Forms of sexual violence

Sexual violence takes many forms. The term 'violence' might be understood as referring to acts or behaviour that are physically violent. However, as framed by the Central Statistics Office and as understood by DRCC and many other frontline agencies, sexual violence refers to any kind of unwanted sexual activity or contact, whether physical or non-physical, including words or actions,  without consent. Whatever the form, the common factors are a lack of real consent and the fact that it is never the fault of the victim/survivor.

Sexual violence is not itself a legal term, but many forms of sexual violence are defined in Irish law.

Please remember that free, confidential and non-judgmental support is there 24/7 for anyone affected by sexual violence, including family and friends of victims and survivors, on the National Helpline at 1800 778888.

Sexual violence definitions in Irish law

Consent: The law on sexual offences in Ireland centres on the concept of consent. (For more information see We~Consent campaign.) The relevant law here is the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017.

  • The age of consent in Ireland is 17 years. This means anyone under the age of 17 cannot legally consent to engage in sexual activity.
  • Although the age of consent is 17, it is an offence for “a person in authority” to engage in sexual contact or activity with a young person who is under the age of 18 - including those aged 17. A “person in authority” includes a parent or close relative, a guardian, or anyone responsible for the education, supervision, training, care or welfare of the child.
  • Irish law also makes it illegal to engage in sexual contact or activity with anyone incapable of consent because they are asleep, unconscious or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This also applies if they are unable to communicate consent because of a disability.
  • A person cannot consent if they are mistaken as to the nature and purpose of the activity, or if they are being unlawfully detained at the time.
  • The law criminalises gaining consent through coercion, threat or force.
  • Another person cannot provide consent on their behalf -  it must be agreed by the person(s) involved.
  • Just because a person has not physically resisted or stated a blatant 'no' does not mean they have consented, under Irish law. There must be positive, freely given, informed consent to the sexual activity.

Rape: This is a criminal offence referring to non-consensual, penetrative sexual activity. There are two legal definitions of rape in Irish law. 

The first is gender-specific (i.e. it may only be committed by a man and only a woman may be a victim). This is regulated by the Criminal Law (Rape) Act, 1981. According to the definition, a man commits rape where: 

  • he has sexual intercourse with a woman who is not consenting; and
  • he knows that the woman is not consenting or he is reckless as to whether or not she is consenting.

The other definition of rape (i.e. rape under Section 4 of the Criminal Law Act 1990) is gender-neutral (i.e. it may be committed by a person of any gender and any gender may be a victim). Rape under this law is defined as a sexual assault that includes: 

  • penetration of the anus or mouth by the penis; or
  • penetration of the vagina by any object held or manipulated by another person.

Sexual assault: This is a criminal offence covering any kind of contact, touching or unwanted sexual activity, excluding rape, that occurs without a person’s consent or is forced upon them against their will. Sexual Assault is regulated by the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, 1990.

Aggravated sexual assault: This is a crime of sexual assault that involves serious violence or threat of serious violence, or that causes injury, humiliation, or degradation to a person. Aggravated Sexual Assault is regulated by the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, 1990.

Child sexual abuse: This crime refers to when a person uses a child for their pleasure or sexual arousal or for that of others. See Children First guidelines for specific examples including those criminalised under Irish law. Note that the age of consent in Ireland is 17 years. Types of sexual offences against children include defilement; the production, distribution and possession of child sexual abuse material (called in Irish law 'child pornography'); the sexual exploitation of a child; child trafficking and taking a child for purposes of sexual exploitation; soliciting, importuning or meeting a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Incest: This criminal offence refers to rape committed by one family member against another. It can be committed by a parent, grandparent, sibling or other close family member. Relevant laws here are the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Act 2019.

Coercive control: A criminal offence under the Domestic Violence Act 2018 refers to a persistent and deliberate pattern of behaviour by an abuser over a period of time, designed to achieve obedience and create fear. This behaviour can involve emotional, physical, financial or sexual control. It can be carried out by a spouse, civil partner, or someone who is or was in an intimate relationship with that other person. Coercive control can damage a person’s physical and emotional well-being.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): This crime involves the total or partial removal of external female genitalia or any practice that purposefully damages or changes a woman’s genital organs for non-medical reasons. In Ireland, it is outlawed by the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act 2012

Non-consensual image sharing: Anyone who records, distributes or publishes (including online) intimate images of a person without their permission is guilty of an offence under the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, known as “Coco’s Law”. In this instance, an intimate image is a photo or video of a person's intimate body areas or of them engaging in sexual activity.

Stalking: This is now a standalone criminal offence in Ireland under the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2023. It prohibits following, watching, monitoring, tracking or spying upon a person, sharing information about them or loitering in their vicinity, where the intent is to cause harm or distress or where the perpetrator is careless about that eventuality. 

Non-fatal strangulation: The Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2023 also outlaws specifically the act of strangling or suffocating a person or threatening to do so without their explicit consent. There is an additional provision for a more serious offence of non-fatal strangulation causing serious harm.

Sexual harassment: This covers unwanted sexual behaviours that a person may have experienced in their daily life which violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It includes crude or sexually explicit remarks or language, private sexual images or videos shared without permission, someone exposing themselves physically or showing sexually explicit photos or pictures, inappropriate sexual advances or physical contact that made the person feel offended, humiliated or offended, or any other sexually inappropriate behaviour that has affected them in this way.

Irish law criminalises exposure (sometimes called 'flashing' and any offensive conduct of a sexual nature under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017

Sexual harassment in the workplace is regulated by the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 and there is also a Code of Practice from 2012. 

Online sexual harassment: Unwanted sexual comments or sexualised contact which takes place on the internet (on social media, message boards, websites, WhatsApp or other online contact) are all considered to be online sexual harassment. It can include but is not limited to, unsolicited requests for nudes or sexual images, unwanted sexual or sexualised comments, and using someone's sexual or gender identity to bully or harass them online. It is an offence under Irish law to share, or threaten to share, intimate images of a person without their consent, with or without intent to cause harm to the victim. The law also makes it an offence to send an intimate image purporting or claiming to be of another person even if the image is not actually of them, known as a 'deep fake’. The applicable law here is the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, sometimes called Coco's Law. You can also report harmful content to which will work with service providers to remove it as quickly as possible.

Drug or alcohol-facilitated sexual violence: Often called "spiking", or using "date rape drugs" this is the use of substances to alter a person's capacity to consent to sexual behaviour. Using substances to alter someone else's consciousness without their consent, with or without engaging in physical sexual violence, is against the law in Ireland (it is considered to be "poisoning" under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997).