What is the difference between “regret sex” and “sexual assault”?


Suppose a woman wakes up in the morning after a sexual encounter and then labels it sexual assault, to the surprise of her sexual partner.  Did this woman[1] regret having sex and then say she was a victim so she doesn’t have to come to terms with her actions?  Is she lying about being sexually assaulted so people don’t think she is a slut?

I often hear these questions at sexual assault response or prevention trainings around campus. The short answer to this question is, NO, women do NOT say they have been sexually assaulted or raped when they have had consensual sex that they regret.

Let’s break this down.

Do people who had a consensual sexual experience that they regret call it sexual assault?
NO, very rarely.[2]

  • Consider what happens when someone publicly says they have been a victim or survivor of sexual assault. Being a victim of any crime is not something that people are proud of or gain positive public recognition for reporting or discussing. Unfortunately, survivors commonly receive negative attention across news or social media for publicly discussing their experience.
  • Because many of us assume we know how we would react to trauma, victims/survivors are asked why they engaged in behaviors that happened before the assault (“why did you drink so much?”), which (intentionally or not) blame them for something which is not their fault.[3] When we take into consideration the low rates of convictions in the criminal system as well, it’s easy to understand why sexual assaults are underreported to the police, and rarely reported falsely. It only makes sense that some people who are assaulted never tell their friends[4] and avoid calling their experience “assault.”

This article called “Do Women Often Lie About Rape?” by Jarune Uwujaren demonstrates how problematic it is to assume that women lie about being raped. Uwujaren writes that given the high rates of assault, “The fact that some women lie about rape isn’t exactly the most pressing conversation we need to be having.” Instead, we should be talking about how few rapes are reported to authorities compared to the many people who indicate on anonymous surveys that they have experienced unwanted sexual contact or penetration.

Do we all have things that we actively chose to do that we later regret? Sure. Does this even include kissing, touching, or other sexual activity? It definitely can.

The bottom line, though, is that the vast majority of people do not actively and freely choose to engage in sex and then later call it sexual assault.  Learn more about why it is important to believe someone who tells you that they have experienced sexual assault.

Do people who experience sexual assault say they regret the experience?
YES, especially right afterwards.

  • In my experience, many people (men, women, and trans* folks) who experience unwanted and non-consensual sex blame themselves for what happened, even though it’s not their fault. They may mean that they regret actions they took before the assault, from being at a party to having anything to drink at all.
  • Many victims/survivors do not use the terms “rape” or “sexual assault” or “sexual violence” to describe their experience immediately after the incident.  Since alcohol is involved in over half of sexual assaults on a college campus, folks may not remember what happened if they were blacked out or drunk. They also may not be able to clearly talk about what happened because of new research about neurobiology in trauma victims which indicates that the “brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired.”[5]   If folks do remember their unwanted sexual experience, they may say that

*They wouldn’t have engaged in the sexual activity if they had been sober,
i.e. they regret drinking
*They didn’t really want to have sex
*They did not want to have sex without protection, but their partner insisted
etc.

In short, folks who experience unwanted or nonconsensual sex may tell you that yes, they regret the experience, and they may blame themselves because it’s easier for them than dealing with the reality that their control was taken away from them and they were sexually assaulted.

Sometimes, a survivor will later name the event as rape or assault because he/she/ze[6] realizes that (1) what happened WASN’T their fault, and (2) it wasn’t consensual.  So you could hear someone say they regretted the experience and then days, weeks, months, or years later say they were assaulted, but this doesn’t mean that they weren’t assaulted in the first place. It means they have come to terms with what happened to them and are hopefully on the road to recovery from a traumatic experience.


[1] Victims and survivors of sexual assault can be male or female or trans*.  I use the term ‘woman’ here due to the high rate of violence against women and the way I typically hear this question being asked.

[2] Researchers looking at reports over 10 years at one university estimate that rape was reported falsely (ie. fabricated or made up) 5.9% of the time. The FBI estimated in 1996 that up to 8% of reports of rape are false or unfounded (ie. there isn’t enough evidence base to move forward with criminal charges) which is consistent with other crimes.

[3] Many people at UNC-CH are actively working to change this reality for our campus.

[4] But hopefully speak to a confidential therapist, like at CAPS

[6] “Ze” is one of several gender non-specific terms used by trans*, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, agender, and people who reject the male/female binary

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