What is sexual assault by penetration according to UK law?

17th June 2019 | Sex Offences|
Nick Titchener headshot

Nick Titchener

Director & Solicitor Advocate

In Brief

Sexual assault by penetration is an extremely serious offence which is charged where there is insufficient evidence to prove rape. Rape can only be committed via penile penetration by a man, whereas sexual assault by penetration can be committed by either a man or a woman. The maximum sentence for sexual assault by penetration is life imprisonment, but because the issue of consent is complex there are certain defences which can be raised in court.


If you are found guilty of committing sexual assault by penetration, the consequences are severe, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at Criminal Defence Solicitors, Lawtons, explains this highly complex area of the law and breaks down the implications of a conviction.

Sexual assault by penetration is one of the three most common sexual crimes classified under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

What is sexual assault by penetration?

The offence, also referred to as assault by penetration, occurs when someone intentionally penetrates the vagina or anus of another person without that individual’s consent, and the perpetrator does not reasonably believe that the other person consents to the act.

Penetration can take place by use of a body part or alternatively an object such as a bottle. The offence can be committed by either gender.

Sexual assault by penetration is a very serious allegation and is an indictable only offence, meaning that a case can only be heard by the Crown Court.

What is the difference between rape, sexual assault and sexual assault by penetration within UK law?

Each of these is a very specific offence and your plea will depend on the specific charge against you.

  1. According to the law, only a man can commit rape, as the act of penetration must be with a penis. Rape is committed where a man intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with his penis when the other person does not consent.
  2. Sexual assault by penetration should be charged where there is insufficient evidence to charge the defendant for rape, for example in the event that the victim could not state with utmost certainty that non-consenting penetration of the vagina or anus was committed with a penis or something else.
  3. Sexual assault occurs when a person intentionally touches another person for sexual purposes without the consent of that person. It does not involve penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth.

What is the sentence for sexual assault?

A person found guilty of sexual assault can be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment.

What is the sentence for sexual assault by penetration?

If you are convicted of the criminal offence of sexual assault by penetration, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

If you are accused of sexual assault by penetration, the prosecution will start building a case against you straight away and, as such, it’s paramount that you instruct expert legal representation as soon as you are able.

Every case is different but defences that may be raised and argued may be that:

  1. The accused did not commit the act at all
  2. The act was not sexually motivated
  3. The alleged victim did consent
  4. The accused believed the other person had consented to the act.

The issue of consent is a relatively complex one. It is essentially where a person has agreed by their own choice to the act and where they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

The court will consider whether the accuser was vulnerable or had the capacity to consent – such as if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol – as well as considering their maturity, age and the history of the relationship between the complainant and accused.

There are specific serious sexual offences that now exist that didn’t exist prior to 2003 – when the current Sexual Offences Act became law – which deal with where the sexual act took place and if it involved another party that may have limited mental capacity or be considered particularly vulnerable.

What to do if you are accused of sexual assault by penetration

If you are accused of sexual assault by penetration it is crucial that you are represented by an individual who is an expert in this complex and extremely serious area of law.

The consequences of a conviction for a sexual assault or rape are very grave and will have life changing consequences for the person accused and those around them.

It is vital that you consult an expert criminal defence lawyer who has the expertise to deal with these matters. At Lawtons, we have the relevant experience and will work with you to ensure you get the best outcome possible in the case against you.

Note: This guide is intended to give general information only and not intended to be used as the basis upon which advice is given nor should it be relied upon as giving advice specific to a case or individual.

Lawtons do not accept liability for anyone using this guide. Should you require specific advice in connection with a real case or situation, please contact us so we can provide specific legal advice and assistance.

About the author

As director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, Nick Titchener has vast experience in complicated legal cases including those concerning sexual offences, violence and assault. His measured and methodical approach allows him to thrive on even the most complex case.

Lawtons Solicitors is a specialist firm of criminal law defence solicitors with branches across London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

FAQs about Sexual Assault

What is the Sexual Offences Act 2003?

The Act replaced older sexual offences laws, providing more explicit wording and making extra provisions to protect the young and particularly vulnerable. It legally reclassified rape and newly defined the offence of sexual assault by penetration.

What is digital penetration?

Digital penetration is sexual penetration using the fingers – meaning that when enacted by force or without consent it is categorised under the offence of sexual assault by penetration.

What is the difference between indecent assault and sexual assault?

The term indecent assault is less commonly used than it was previously, and the two terms and relatively interchangeable – both broadly referring to touching for sexual purposes without consent.

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