Hesperian Health Guides

Kinds of Sexual Violence

In this chapter:

Knowing the attacker can make it harder for a victim of sexual violence to ask for help from family, friends, or the police. See some ideas about getting help.

Sexual violence can take many different forms, including:

  • rape and sexual assault
  • sexual harassment
  • sexual abuse of children
  • stalking

Sexual violence can come from a variety of people, whether they are known or strangers. No matter who carries it out, sexual violence can cause many physical and mental health problems, both immediate and long-term.

Rape and sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault by someone the victim knows. A victim of rape and sexual assault often knows their attacker. They may be a family member, romantic partner, date, classmate, neighbor, or friend. Knowing and having trusted the person who assaulted you can make sexual violence even more difficult to talk about and recover from. Recovery can be harder when you continue to see your rapist in your family, school, workplace, or community.

Many victims are attacked by their boyfriends or other romantic or sexual partners. Many men believe that if they spend money on a woman, she must give sex in return. This makes some men think they have the right to have sex with their partners whenever they want, even if their partners do not want to.

a young woman pushing away a young man who is trying to have sex with her

When a person kisses someone it does not mean they want to do anything else. Having sex with someone idoes not give the right to have sex with the same person in the future. People can change their minds about consenting to sex at any time. Regardless of a relationship’s history, forcing someone to have sex is rape.

Some cultures believe when a woman marries a man, she becomes his property. Sexual violence can happen in a marriage when a woman is made to feel it is her duty to have sex with her husband, whether she wants to or not. It is also sexual violence when women are forced to have sex they do not want in order to have a place to live, support their children, get money, or keep their jobs. These kinds of sexual violence are rarely discussed and even more rarely punished. But a person should always be able to refuse an unwanted sexual approach from anyone, no matter the reason.

More Information
sexual abuse

Rape and sexual assault by a stranger. This is what many people think of when they hear the word “rape,” but it is much less common than assault by someone the victim knows. A woman may be attacked on the street, in a public place, or in her home.

Gang rape. Sometimes more than one person rapes the same victim. Gang rape may involve using alcohol or drugs on the victim. Gang rape is usually a planned rape. Less frequently, it may start as a consensual encounter between 2 people and then others join without the victim’s consent.

Survivors of war rape need more care for their physical and mental health. They may need surgery for severe injuries to their genitals. During a war, most victims have no access to family planning or abortion, which results in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

a soldier grabbing a woman while two other soldiers guard a man
During war, rape is used as a form of torture.

Prison rape. After someone is arrested, they may be sexually assaulted or raped by police, prison guards, or other inmates.

War rape. Soldiers or fighters use rape as a weapon to terrorize their enemies. Soldiers may gang rape women and girls in front of their families to show their power. Women may be held in camps and forced into prostitution or sexual slavery to survive, keep their children safe, or get food.

Other kinds of sexual violence

Sexual harassment usually happens at work or school when a peer, boss, or teacher forces unwanted sexual attention on someone. Victims may be threatened with losing their job, failing their class, or another punishment if they refuse or if anyone.

a man getting into bed with a young girl who looks scared
Child sexual abuse can be rape or can happen even if there is no physical contact between an adult and child.

Sexual abuse of children. A child cannot consent to any sexual activity. Even if it does not include physical contact, sexual interaction with a child or teenager is sexual abuse. This includes when an adult:

  • shows or touches their sexual parts in front of a child.
  • has sexual conversations with a child.
  • touches a child in a sexual way.
  • makes, owns, or shares sexual videos or images of children.
  • has any kind of sexual activity with a child.

Most of the time, the abuser is a person the child knows. When the abuser is a family member, this is called incest.

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Stalking is when someone repeatedly contacts, harasses, or gives unwanted attention to a person in a way that makes them anxious, uncomfortable, or fear for their safety. Like other kinds of sexual violence, stalking is about power and control over another person. Stalkers ignore being told to stop. They may:

  • watch or follow you from a distance.
  • make repeated and unwanted physical, verbal, or eye contact with you.
  • give you gifts that make you uncomfortable.
  • threaten you, your family, or your friends.

Some stalkers use cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices (cyberstalking) to:

  • send you repeated unwanted emails, texts, or social media.
  • publish your personal information or threaten you online.
  • install video cameras to monitor your personal life.
  • track your location.
  • track your online activity by checking your phone or computer, or installing software to do that.

Technology can make it harder to identify and stop the stalker. Social media gives stalkers easy access to personal information (location, relationships, and interests) that they can use to harass you. Learn how to protect yourself when using technology.

If someone is stalking you:

  • Avoid the stalker as much as you can. This can be hard if the person is close to you or your family.
  • If the stalker contacts you by phone, email, or social media, tell them clearly that you want the contact to stop. After that, stop responding to them and block them from contacting you.
  • Tell others, like friends, family, or people you work with, about the situation.
  • Keep proof of contact from the stalker, like text messages, letters, gifts, emails, and screenshots, that prove you are being stalked. You can also keep a record or journal of stalking activity, which may be useful if you report it to the police.

Victims may have trouble identifying stalking as sexual violence and getting support for it, but stalking should be taken seriously. Stalking can cause anxiety, stress, trouble sleeping or eating, or other mental health problems. Stalkers may become more violent over time. Rapists often stalk their victims before attacking them.

This page was updated:13 Nov 2023