Stages of Sexual Assault

It is important to understand the possible stages of sexual assault as they occur in non-stranger situations: Intrusion, Desensitization, and Isolation.  Understanding these stages helps to clarify how the societal misconceptions can create a false sense of how sexual assault is perpetrated.


In this stage a potential offender tests boundaries. The potential offender will gradually intrude on a person's personal boundaries—emotional, physical, and sexual. Examples of this behavior includes making inappropriate or uncomfortable comments, suggestive remarks, intrusive touching, initiating conversation that is more intimate than the level of relationship warrants. This behavior is used to ascertain whether or not a person will enforce his or her boundaries.


If the intrusive behavior continues, especially in a social setting where it is impossible to perpetrate an overt sexual assault without witnesses, the person who is having his or her boundaries tested is likely to become desensitized to the intrusions. The person may begin to believe that while the potential offender's actions and comments are making him or her feel uncomfortable, the offender is "harmless enough." The offender will often dismiss the actions as a joke or insinuate that the other person is being too "uptight" or "distrustful." Over time, the offender's actions become normalized and are dismissed or explained away. This process also helps create a false sense of intimacy and trust that would not exist under healthy conditions. It is also important to note that the consumption of alcohol or use of drugs can act as a "desensitizer."                                           


Isolation of another person must occur for  the potential offender to have the opportunity to commit the sexual assault. If the offender can isolate the potential victim, it becomes harder for that person to escape or defend him/herself. In addition, if the offender can isolate the other person, there are no "witnesses" who can validate a future claim of sexual assault should the other person choose to come forward and report. It becomes harder to prove and more likely that the survivor will be discredited by a society still harboring "rape myths."¹

The key to understanding these stages is to realize that most perpetrators use "instrumental violence" as opposed to gratuitous violence (extreme forms of violence often viewed as senseless or sadistic).  Instrumental violence is often utilized in situations where the offender is known to the victim and it is proportionate with the amount of resistance demonstrated by the victim.²

For example, a perpetrator will have to use little or no violence to force sexual acts on a person who is unconscious from excessive drinking or drug use. Many perpetrators choose this "path of least resistance" or target victims who are less likely or able to resist. This is why the majority of sexual assaults involve the use of drugs or alcohol by the victim and/or the perpetrator.³ These factors create states in which a victim is less able to resist than if he or she were sober.

¹"Stages of Sexual Assault" and "Rape Myths" adapted from VAASA Volunteer Manual, Second Edition.
²Lisak, David. Rape Fact Sheet. May, 2002.
³Koss, K.P., 1998. "Hidden Rape: Incident, Prevalence and Descriptive Characteristics of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of College Students." Rape and Sexual Assault, vol. II (ed.) A.W. Burgess. New York: Garland Publishing Co.