sexual purposes

Other Types of Sexual Abuse

Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s look at a few more specific types of abuse.


Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse

Despite persistent ideas that sexual abuse cannot occur between people who are already romantically or sexually involved, this is false. Date rape, marital partner sexual abuse, and intimate partner sexual abuse all refer to sexual abuse that occurs in the context of an existing relationship.


In fact, a case has been made in recent years to do away with terms like “date rape” altogether. Ultimately, rape is rape regardless of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim.


If you have been pressured, forced, manipulated, guilted, or coerced into engaging in sexual activity with someone you’re dating, married to, or in a romantic or sexual relationship with, this qualifies as intimate partner sexual abuse.

Sexual Abuse in the Workplace

As with intimate partner abuse, sexual abuse is abuse regardless of whether it happens at work, at home, or anywhere else. If you’ve experienced any of the behaviors discussed in this article at your workplace, you’ve experienced workplace sexual abuse.


Workplace sexual abuse is defined as any sexual abuse that happens at work. This type of abuse can happen between workers in any position, regardless of rank, or between workers and clients or customers.

Child Sexual Abuse

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), child sexual abuse is defined as any sexual activity with a minor. This includes all forms of physical, verbal, visual, non-contact, and online sexual activity. While most child sexual abuse is committed by adults, children can also perpetrate sexual abuse against other children.


Unfortunately, child sexual abuse is one of the most common forms of sexual abuse, with one in nine girls and one in 20 boys in the US experiencing sexual abuse, according to RAINN. 


Although legal definitions of abuse are notoriously difficult to pin down, consensual and age-appropriate sexual exploration between teenagers of the same or very similar age is generally not considered abuse. Between children, child sexual abuse occurs when a child is being forced, coerced, and/or manipulated into partaking in or witnessing sexual behavior with or by another child or group of children. Between an adult and a child, sexual activity of any kind is abuse.

A Note on Grooming

Sexual grooming is the process of gaining access to a victim, earning their trust, and acclimating them to certain behaviors, rituals, or practices that might make it easier to commit abuse. While not all grooming behaviors fall directly into any of the sexual abuse categories, they are designed to manipulate someone (often a child) into being more susceptible to abuse.


Grooming can look like:

  • Fostering a deep, intimate friendship or relationship with someone by offering praise, gifts, prizes, or rewards for the purpose of abusing that person in the future
  • Integrating yourself into someone’s family or community with the intention of gaining access to a victim
  • Normalizing secrets or secretive behavior with a potential victim to make abuse easier to commit in the future

As you can see, some of these behaviors are not inherently or obviously sexual. However, they’re still very important to watch out for, especially when a power dynamic exists between a groomer and potential victim, as these behaviors can lay the groundwork for abuse.

Covert Sexual Abuse

Also known as emotional incest or enmeshment, covert sexual abuse occurs when victims (often children) are treated as stand-in partners or spouses by their perpetrators. Due to the close nature of the relationship dynamic in this type of abuse, covert sexual abuse is almost always perpetrated by parents or caregivers, but it can also be perpetrated by any close adult figure in a child’s life.


A bit more difficult to spot than other types of sexual abuse, covert abuse is characterized by a lack of healthy boundaries between the perpetrator and the victim. In these dynamics, the perpetrator uses the victim to fulfill their emotional, romantic, or even psychosexual needs.


Examples of covert sexual abuse include:

  • Relying on a child for emotional or physical comfort or company
  • Confiding in a child about age-inappropriate personal issues, thoughts, or feelings
  • Limiting a child’s independence to maintain the enmeshed relationship dynamic 
  • Engaging in role reversal, wherein the adult treats the child like a mentor, financial advisor, confidant, or parent

Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking

Perhaps more than any other type of sexual abuse, the definitions of exploitation and trafficking vary dramatically from place to place. Put broadly, sexual exploitation happens when a perpetrator abuses a position of power, vulnerability, or trust for sexual purposes, especially when the abuse might lead to monetary, social, or political gain.

Other examples of sexual exploitation include…

  • Publishing or selling nude photos or videos of someone without their knowledge and/or consent
  • Pimping or forced prostitution
  • Using sex or sexual behavior as a condition for assistance, resources, employment, etc.
  • Forcing someone to appear in pornography, especially commercial pornography

Although the term “sex trafficking” is used differently based on context, the general usage of the term refers to commercial sexual exploitation, especially when the recruitment, sale, or transportation of human beings is involved. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain a commercial sex act.

Sexual Extortion

Similar to sexual exploitation, sexual extortion (or “sextortion”) involves an abuse of power to coerce sexual acts or images from a victim. Unlike other forms of sexual exploitation, sextortion does not always involve the direct exchange of money. Instead, those who commit sextortion might use sensitive or personal information, necessary services, or other forms of non-monetary leverage to extort sexual acts or images from a victim.


According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, “sexual extortion happens when a person abuses their power or authority to coerce sexual acts, images, or videos from a victim.”


Some examples of sextortion include:

  • Threatening to release personal or sensitive information about someone in an attempt to acquire sexual favors, images, or videos (also considered blackmail)
  • Threatening to release nude or sexual content of someone in an attempt to acquire money or control the victim’s behavior
  • Withholding a job or promotion from an employee or applicant unless they provide sexual acts, images, or videos
  • Police officers or other authority figures lowering charges or punishments if someone submits to sexual acts (or increasing charges if they don’t)

Any time someone directly abuses their power to gain (or attempt to gain) sexual acts, images, or videos from another person, this is considered sexual extortion, which is an extremely serious and highly illegal form of sexual abuse.


While understanding all the different forms of sexual abuse can feel overwhelming, this article has hopefully provided some clarity. For anyone who has experienced sexual abuse directly, the information in this article can be used to help you understand your experiences and decide what steps to take in your own healing process. Before taking action, remember that coming to terms with having been abused can be extremely emotionally distressing, and you will likely need some time to let your mind and body adjust to these new realizations. Above all, remember that regardless of what you’ve experienced, it was not your fault, and there are resources out there designed to help you heal.

Summary :

Sexual abuse refers to a wide range of non-consensual sexual behaviors, including physical and non-physical abuse. Well-known forms of sexual abuse include rape and molestation, but things like verbal harassment, spying, or refusing to use safe-sex practices are also considered abuse. Sexual abuse often occurs in the context of an existing power dynamic (wherein someone with more power commits abuse against someone with less power), but this is not always the case. Despite outdated stereotypes, anyone can experience sexual abuse, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other demographic factor.

About the Author

Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at


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