What is sexual violence?

‘Sexual violence’ is a term used to describe any sexual act that happened without consent including gestures, sounds, words, and actions.  

Sexual violence is any non-consensual sexual activity including sounds, gestures, words, and acts. When people hear the words ‘sexual violence’, they often think about physical things like sexual assault, sexual abuse, groping, and non-consensual touching. Sexual violence can refer to these acts but is much broader and also includes sexual coercion and sexual harassment. We use the term ‘sexual violence’ because it helps explain the serious and long-term impact that any form of non-consensual activity can have on victims and survivors.   

To better understand sexual violence and recognise it when it happens, explore the pyramid of sexual violence, definitions of common language, and facts. 

Understand the pyramid of sexual violence

The pyramid of sexual violence was created by anti-sexual violence educators to help show how different types of sexual violence are connected. Attitudes and beliefs are at the bottom of the pyramid, acting as the foundations that uphold and enable other forms of sexual violence like verbal and physical expressions to happen. The higher you go up the pyramid, the more unlawful and less socially acceptable the sexual violence is considered. Read about the different levels of the pyramid to see why the ways we think, talk, and act matter.

The sexual violence pyramid shows how the different levels of sexual violence connect. Content is explained in following text.

Attitudes and beliefs

Like other forms of violence, sexual violence often starts with established attitudes and beliefs about other people. This includes sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other prejudices. Attitudes and beliefs can escalate to physical expressions of violence when left unchallenged. Some examples of attitudes and beliefs that normalise sexual violence include things like victim blaming and rape myths.   

While attitudes and beliefs are often viewed as less serious, they’re important to address because they are at the bottom of the pyramid and act as the foundations that hold up all other forms of sexual violence. If we’re able to intervene at this level of the pyramid and change someone’s attitudes and beliefs, it’s less likely that they’ll move up the pyramid to other forms of behaviour like verbal and physical expressions of violence. 

Normalisation of violence and verbal expression

As attitudes and beliefs are shared and reinforced by family and friends, they become normalised. This means they are more likely to transition to verbal expressions of sexual violence. Sexist and prejudiced jokes, cat-calling or wolf-whistling, making objectifying comments about others, and leering are all examples of sexual violence at this stage of the pyramid. Without intervention, people carrying out these behaviours and verbal expressions of sexual violence will internalise and strengthen these attitudes and beliefs. Or they may progress through the abuse continuum to other stages of the pyramid like physical expressions of violence.

Removal of autonomy

Sexual violence is the result of power imbalances. It’s about power, control and who is valued in our society and who isn’t. People who verbally express their attitudes and beliefs may also choose to engage in physical expressions of sexual violence. This might include behaviours and acts that remove the autonomy of another person, but do not escalate to the most extreme forms of sexual violence. Examples of this stage of the pyramid include non-consensual sharing of intimate images (also known as revenge porn), non-consensual exposure and stalking. 

Physical expression of violence

The top of the sexual violence pyramid refers to physical expressions of violence. These behaviours are more commonly recognised as sexual violence and include acts like assault, abuse and exploitation.   

It’s important to remember that the pyramid doesn’t measure or rank behaviours. Instead, it shows how each level of the pyramid builds on the ones before it to enable serious physical expressions of violence to happen. If we address the attitudes and beliefs that are the foundation of sexual violence, the pyramid is dismantled, and physical expressions of violence are less likely to take place. This is why it’s important to reflect on the way we think and talk, not just how we act. 


Learn the language

Using common language helps us understand each other better so we can address issues together. Read through definitions of different types of sexual violence below.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault happens when someone touches another person in a sexual manner or makes another person take part in sexual activity with them, without that person's consent. This can include rape, attempted rape, kissing, sexual touching (including through clothes) and/or pressing up against another for sexual pleasure. 

Sexual misconduct

Sexual misconduct refers to sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is a broad term that includes any type of action or violence that uses power, control and/or intimidation to harm someone. It can also include domestic violence, dating violence and stalking. Sexual misconduct occurs when there is no consent given. If someone says ‘no’ to any kind of sexual activity, they are not agreeing to it. Someone doesn't have to say ‘no’ out loud; giving and withdrawing consent can be verbal and non-verbal.   

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour – verbal, visual, written, or physical act – that makes someone feel upset, scared, offended, humiliated or is intended to make someone feel that way. Sexual harassment is a type of sexual violence and includes a really wide range of behaviours like:   

  • Sexual comments or noises (e.g. commenting on someone’s appearance, catcalling)   

  • Sexual ‘jokes’   

  • Unwanted sexual advances or touching (e.g. massaging someone, pushing up against them, hugging, kissing)  

  • Indecent exposure  

  • Leering or staring   

  • Sending inappropriate or sexually offensive text, images, or videos  

  • Sexual gestures  

  • Lewd comments, sexual innuendos, or suggestive comments  

  • Sexual requests or asking for sexual favours   

  • Stalking   

  • Taking a photo or video underneath someone’s clothes (i.e. upskirting)  

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, which means that people are legally protected from sexual harassment at the University of Leeds. Some forms of sexual harassment are crimes in the UK.

Sexual coercion

Sexual coercion is when someone pressures, threatens, tricks, or manipulates someone into a sexual act. It is a type of sexual assault because even if someone agrees to the sexual act, they are not giving their consent freely. For example, sexual coercion can include repeatedly asking someone to have sex until they say yes, or offering something in exchange for sex. Find out more about consent.


Know the facts

There’s lots of research about sexual violence. We’ve shared three important facts below from Rape Crisis England and Wales. For more information about sexual violence, visit the Rape Crisis England and Wales website.

1. Sexual violence is prevalent in the UK

One in four women, one in 18 men, and one in six children are raped or sexually assaulted in the UK. A total of 6.5 million women in England and Wales have been raped or sexually assaulted since the age of 16. Sexual violence impacts a huge number of people every year, and can have a serious long-term impact for victims and survivors. Find out how you can show up against sexual violence at Leeds.

2. Most rapes are carried out by someone the survivor knows

Six in seven women are raped by someone they know. One in two women are raped by their partner or ex-partner. One in three adults who are raped experience it in their own home. This is why it’s unhelpful to tell people to be careful when they’re walking home at night. Instead, we should focus on showing up against sexual violence when we see it in our community. Explore how you can show up against sexual violence at Leeds.

3. Most survivors don’t report to the police

Five in six women and four in five men who are raped don’t report to the police. Many survivors tell someone else like a friend or family member what happened. Some reasons that survivors don’t report to the police are that they’re embarrassed, they don’t think the police can help, or they think it will be humiliating.   

Check out our ‘Give Support’ page to find out how you can show up for a survivor of sexual violence with kindness and compassion, and connect them to specialist support like the Harassment and Misconduct team.    

Explore support

You are not alone. If you’ve experienced any kind of violence, abuse, bullying, harassment, sexual misconduct or discrimination, we’re here to help. Explore support options available in our community, including specialist support offered by the Harassment and Misconduct team here at Leeds.