Focus at Four: Defining sexual assault, inside and outside the courtroom

Defining sexual assault can be a deeply personal process for survivors.

Pexels / MGN

In the legal system, it's less personal. Still, it can be a murky process, even for courtroom experts.

Brazos County District Attorney Jarvis Parsons joined First News at Four to talk about the legal definitions of various forms of sexual touching or assault.

"When people feel they are violated or groped, that is horrible," said Parsons. "It's just that in the confines of what my jurisdiction is, I have to go by what's in the book."

Parson explains that when a crime isn't considered to the level of sexual assault, it's often when someone has touched a person "offensively," usually in "bathing suit area." Whether the victim is a child or an adult determines the level of punishment possible.

"When we're talking about sexual assault, we may be talking about penetration of a private area," said Parsons. "But even if you are contacting a private area with the mouth or a sexual organ, that also could be a felony sexual asault."

Parsons also clarifies that sexual assault of an adult and child carry different classifications. Aggravated sexual assault refers to sexual assault of a child younger than 14.

Furthermore, the commonly used word "rape" is not a legal term in Texas.

"There's a lot of debate as to why that is," said Parsons. "I think that when you start looking at all the different ways in which sexual assault can be committed, the common everyday term 'rape' doesn't encompass those things."

Again, Parsons recognizes that the legal definitions only matter in a courtroom. Jennifer Hunt from the Sexual Assault Resource Center of the Brazos Valley agrees.

"It's important to remember that survivors are really the experts on what has happened to them," said Hunt, "We need to defer to their testimony and gut instincts of what they need."

Hunt says that even if the law doesn't define an attack as a sexual assault, it doesn't mean the survivor can't define it however you want when seeking help and counseling.

"We know that these kinds of experiences come in a spectrum, and everyone reacts differently," said Hunt. "So we don't need to always look at the legal definition with survivors."

Whatever your experience, SARC is here to guide you through the healing process. Find out how to get in touch in the Related Links.