CBS correspondent Lara Logan was a victim of sexual assault. Is that the same as rape?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 17 2011 3:59 PM

What's the Difference Between "Rape" and "Sexual Assault"?

Parsing reports of what happened in Tahrir Square.

Lara Logan. Click image to expand.
Lara Logan

CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted and beaten while covering the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the network announced Tuesday. Such incidents are an all-too-common part of the business, according to a survey of 29 female war reporters. More than half said they had been sexually assaulted, and two said they had been raped. Are "sexual assault" and "rape" different things?

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In some states, yes. Penal codes throughout the country make use of a wide variety of classification schemes for sex crimes. In some states, like New Jersey, the phrase sexual assault has simply replaced the word rape in the statute books. In others, like Pennsylvania (PDF), rape requires the use or threat of force, whereas sexual assault refers to any act of intercourse without consent. (So the former is an especially serious version of the latter, and carries the potential for twice as much prison time.) In Washington state, among others, sexual assault comprises a broad set of acts that include anything from rape to "crimes with a sexual motivation." In other states, neither the word rape nor the phrase sexual assault appears in the law. South Carolina refers to rape as "criminal sexual conduct," and Florida calls it "sexual battery." But as a general rule, a sexual assault is one that involves some form of unwanted penetration. Mere fondling is also a crime, but it's usually called criminal sexual contact or something similar.

The phrase sexual assault has been in use for more than a century, and 19th-century writers seem to have used it synonymously with rape. But it didn't become a legal term until the 1960s, when a reform movement swept across the country. Under the English common law definition, which dates back to at least 1847, rape was limited to the forcible vaginal penetration of a woman against her will by a man other than her husband. Any other form of sex crime had to be prosecuted as simple assault or battery and was rarely prosecuted at all.

The reformers sought to make several changes. They wanted to broaden the definition of rape to protect male victims as well as women who were victimized by their husbands. They also wanted to ease the exceedingly high standards of evidence required for a conviction. Many feminists wanted to get rid of the word rape altogether, because it carried too much cultural baggage. They felt that Americans viewed rape as a crime of sexual passion rather than one of violence. There was also, in their view, a prevailing feeling that women bore some of the blame for dressing or behaving provocatively. The phrase sexual assault, which was adopted unevenly across the country, had the ring of unprovoked violence about it.

The reform movement also pushed to split the unitary crime of rape into graded categories, so different levels of punishment could be applied. At the time, some states executed rapists, and juries were hesitant to convict for that reason. Today, states recognize several degrees of sexual assault—or whatever they call it—depending on the whether weapons were used, whether lasting injuries resulted, or whether the perpetrator had some sort of authority over the victim.

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Explainer thanks Rose Corrigan of Drexel University, Deborah Denno of Fordham University School of Law, and Susan Estrich of USC.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.