Sexual violence

What is sexual violence?

So, what do we mean by sexual violence then? Some of the things on this mind map are not physically violent – they don’t involve hurting someone’s body.

Rape Sexual Bullying Sexual Harassment
Sexual Assault

Forms of
Sexual violence

Childhood Sexual Abuse
Groping Unwanted touching or kissing
Abusing a position of trust Female Genital Mutilation
Spiking a drink Abusing a position of trust
Sexting Commercial Sexual Exploitation
Trafficking ‘Revenge’ Porn Grooming

However, violence in this context can also mean other ways of hurting someone, which we can do mentally or emotionally as well as physically, or violating them – using power to overcome someone’s free will or consent.

We usually think of rape as someone being physically forced to have sex without their consent but rape often happens without any physical force being used. There are lots of other ways to use your power and influence to force someone to have sex with you when they don’t want to. Sexual violence is not about sex, it is a display of power and control.


Rape is the penetration, with a penis, of someone else’s vagina, anus or mouth without that person’s consent.

Legally, rape is a very specific offence that can only be committed by someone with a penis. Anyone can be raped.

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 - Section 1

Sexual assault

Sexual assault has a much broader definition than rape and includes touching, penetrating or any form of sexual activity with someone without their consent. Anyone can commit sexual assault.

Examples of sexual violence that would be considered sexual assault on our mind map would include groping and unwanted touching or kissing

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 - Section 2 and Section 3

Sexual bullying

Womankind Worldwide define sexual bullying as “Any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality is used as a weapon.”

Sexual bullying can be carried out face to face, through peer groups or by using technology.  Sexual bullying would include using sexual insults, like ‘slut’ or ‘slag’, spreading rumours about someone’s sex life, touching someone without their consent, homophobic bullying or slurs and pressuring or coercing someone to act sexually.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour and can include sexual innuendoes, comments about your sex life, being leered or stared at, unwanted sexual or physical contact, degrading or abusive remarks or gestures, sexual jokes or sexual propositions.

Sexual harassment can happen anywhere but it is often linked to harassment in the workplace, at school or street harassment.

Childhood sexual abuse

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is any type of sexual assault on a child under the age of 16, usually, but not always, by someone over the age of 16. CSA includes sexual touching, showing a child sexual images, explicit sexual talk and sexual intercourse among many other things. In more than three quarters of CSA, the child knows and trusts the adult committing the abuse.

There are several different offences around CSA in Scotland depending on the age of the child and the perpetrator.

Under Scots Law, a child under the age of 13 is incapable of consenting to any sexual activity. This means that sexual intercourse, sexual contact, including making a young child be present or participate in a sexual activity, indecent communication (including images) with a child under the age of 13 will always be a criminal offence in Scotland. Children under the age of 13 are considered to be young children.

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 - Section 18 - 27

It will also be a criminal offence, if someone over the age of 16 has sexual intercourse, sexual contact, including making a young child be present or participate in a sexual activity, indecent communication (including images) with a child over the age of 13 but under the age of 16. Children aged 13 – 15 are considered to be older children.

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 - Section 28 - 36

Abusing a position of trust

When someone is in a position of trust or authority over someone else, it is against the law in Scotland for the person in the position of trust to engage in any kind of sexual activity with the other person if they are under the age of 18 or are mentally disordered.

Positions of trust include anyone who regularly cares for, teaches, trains, supervises or is in sole charge of the younger or mentally disordered person. Examples of this would be teachers, doctors, coaches or religious leaders.

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 - Part 5

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Female Genital Mutilation or FGM is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any other non-medical injury to female genitals. FGM is sometimes called ‘cutting’ or ‘female circumcision’. FGM can be carried out on babies, young girls or women but is most commonly performed between infancy and the age of 15. There are no health benefits to FGM and many health risks.

The World Health Organisation states that:

FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

FGM is a form of sexual violence, a human rights violation and against the law in Scotland.

For more information, or help, regarding FGM, please check out the FGM Aware website or the World Health Organization Female genital mutilation factsheet.

Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005

Spiking a drink

If someone deliberately gives someone else a substance, such as alcohol or drugs, for the purpose of stupefying or overpowering them in order to engage in any kind of sexual activity, they will be committing the offence of administering a substance for sexual purposes. This offence includes misleading the person about what or how much of a substance they are consuming.


Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages, photos or videos usually via phones or the internet. It is illegal to take, share or have in your possession indecent images of a child under the age of 18 in Scotland regardless of whether the person under 18 consented to the picture being taken or shared.

Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982

Good information and advice can be found on the Childline website.

Consensual sexting between adults (over 18) is not a form of sexual violence but sharing intimate or sexually explicit images without consent is. Check out the ‘Non-consensual sharing of indecent images’ definition for more information.

Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE)

Commercial Sexual Exploitation or CSE is defined by NHS Scotland as; “sexual activities which objectify and harm others (usually women) such as prostitution, phone sex, stripping internet sex/chat rooms, pole dancing, lap dancing, peep shows, pornography, trafficking, sex tourism and mail order brides.

The Scottish Government includes prostitution, pornography and other forms of involvement in the ‘sex industry’ in its definition of violence against women.  It considers that the exploitation of women through these forms of ‘entertainment’ legitimises negative attitudes towards women and is inextricably linked to gender inequality and sexual violence.”

Zero Tolerance note that, “Importantly, the Scottish Government definition of CSE notes that it is harmful “irrespective of whether individual women claim success or empowerment from the activity”. As well as directly harming the women involved, CSE affects the rest of society through the increasing normalisation of the objectification of women, including young girls, and the harmful forms of masculinity it perpetuates.”


Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people and usually involves some element of exploitation either through forced labour or Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

Non-consensual sharing of indecent images

It does not matter whether someone consented to the picture being taken in the first place or took the picture themselves – if they don’t consent to it being shared it is an act of sexual violence. Threatening to share someone’s pictures in order to scare, humiliate or blackmail someone is also a form of sexual violence.

This form of sexual violence is covered by the Abusive behaviour and sexual harm Act 2016.

Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016

The Scottish Government campaign #notyourstoshare gives more information and case studies.

Another really useful resource can be found on the Childline website.


Grooming is the process used by sexual predators to target and prepare children and young people in order to sexually abuse or exploit them. Grooming can happen online and in real life and usually involves the predator building a relationship and trust with the young person. Often it can be difficult for the young person to recognise that they are being groomed – they could be fooled into believing that they are in a normal, loving relationship, they could be given gifts such as drugs or alcohol or they could believe that the person is just being kind and helping them out with food, money or somewhere to stay.

People who groom children or young people are in a position of power over them and deliberately target people who have limited choices or are vulnerable due to their social, economic or emotional status. It is never a young person’s fault if they are groomed or exploited.