December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 10 min read
Defining rape is an infamously complicated task within conversations about sexual assault and abuse. But through this article, we will demystify this complex term and clarify what qualifies as rape.
Before we dive into the definitions, remember that if you have experienced rape or sexual assault, you are not at fault and resources are available to help you recover and rebuild a sense of safety.
The following article contains general descriptions of rape and sexual assault for educational purposes. Specific body parts, including genitalia, are mentioned.
Please use your discretion before reading further and remember to take care of yourself.
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Although definitions are often debated both legally and culturally, the term “rape” typically refers to any nonconsensual sexual penetration of someone’s body.
Rape can be experienced and/or perpetrated by anyone of any gender and includes the nonconsensual penetration of a vagina, anus, or mouth. Despite persistent ideas to the contrary, rape is not limited to penetration with a penis. Rape can involve penetration with any body part or object, including (but not limited to) hands or sex toys.
People with penises can also experience an additional type of rape wherein they are forced or otherwise non-consensually manipulated into penetrating someone.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. All nonconsensual penetration is rape regardless of any other circumstance.
To understand rape, it’s important to understand consent. However, like rape, consent is also difficult to define.
Regardless of varying definitions, consenting to sexual penetration requires true willingness and active participation from everyone involved. True consent is navigated with patience and care and does not involve pressure, guilt, persuasion, obligation, or manipulation.
To help clarify these ideas, let’s look at some examples of situations that could qualify as rape due to a lack of clear and genuine consent.
Unfortunately, there can sometimes be stark differences between how rape is defined legally versus socially or culturally depending on where you live. However, sexual assault victim and survivor advocates tend to agree on a wider, more all-encompassing definition of rape than what many legal definitions acknowledge.
For example, some legal definitions specify that penetration must happen with a penis for assault to be considered rape, as in the UK where rape is defined by the Sexual Offences Act of 2003.
Thankfully, some governments are catching up with progressive ideas about what rape is and how to define it. The US Department of Justice, for example, states that rape is “the 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.”
In Canada, rape is formally referred to as “forced penetration.” Canada does not legally differentiate between rape and sexual assault, which is defined as “any unwanted sexual act done by one person to another or sexual activity without one person’s consent or voluntary agreement.”
Although not all governments use this term, statutory rape is an important concept to understand when discussing rape in general.
Statutory rape refers to any sexual activity (not only penetration) that happens between someone who is above the age of consent and someone who is below the age of consent. In some places, statutory rape can also refer to sexual activity between an authority figure and someone they have direct power over, as in the case of a teacher engaging in a sexual relationship with a student (even if the student is above the age of consent).
The age of consent in Canada is 16. In the US, this age varies from 16 to 18 depending on where you live and is also influenced by the age differential between the perpetrator and the victim. To find out the age of consent law in any US state, click here.
Unlike laws regarding rape and sexual assault, statutory rape laws generally do not deal with the question of consent. Rape is rape regardless of the ages of the perpetrator and victim.
Instead, statutory rape laws are intended to protect children and minors from sexual abuse. This is because those below the age of consent are not legally or psychologically capable of fully consenting to sexual activity, particularly with people who are older or hold more power than them.
If you live in the US, you can use this guide to state laws and reporting requirements for statutory rape, published by the US Department of Health and Human Services, to get a better understanding of how age of consent laws affect teenagers. To learn more about age of consent laws in Canada, including exceptions for teenagers who are close in age, click here for information provided by the Department of Justice Canada.
Most importantly, remember that all nonconsensual sexual activity is considered either rape, assault, or abuse regardless of the ages of the victim(s) and/or perpetrator(s).
To help you develop an even clearer idea of what qualifies as rape, let’s dive into a few frequently asked questions.
Yes. Your relationship status has nothing to do with whether or not you have experienced rape.
Yes. Despite persistent and harmful myths about who can and cannot be the victim of rape, anyone of any gender can experience rape, including men and people with penises.
Yes. Consent is complicated, and agreeing to a sexual interaction on the surface is not always as simple as it appears. For example, if you were pressured, coerced, bullied, or guilted into saying “yes,” this does not qualify as true consent and could indicate that you were raped.
Yes. It’s a common and damaging misconception that rape victims must physically or verbally “fight back” to qualify as rape victims. But there are many different reasons why someone experiencing an uncomfortable, unwanted, or dangerous sexual encounter might not try to resist, many of which are rooted in our innate survival instincts. Not trying to fight off your rapist does not mean you “wanted it” or that you “weren’t actually raped.” For information on these and other misconceptions, check out our article “Busting Persistent Myths About Rape and Sexual Assault.”
Yes. The notion that people who don’t report rape are not “real” victims is yet another damaging myth. Your decision to report your experience to authorities or not is entirely personal, and many rape victims decide never to report. This is completely legitimate and does not mean anything about whether or not you were “actually” raped. For more information on this, check out our article “It’s Okay Not to Report Sexual Assault (Here’s Why).”
While understanding rape can seem complicated at first, it’s actually pretty simple — all nonconsensual penetrative sex is rape. Understanding consent is where things can get blurry, but the resources available through Go Thrive Go can help you develop a stronger sense of what consent looks like, sounds like, and feels like. If you’ve been the victim of rape, please remember that resources are available to help you get the support you need.
For help getting support, start by reading our article “What to Do If You’ve Been Raped or Sexually Assaulted (8 Steps).”
The term “rape” is defined in very different ways depending on where you live and who you ask. However, sexual assault victim and survivor advocates agree that rape can be defined as any nonconsensual sexual penetration. This can involve hands, genitals, sex toys, or other body parts or objects, and is not limited to penile penetration of a vagina. Despite outdated ideas about gender and rape, anyone can be the victim or perpetrator of rape regardless of gender or any other demographic factor. For sexual penetration to be consensual, consent must be navigated and agreed upon willfully and actively by everyone involved. Sexual penetration that happens as a result of persuasion, guilt-tripping, or any other form of manipulation is rape. If a rape survivor does not report their experience or if they did not fight back against their abuser, this does not mean that rape did not occur.
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.
US Department of Justice – https://www.justice.gov/archives/opa/blog/updated-definition-rape
Government of Canada – https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rr14_01/p10.html
University of Lethbridge – https://www.ulethbridge.ca/sites/default/files/2018/07/the_criminal_code_of_canada_and_sexual_assault.pdf
Wise Voter Age of Consent Laws Map – https://wisevoter.com/state-rankings/age-of-consent-by-state/
Department of Justice Canada Age of Consent Laws – https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/other-autre/clp/faq.html
UK Sexual Offences Act 2003 – https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/42/section/1
“Does the Legal Definition of Rape Need Updating?” – https://eachother.org.uk/does-the-legal-definition-of-rape-need-updating/
Sexual Trauma and Recovery Service – https://www.starsdorset.org/blog/sexual-offences-act-2003
Cambridge University Press, “Towards a case for legally recognising and labelling ‘forced-to-penetrate’ cases as rape” – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-journal-of-law-in-context/article/oh-youre-a-guy-how-could-you-be-raped-by-a-woman-that-makes-no-sense-towards-a-case-for-legally-recognising-and-labelling-forcedtopenetrate-cases-as-rape/8166CABA33BBE64EBBAD384E1FE13551
December 4, 202314 min read