Violence against women & girls: Legal definitions

This page includes information about how the law views different types of violence against women and girls, including child sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse.

There is also information about the impact of these experiences on women and girls’ lives.

There are a lot of different words used to describe types of violence against women and girls sometimes it can be confusing to know how to talk about our experiences.

Here we have described what some of the terms (words) mean and how they are seen by the law in England and Wales.

If you have had any of these things perpetrated against you, or if you have any questions, we are here for you.

Violence against women and girls (VAWG)

Violence against women and girls, sometimes called ‘VAWG’, is a term used to describe any form of violence perpetrated by men against women and girls. It includes lots of types of abuse including child sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, forced marriage, so-called ‘honour’ based abuse, stalking, harassment, female genital mutilation/cutting, exploitation, trafficking and online abuse.

Read more about the reality of violence against women and girls.

Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is any kind of sexual activity that happens to children or young people under the age of 18 without their consent. Sexual activity can include any form of touching and also being made to view sexual images or being pressured to take sexual images.

Consent means agreeing to sexual activity by choice. The age of consent in England and Wales is 16, so children under 16 cannot legally give consent to sexual activity.

Read more about child sexual abuse on the Rape Crisis England & Wales website.


Rape is when someone has sexual intercourse with another person without their consent. This can be vaginal, anal or oral penetration with a penis. ​Under the law in England and Wales, if someone penetrates another person’s vagina, anus or mouth with an object or part of the body that is not a penis without their consent, this is called ‘assault by penetration’. This does not mean it is not as bad as rape, it just means something different in the law.

Read more about rape on the Rape Crisis England & Wales website.

Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse can be one incident or a pattern of incidents. It can involve a perpetrator carrying out controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour. It can also include sexual violence. Most domestic abuse is perpetrated by a current or ex-partner, but sometimes it can be be another member of the family or carer. Statistics in the UK show that domestic abuse is mainly committed by men against women. Domestic abuse can include:

  • Physical abuse and violence
  • Sexual abuse such as rape
  • Financial abuse
  • Harassment
  • Stalking
  • Online abuse
  • Emotional and psychological abuse
  • Coercive control (a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control with the use or threat of physical or sexual violence).

Read more about domestic abuse on the Women’s Aid website.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can include lots of different things and it can be confusing to know what it means.

Sexual assault is when someone touches another person in a sexual manner without their consent. Or when someone makes another person take part in a sexual activity with them without that person's consent. It includes unwanted kissing and sexual touching.

Read more about sexual assault on the Rape Crisis England & Wales website.

The impact of sexual and domestic abuse and violence

There is no right or wrong way to respond to any form of violence and abuse. There are no rules, no time scale or order to the journey.

Every woman is different and your process is as unique and individual as you are. However you feel, it is completely normal, even if you are not feeling anything at all. We know that any form of sexual or domestic abuse or violence can impact many different parts of a woman’s life and sense of self.

We see and hear some of these responses below from women we have supported over the years, but this is not a complete list of what you may be feeling – you also may not recognise any of these responses in yourself and that is normal too.

Normal responses to violence and abuse



Tense muscles




Digestive issues


Distorted body image

Aches & pains

Dry mouth


Chronic pain

Long-term health issues such as cancer/arthritis/ fibromyalgia












Self loathing



Loss of concentration



Grief & loss

Impulsive decision making

Lack of interest

Difficulty making decisions


Suicidal thoughts



Disturbed sleep

Feeling irritable



Hyper sexual

Using drugs, alcohol or prescription medication

Eating more/less


Feeling obsessive


Difficulty trusting others

Expecting rejection

Avoiding intimacy


Difficulty setting healthy boundaries

We hope this helps you to recognise that you have responded in a normal way to things that should have never happened to you.

You can talk to us about anything you have read here by phoning our Helpline or joining our Campfire community.

The Women’s Centre Cornwall is an independent and proudly feminist organisation. We recognise that violence against women is a violation of human rights and an abuse of power. All forms of violence and abuse against women and girls are both a cause of, and a consequence of, gender inequality. Violence against women is one of the main ways women are forced often into positions of subordination in society, and equality is a fundamental part of preventing gender-based violence.

One of our values is ‘feminist’. We asked the women in our DIVAS Project what this means to them. They said, ‘Feminism is about women and girls having equal rights and opportunities and being able to access them’.

We work from an empowerment model of support which believes women and girls are the experts in their own lives, and as such we stand alongside them in safe spaces as they restore their personal power.

We believe in the power of offering services that are run by women, for women and as such as offer women-only space.

Our approach to feminism is intersectional, recognising that every woman has layers of unique lived experience of discrimination and oppression. For us to end violence against all women and girls, we need to understand and respond to the ways some women experience different barriers in accessing their rights and opportunities. We believe that for women to feel a sense of belonging, we need to put equity, diversity and inclusion into practice. We are committed to doing this at every level of our organisation.

Women-centred, holistic and empowering support

If you want to refer yourself in for one to one specialist support around the impact of sexual or domestic abuse, you can make a self-referral through our helpline or the email/contact form, and you can find out more about the type of support we offer to women here.