Sexual Abuse Definition and Other Legal Terms

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Kevin Donoghue can help with your sexual abuse compensation claim. Read some helpful definitions of words used in these claims here.

Sexual abuse compensation claims vary and there are many definitions depending on the circumstances. This type of abuse comes within the broad category of sexual offences. Here we give some definitions and other terms used in criminal and civil law sexual abuse cases.

What is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is abusive sexual behaviour and/or a sexual act committed by one person upon another. It often involves force or taking advantage of a victim.

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is defined by the CPS as “when a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent. Touching can be done with any part of the body or with an object.”

What is the Connection Between Sexual Abuse and Physical Assault?

Sexual abuse and physical assault are often, but not always, linked. Crimes such as rape and sexual assault require physical contact. Child sexual abuse may involve physical contact but it does not have to. It depends on the nature of the abuse.

A physical assault is the threat of force, as perceived by the victim. Battery is the use of that force, which is why you will often see assault and battery together. For convenience, it is common to use the term physical assault to mean assault and battery.

The courts take physical assault into account when valuing damages for sexual abuse.

What is Rape?

Rape is a type of sexual assault. It is defined by the Crown Prosecution Service as “when a person uses their penis without consent to penetrate the vagina, mouth, or anus of another person. Legally, a person without a penis cannot commit rape, but a female may be guilty of rape if they assist a male perpetrator in an attack.”

Other Types of Sexual Abuse

There are many forms of sexual abuse, some of which do not fall into neat categories and may have appeared recently due to access to technology.

Intimate Image-Based Abuse

An important, and rapidly changing, area of sexual abuse is intimate image-based abuse. This includes non-consensual, or revenge pornography – “revenge porn“. (Technically known as “disclosing private sexual images without consent”.)

Sexual image-based abuse as “revenge porn” occurs when an abuser publishes, or threatens to publish, explicit or sexual images and/or videos of another person without their consent. In some cases, abusers use the threat of publication to coerce victims into sexual activity.

Criminal laws relating to intimate image-based sexual abuse were included in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and updated by the Online Safety Act (2023). These laws are important when bringing sexual abuse compensation claims because people who have suffered image-based abuse can refer to criminal convictions to support their civil actions.

The Online Safety Act describes various kinds of sexual image based abuse and the circumstances which could lead to prosecution. Importantly, despite its name, the Online Safety Act covers images shared both online and offline. As you would expect, images and videos uploaded to the internet are covered. But so are things like text messages, WhatsApp group chats, or even leaving a still or moving sexual image somewhere a person could find it.

And it does not have to be “revenge porn” to be classed as image-based abuse, although that is covered in the Act. The law also covers situations where people send still or moving images of their own or someone else’s, genitals with the intent of causing alarm, distress, or humiliation, or obtaining sexual gratification (intentionally or recklessly).

The Online Safety Act also includes altered images, such as “deepfakes“. These are still or moving images which replace the likeness of one person with another. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of artificial intelligence is that it has made the creation of such images easier and more realistic; causing significant alarm, distress, and humiliation to those impacted.

Other examples of sexual abuse which lead to prosecutions include extreme pornography and the use of indecent images of children (taking, distributing, possessing etc.).

Victim/ Survivor/ Claimant/ Complainant

These terms can all apply to someone who has been sexually assaulted depending on the circumstances.

The legal and healthcare systems refer to “victims” of sexual abuse and/ or assault.

“Survivor” is increasingly used by professionals working with, or on behalf of, the person who has been abused. They might be referred to as a survivor in medical reports, by lawyers and other advocates, and by therapists or counsellors. The term reflects the courage and strength of the person who has been abused.

“Claimant” is used in civil law to refer to the person bringing a civil claim against another person, body, or organisation.

“Complainant” is used in criminal cases to refer to a person bringing allegations of sexual abuse.

What is the Definition of a “defendant” in Sexual Abuse Cases?

The person, body, or organisation alleged to be responsible for the sexual abuse is the defendant in civil legal proceedings brought by the claimant. The term “defendant” also applies to criminal proceedings brought by the Crown.

