Sexual Harassment Vs. Sexual Assault Vs. Sexual Abuse in California: What’s the Difference?

HomeBlogSexual Harassment Vs. Sexual Assault Vs. Sexual Abuse in California: What’s the Difference?
Sexual Harassment Vs. Sexual Assault Vs. Sexual Abuse in California: What’s the Difference?
Apr 04

While any unwanted sexual act creates devastating impacts and damages on its victims, it can be challenging to understand the language surrounding how to identify the act that occurred. The legal definitions of sexual harassment vs. sexual assault vs. sexual abuse in California can be confusing, and most of their difference lies in their specific implications. Clark Employment Law, APC, has assisted numerous clients in navigating the aftermath of unwanted sexual acts in the workplace and is here to help.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment legally refers to any unwanted or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment. Sexual harassment can happen in a variety of settings, such as the workplace, schools, sports teams, and other settings. California law typically addresses sexual harassment under civil laws like the Fair Employment and Housing Act or Title VII.

Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Sending unwanted sexually natured texts, emails, photos, or other types of communication.
  • Speaking inappropriately about someone sexually, including “joking” and gossiping.
  • Touching in a sexual manner without explicit consent.
  • Unwelcome sexual requests or asking for sexual favors.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault involves any non-consensual sexual activity, such as rape or other unwelcome forms of sexual contact. Sexual assault is generally legally addressed under criminal laws like sodomy (Penal Code 288a), Rape (Penal Code 261), and more. The severity of these charges and potential penalties if convicted depends on the factors of each case, including the nature of the attack, the age of the victim, and whether coercion, force, or incapacitation was used.

Examples of sexual assault include:

  • Forcibly engaging in sexual activity without consent.
  • Taking advantage of an individual’s inability to give consent due to intoxication, incapacitation, age, and more.
  • Using threats or physical force to coerce someone into sexual activity.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a broad umbrella term that covers a wide range of behaviors involving unwanted sexual contact, coercion, manipulation, and exploitation. Sexual abuse crimes are typically perpetrated by a known and trusted entity such as a friend, neighbor, or family member. The legal penalties for sexual abuse charges can range from fines to imprisonment and may mandate sex offender registration.

Examples of Sexual Abuse

  • Engaging in sexual activity with a minor.
  • Exploiting positions of power and authority to manipulate someone into sexual activity.
  • Continuously subjecting someone to unwanted sexual behavior.

How to Identify Sexual Abuse

Identifying sexual abuse can be challenging because abusers often use coercion, secrecy, and manipulation to hide and conceal their actions. There are, however, certain signs to look out for that can indicate that someone may be experiencing sexual abuse. The following are some ways to identify potential sexual abuse:

  • Physical Signs: Physical signs can include unexplained bruises, injuries, or marks. Difficulty with walking or sitting and pain or discomfort in the genital area. Frequent urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted infections, especially in individuals who are not sexually active, like children, can be indicators.
  • Behavior Signs: Any sudden changes of behavior, like becoming withdrawn, depressed, and anxious, can be signs of abuse. Regression to childlike behaviors like bedwetting or thumb-sucking can also be indicators.
  • Emotional Signs: Expressing fear or anxiety around certain situations or individuals can be a sign of abuse. New expressions of extremely low self-esteem and self-blame can also be warning signs.
  • Grooming Behaviors: At times, perpetrators will use grooming tactics to gain trust and favor with their victims and desensitize them to inappropriate conduct. Examples of these behaviors include extravagant gift-giving, special attention, or manipulation of emotions.

While the presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily confirm sexual abuse, it is crucial to take concerns seriously, offer support, and reach out to professionals if needed.


Q: What Is the Definition of Sexual Abuse in California?

A: The definition of sexual abuse in California is stated under the California Penal Code and highlights specific definitions for the range of behaviors sexual abuse encompasses, such as assault, battery, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and more. Penalties for sexual abuse in California include fines, imprisonment, mandatory sex offender registration, and other consequences specific to each crime.

Q: What Is the Legal Definition of Sexual Abuse?

A: The legal definition of sexual abuse can vary slightly depending on the jurisdiction, but it generally refers to any form of unwanted or unwelcome sexual behavior or activity that involves force, coercion, manipulations, or exploitation. The legal qualifications of sexual abuse emphasize the importance of consent, which is the acknowledgment that individuals freely and willingly agree to sexual activity.

Sexual activity that happens without consent or with an individual who is unable to consent due to age, incapacitation, or other reasons can be viewed as sexual abuse under the law.

Q: What Are the Four Elements That Legally Define Harassment?

A: The four elements that legally define harassment include unwanted conduct based on protected characteristics like race, religion, sex, age, and more, as well as pervasiveness or severity and negative psychological, emotional, or physical impact. The elements can vary slightly depending on specific laws and regulations in each jurisdiction, but they are the general essence of what constitutes harassment in legal settings.

Q: What Is an Example of Harassment Abuse?

A: An example of harassment abuse is any unwelcome sexual advances and physical contact, such as the sending of inappropriate sexual messages, videos, and photos. If an individual sends unwanted explicit images, this is considered harassment. Harassment can include a large variety of abuse, such as implicit messaging and sexual jokes about an individual’s appearance, and does not necessarily have to be physical.

Contact a California Employment Lawyer Today

If you are suffering any form of sexual abuse in the workplace, you have the right to seek justice and protection. No one should endure such damaging and dehumanizing treatment in their place of employment. Reach out to Clark Employment Law, APC, today to set up a consultation and learn how we can help.

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