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Do you know the difference between a sexual assault survivor and sexual abuse survivor?

These two terms have been prominently in the news in the last five years. New stories concerning sexual harassment, abuse, and Assault dominate the news cycle and social media.

So your immediate answer is probably yes.

But if I asked you to talk one-on-one or in a public forum with a sexual assault or sexual abuse survivor, your confidence level would probably waver. You might not be able to imagine yourself in that situation.

But what if I could show you that you already have these conversations? Let me explain why I believe this to be true.

According to RAINN, The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. On average, 463,634 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault yearly in the United States. In addition, the research indicates that one in three women and one in six men are affected by sexual violence. 

You’d agree that is a large number but still might contend you do not personally know a survivor of sexual assault or sexual abuse. And I would say that you are partially correct.

You do not recognize the number of sexual assault or sexual abuse survivors because these individuals have not disclosed their experiences to you for various reasons. (We will address these reasons in a future article.)

No matter where you are, the airport, the store, a school, a church, a concert, a sporting event, or even a family gathering, one in three women and one in six men you encounter are survivors of sexual assault or sexual abuse.

The question is not whether you are having the conversation but whether you are helpful or harmful when interacting with the survivors you encounter.

I am confident you want to be a safe place for the survivor. To help you do that, we will define what sexual assault and sexual abuse survivors mean, what they have in common, where they vary, and why these distinctions are crucial at home, work, and society.

Sexual Assault And Sexual Abuse Survivor Defined.

Sexual abuse” is most commonly used to describe sexual behavior directed towards minors rather than adults. It acknowledges that children are not capable of informed consent.

Sexual Assault is a broad phrase that includes a wide range of criminal offenses that are sexually motivated. Examples of Assault include unwanted touching or kissing, rubbing, groping, or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator. Rape is a form of sexual Assault where non-consensual contact with penetration occurs.

The medical and legal professions have separate and detailed definitions for a sexual assault survivor or a sexual abuse survivor. These distinctions enable the medical profession to provide targeted, effective treatment and the legal system to hold those who perpetrate these crimes accountable.

Sexual Abuse Survivor has become interchangeable with Sexual Assault Survivor in our culture. 

Most individuals are aware of the differences, but culturally, we have lumped the two terms together and defaulted to the broad term of sexual abuse. Let me illustrate this. 

A Google search on the words Sexual Abuse will return about 1,080,000,000 entries in 0.66 seconds. Here is the typical first entry displayed. National Sexual Assault Hotline. Hours: Available 24 hours. Learn more

A Google search on Sexual Assault will return about 368,000,000 entries in about 0.66 seconds. Here is the typical first entry displayed. 

Rainn. The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. The first line in the description is, “what are the warning signs for child sexual abuse?” 

The first search result on sexual Assault on Google points to RAINN and begins with statistics concerning child sexual abuse.

sexual abuse survivor and sexual assault
The first search result on sexual Assault on Google points to RAINN and begins with statistics concerning child sexual abuse.

There are more searches for sexual abuse than there are for sexual Assault. However, inquiries on sexual Assault often point to resources that quickly reference sexual abuse, and the reverse is equally true. Searches for sexual Assault online often reference sexual abuse as well.

This blog often uses the term sexual abuse broadly to cover both because of search intent. But, first, it’s how people locate the info.

Search intent suggests that a survivor is comfortable calling it sexual abuse but uncertain whether to call it an assault. 

Why is the term Sexual Abuse Survivor used instead of Assault? 

Why do we default to the term survivor of sexual abuse when sexual Assault might be more accurate? 

Do we use the term abuse because it sounds less violent than Assault? Is there less stigma for what happened to a child who could not consent? 

Does the assault survivor use the term abuse to describe themselves because they know they were abused but are uncertain if it fits the definition of Assault?

Or do they refrain from correcting us because they do not want to give specific traumatic triggering details that differentiate the two? 

What do Sexual Assault/Sexual Abuse Survivors have in common?

Shame, terror, guilt, self-blame, depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and attachment issues are just a few things that sexual assault and sexual abuse survivors have in common.

Additionally, they may have inherent trust issues and be hypervigilant about potential sources of perceived danger.

They may share many of the exact coping mechanisms for the traumas they have experienced.

Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse Survivors Vary in What Way? 

The victim’s age is the most significant difference between sexual abuse and sexual Assault.

Sexual abusers target children. Children are inexperienced, vulnerable, and incapable of giving informed consent.

Children do not have the vocabulary to describe what they endured or determine if WHAT they have experienced is unusual. As a result, they are ill-equipped to mentally and emotionally cope with what they have experienced.

And as they enter adulthood, they may critically and unmercifully judge their younger self based on what they now know and believe their response should have been.

Why are these distinctions important to the survivors and you?

These distinctions are essential to the survivor. The sad thing is the survivor may not yet realize this.

Correctly identifying what they have experienced can empower the survivor. It can bring clarity in defining harm and seeking the proper kind of treatment.

It can help to remove shame from the survivor. It can cause them to seek out and identify others like themselves and form a supportive community. 

These distinctions are important to you as you knowingly or unknowingly interact with survivors.

Both survivors may come to you as adults to discuss what they have experienced.

But the sexual abuse survivor is bringing their childhood identity with them. And that child deserves to be treated with kindness by both you and the survivor. 

Understanding the difference between sexual assault and abuse can help you be a safe place of healing for the survivor. It can help you restore what was broken.


How can you help the sexual assault and sexual abuse survivors you encounter? Will knowing the significant numbers of survivors cause you to change how you speak about these topics in culture?

Would you consider sharing this post with others as a resource?

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