The exact definition of “rape,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse” and similar terms differs by state. Here are some general guidelines based on the definitions used by the U.S. Justice Department. Please note that these definitions are a bit graphic, which is inevitable when describing crimes this violent.

Rape is forced sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, or oral penetration. Penetration may be by a body part or an object. Anyone may be a victim of rape regardless of age, race, gender or sexual identification.

Sexual assault is unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape.

Because laws are different in every state, it is important to find out the law in your state. You can call A Safe Place 24/7 Hotline at 508.228.2111 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE to find out more about the laws in your state.

Was it Rape or Was it Consensual?

Rape is a forced or coerced sexual act and a crime. A consensual sexual act-one where both parties agree to participate and are legally able to do so-is not. Laws are different in every state.

Categories and definitions vary widely. It is important to find out the law in your state.

Questions to consider:

Are both participants old enough to consent?

Each state sets an age of consent—the minimum age someone must be to have sex. People below this age are considered children and cannot legally agree to have sex. In other words, even if the child or teenager says “Yes”, the law says “No”.

In most states the age of consent is 16 or 18. In some states the age of consent varies according to the age difference between the participants. Generally, “I thought she was 18”, is not considered a legal excuse. It’s up to both participants to make sure their partner is legally old enough to take part. The age of consent in MA is 16.

Do both participants have the capacity to consent?

States also define who has the mental and legal capacity to consent. Some people with disabilities, some elderly people and people under the influence of drugs or unconscious—may not have the ability to legally agree to have sex.

Did both participants agree to take part?

If threats or physical force was used to initiate sexual contact, it is rape.

“No” means “Stop”. If the sexual act has started and one participant says “No” or “Stop”, and the sexual act continues this may be rape.

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