Individual defendants in sexual abuse cases come from all walks of life. Often they are in positions of power, such as police officers, doctors, faith leaders, sports coaches, and others. They use their power to gain and abuse trust, keep victims from reporting sexual assaults, and/or getting help.

Where appropriate, abusers, employers, or other organisations are named as co-defendants in civil cases. This is because they may bear responsibility for the acts of the individual under the legal principle of “vicarious liability”.

What is Assault and Battery in Sexual Abuse Claims?

Assault and battery are often referred to together or shortened to just “assault” in sexual abuse and assault cases. But they are separate and distinct torts.

Assault is an act by which a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to suffer or apprehend immediate unlawful violence (see s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988).

It includes threats to cause harm and acts which indicate an intention to use unlawful violence. For example, the court in Misalati [2017] found that spitting is an assault even if spittle does not physically come into contact with the victim or causes fear of immediate unlawful physical contact.

The Crown Prosecution Service specifically defines sexual assault as “when a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent. Touching can be done with any part of the body or with an object.”

Battery is the intentional or reckless application of unlawful force to another person. The amount of force used is not important to meet the definition, so that even the slightest touch could be considered battery.

What is the Definition of Consent in Sexual Abuse and Assault Claims?

In both assault and battery cases defendants can argue that the claimant consented. This makes consent a central issue in criminal sexual abuse and assault cases. (Criminal cases often precede civil claims.)

In cases involving children consent is not a factor in establishing guilt. Instead the prosecution must only show that the abuse itself took place and the age of the alleged victim.

But in adult cases the court is referred to s.74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, among other laws. This defines consent as when someone is

  1. engaged in sexual activity
  2. by choice, and
  3. they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Factors Which Can Affect Consent

The role of alcohol and/ or drugs, and the threat of violence can be relevant factors when considering consent in sexual assault cases. In criminal cases, prosecutors look at consent by asking questions like these:

  1. did the alleged victim have the capacity to choose whether to consent?

As mentioned above, children do not have the legal capacity to consent. Similarly, adults with developmental/ cognitive disabilities may lack capacity. For other victims, the use of drugs and/ or alcohol may affect their ability to consent.

  1. was the alleged victim free to consent, and not restrained in any way?

The court must consider if the complainant agreed to the sexual activity by choice. A threat of violence immediately before a request for sex suggests that they did not freely consent.

What Defendants Must Prove About Consent in Sexual Assault Cases

When looking at consent, the prosecution must prove that the alleged abuser did not have a reasonable belief that the victim was consenting. The court will consider all the steps, if any, that the suspect took to obtain consent. (But not that this requirement only applies where appropriate, as children and some others cannot consent.)

As the CPS note, “there is a big difference between consensual sex and rape”.

The issue of consent is more complicated in cases where there is repeated sexual activity. Consent can be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another. It can also be withdrawn at any time.

What is Disabled Person Abuse?

The abuse of disabled people is similar, and overlaps with, other forms of abuse. Abusers see disabled people as vulnerable and take advantage. They expect the sexual abuse will not be reported. Even if it is, the abuser expects that the victim won’t be believed, or that they will have difficulties explaining the abuse.

Disabilities include hearing, sight, physical, cognitive, or developmental limitations. Some of these can result in the disabled victim having limited, or no, knowledge of sexual matters. This, coupled with the issues above, makes some disabled people vulnerable to sexual abuse.

What is Grooming?

Grooming is when a potential abuser builds an emotional connection with a person to gain their trust as a way to commit sexual abuse. Grooming can start with gifts, special attention, or misuse of a professional relationship.

It often occurs where there is an imbalance of power, such as with child abuse, and between police officers and members of the public. (Read all about Police Abuse of Authority for Sexual Gain Compensation Claims here.)

Grooming can occur in various ways, including:

  • online (e.g. in chatrooms),
  • through other communications such as text messages, and
  • in person.

How Does the Law Deal With Sexual Abuse?

We hope this was helpful. For more on this topic, we suggest you read our page on how UK sexual abuse law applies to compensation claims. There we explain how civil law helps claimants get justice if they have been abused.

Contact us to start your own sexual abuse and assault claim.