Home > About Sexual Assault > Definitions > What is Rape?

What is Rape?

Definition of Rape.  The exact definition of "rape" differs from state-to-state within the U.S. and by country internationally.  In the US, it is often called "criminal sexual conduct in the first degree".  Generally, rape is defined as sexual contact or penetration achieved:

  • without consent, or
  • with use of physical force, coercion, deception, threat, and/or
  • when the victim is:
  • mentally incapacitated or impaired,
  • physically impaired (due to voluntary or involuntary alcohol or drug consumption)
  • asleep or unconscious.

One of the most critical issues regarding rape is consent. Sexual activity should not take place unless both parties have freely given consent, and consent is understood by both parties.

  • silence does not mean consent.


  • if consent is given under duress (physical or emotional threats), then it is not given freely or willingly and sex with a person consenting under duress is rape


  • if someone is impaired due to alcohol or drugs, that person is deemed incapable of consenting and sex with that person is rape (even if the impaired person says "yes")

Was it rape or not?  RAINN has a helpful three-part checklist to help determine if what happened to you was rape or not.

1) How old are the participants?
Depending on where the incident took place, a person under the age of 16 or 18 may not be legally capable of giving consent. Sexual contact with such a person is often considered "statutory rape", even if the perpetrator did not know the victim was a minor.  "Statutory rape" laws vary widely, so please consult a legal expert in your jurisdiction for more information.

2) Did both participants have the ability to consent?
If one party is somehow disabled, by age, disability, drugs, or alcohol, that person might not have had the capacity to agree to sex.  If the person lacks the capacity to consent, sexual activity with that person is rape.

3) Did both participants agree to engage in sexual conduct?
This area is often the hardest to determine. If physical force or threats were used to coerce someone into having sex, that sexual activity is rape. However, rape often isn't violent. No means no, and silence does not mean yes. It doesn't matter if you've had sex with the perpetrator before, or were married to him or her. If you've had sex before but do not consent the next time, yet your partner continues and has sexual activity with you, that is rape.  If you had already started, and then you say no, and your partner keeps going, that is rape. No means stop.

What if it was attempted rape, or there was no penetration?
  This is likely covered under your state's or country's sexual assault law.  Even if you're not sure the law recognizes what happened was rape, if you were violated you have the right to hurt and the necessity to heal. No one should delegitimize what happened because there was no penetration. The violence involved in an attempted rape is legitimate and can have the same impact on the survivor as a completed rape. Also, remember that rape can include oral or anal penetration. This penetration is not limited to penile, but can include other body parts or objects. The legal definition of rape can be tricky, but remember that even if the law is not on your side, many others are.

You can find out more about your state rape, statutory rape, and sexual assault laws at FindLaw.  See Welcome to Barbados for more myths and facts.

If you are a rape survivor, or you think you may have been a victim of rape, peer support can be very helpful.  Remember that it was not your fault and you are not alone. Consider joining Pandora's Aquarium, a rape survivor message board, chat room, and online support group.