What’s the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault?

So, are they both equal crimes? How are they different in the eyes of UK law? And what happens if you are falsely accused of sexual assault?

So, are they both equal crimes? How are they different in the eyes of UK law? And what happens if you are falsely accused of sexual assault?

This article explains the legal differences between sexual harassment and sexual assault, and what you should do if you have been accused.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature – when someone behaves in a sexual way towards another person and upsets, scares, offends, or humiliates them.

This unwanted sexual conduct can violate the victim’s dignity and intimidate or degrade them, creating a hostile environment in work, school, or on public transport (for example). Even if the victim wasn’t upset or scared, the perpetrator’s conduct is still sexual harassment if they intended to make the other person feel that way.

It can happen between people of any gender, in many places, and in many ways – including in person, over the phone, by text message or email, or through online platforms.

Sexual harassment is classed as unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, which means victims of this behaviour can make a complaint or file a claim in the civil courts.

Is sexual harassment a criminal offence?

Despite being a form of sexual violence, sexual harassment isn’t actually a criminal offence unless the conduct in question also involves sexual assault or overlaps with another crime.

Unlawful sexual harassment behaviours can include suggestive comments, intrusive questions, catcalling (e.g. whistling), ‘leering’ stares, unwanted advances, or asking for sexual favours – even as a ‘joke’.

Sexual harassment becomes criminal when it involves the perpetrator physically touching the victim in a non-consensual manner, exposing their genitals, attempting to take intimate images of them, stalking them, or repeating sexual behaviours with the intent of causing distress.

If such a crime is committed, the police can arrest the perpetrator and charge them with a criminal offence. If they are taken to court and found guilty, the penalty could include a minimum prison sentence of 6 months to 2 years, and registration as a sex offender.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is the criminal act of intentionally touching someone else in a sexual way without that person’s consent, whether the perpetrator uses their own body or a separate object.

If the offender inappropriately touches the victim with sexual intentions, without reasonable belief that the victim was consenting to their actions, this is considered sexual assault under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Before the introduction of this legislation, the legal term was ‘indecent assault’, which some people still use to refer to the act of sexual assault. The term ‘sexual assault’ is also used broadly to refer to many forms of sexual violence, but legal definitions differ.

For example, while sexual assault involves unwanted sexual touching and can result in a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, sexual assault that involves penetration of the victim’s body is called ‘sexual assault by penetration’, which has a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Is sexual assault the same as rape?

No – again, while some people may use ‘sexual assault’ as an interchangeable term for rape, they are not considered the same criminal offences under the law in England and Wales.

Sexual assault by penetration is a separate crime involving the offender using an object or body part other than a penis to penetrate the victim’s body without their consent. Many people would consider this to be rape, but legally, it isn’t.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 specifically defines the act of rape as a person intentionally using their penis to penetrate another person’s body without their consent.

This is one of the most severe sexual offences in UK law, so if a person is charged with this crime, they must attend a Crown Court trial by jury. If convicted, they could face a life sentence in prison as the maximum penalty.

Sentences for rape convictions typically range from 4 years to 19 years, depending on the details of the offence and any aggravating or mitigating factors involved.

If released from prison, they will also be required to register as a sex offender for up to 10 years, or indefinitely (potentially for the rest of their life).

The court may also impose an SHPO (Sexual Harm Prevention Order) if the offender is considered a risk to the public, which can set restrictions on employment and recreational opportunities (including travel abroad) for the duration of the Order.

What can you do if you’ve been accused?

Accusing someone of committing sexual harassment is, of course, a serious allegation – but accusations of sexual assault or rape are even more severe. While sexual harassment is a civil matter of unlawful discrimination, sexual assault is a criminal offence.

As such, the police and CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) will investigate any sexual assault allegations thoroughly. Even if someone has made a false allegation against you, if there is enough evidence, you could be charged and taken to Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court.

Serious accusations like these should never be taken likely – even if you think the false allegations against you are ridiculous, the best thing to do is avoid speaking to the accuser and seek professional advice from a sexual defence solicitor as soon as possible.

If you have been falsely accused of sexual assault, specialist solicitors, like PCD Solicitors can help you present your best case through the investigation process. Should you be charged, they can build a strong defence to help you avoid conviction or receive a lesser sentence in court.