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What is the difference between sexual abuse and sexual exploitation

Image above: Za’atari’s mental health clinic in Jordan.

To report misconduct please contact the UNHCR’s Inspector General Office. 

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA)

Sexual exploitation is defined as an actual or attempted abuse of someone’s position of vulnerability (such as a person depending on you for survival, food rations, school, books, transport or other services), differential power or trust, to obtain sexual favours, including but not only, by offering money or other social, economic or political advantages. It includes trafficking and prostitution. 

Sexual abuse means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. It includes sexual slavery, pornography, child abuse and sexual assault. 

UN personnel are obligated to report whenever they reasonably suspect that SEA has occurred by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not and whether or not within the United Nations system.  

Sexual harassment (SH)

Sexual harassment affects personnel and is defined as any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation. When such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment may occur in the workplace or in connection with work. While typically involving a pattern of conduct, sexual harassment may take the form of a single incident. In assessing whether the conduct causes offence, the perspective of the victim shall be considered. 

Sexual harassment can take various forms – from looks and words though to physical contact of a sexual nature. Examples of sexual harassment (non-exhaustive list) include: attempted or actual sexual assault, including rape; sharing or displaying sexually inappropriate images or videos in any format; sending sexually suggestive communications in any format; sharing sexual or lewd anecdotes or jokes; making inappropriate sexual gestures, such as pelvic thrusts; unwelcome touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person; staring in a sexually suggestive manner; repeatedly asking a person for dates or asking for sex; rating a person’s sexuality; making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts; name-calling or using slurs with a gender/sexual connotation; making derogatory or demeaning comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The key difference between SEA and SH is the victim: in the case of SEA, the victim is a person of concern, or a member of the local or host community. In the case of SH, the victim is a fellow humanitarian worker, whether working with UNHCR or with another agency or partner organization. In both cases of SEA and SH, the perpetrator is a fellow humanitarian or development worker. Both forms of sexual misconduct are unacceptable, and UNHCR is committed to eradicating them from our operations and offices and ensuring that all victims receive the support they need.

The main difference between exploitation and abuse is that exploitation is treating someone unfairly in order to get benefits for yourself, whereas abuse is treating someone with cruelty or violence, often regularly or repeatedly.

Exploitation and abuse are a violation of human rights. Exploitation is a form of abuse. Moreover, it always involves one person or a group of people reaping benefits at the expense of others. For example, abusing someone refers to the physical or emotional mistreatment of that person, whereas exploitation refers to using someone to reap benefits. 

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Exploitation
     – Definition, Characteristics, Forms
2. What is Abuse
     – Definition, Characteristics, Forms
3. What is the Difference Between Exploitation and Abuse
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Abuse, Exploitation, Criminal Exploitation, Labour Exploitation, Sexual Exploitation, Human Rights

Difference Between Exploitation and Abuse - Comparison Summary

What is Exploitation?

Exploitation means treating someone badly in order to get some benefit for yourself. In other words, it is a form of abuse where someone is manipulated or forced to doing something that benefits some others. Exploitation can take many forms, occur in various situations and involve different groups of people. 

Labour Exploitation

It is a situation where people are coerced to work for no or little compensation. For example, workers may be pressured into continuing work using various means such as the use of violence or intimidation, threatening with accumulated debt, and retention of identity documents. Labour exploitation happens in many fields, including agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and factory work.

Difference Between Exploitation and Abuse

Sexual Exploitation

It is an occasion where a person is forced or manipulated to take part in sexual activities. Moreover, prostitution, pornography, sex tourism, internet chat rooms, massage spa, etc. are some places where sexual exploitation can take.

Criminal Exploitation

Criminal exploitation happens when a person is made to take part in criminal activities through deception, coercion or force. Furthermore, it can take many forms such as pickpocketing, drug distribution, bag snatching, etc.

In addition to the above, there are many other forms of exploitation, such as domestic servitude, forced marriages, organ harvesting, child soldiers, and debt bondage.

What is Abuse?

Abusing someone means treating someone with cruelty or violence, often regularly or repeatedly. Abusing involves someone purposefully harming another. It is actually an attempt to control the behaviour of another person. When we hear the word abuse, we usually think of physical abuse, which involves harming someone physically (ex: hitting, punching, etc.), but abuse can take many forms such as emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and sexual abuse.

Main Difference - Exploitation vs Abuse

Physical Abuse – including hitting, punching, pulling hair, burning, shaking, strangling, throwing things, using a weapon or threatening to use one, etc.

Sexual Abuse – includes sexual assault, marital rape, inappropriate touching, etc.

Verbal Abuse – includes constant belittling, taunting, humiliation, etc.

In addition to the above abuses, there are other forms of abuse, such as financial abuse, psychological abuse, elder abuse, child abuse, domestic abuse.

Difference Between Exploitation and Abuse


Exploitation is treating someone unfairly in order to get benefits for yourself, whereas abuse is treating someone with cruelty or violence, often regularly or repeatedly.


Exploitation is a form of abuse, but not all forms of abuse can be explained as exploitations.


Child abuse refers to physical, sexual or emotional mistreatment or neglect, whereas child exploitation refers to using children in work or other activities for the benefit of others.


Exploitation takes many forms such as labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation, etc. whereas abuse takes many forms such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, etc. 


Some examples of exploitation include prostitution, child soldiers, organ harvesting, and drug trafficking, whereas rape, humiliation, hitting, belittling, shaking and strangling are some examples of different forms of abuse.


In brief, exploitation and abuse are a violation of human rights. Exploitation is basically a form of abuse.  The main difference between exploitation and abuse is that exploitation is treating someone unfairly in order to get benefits for yourself, whereas abuse is treating someone with cruelty or violence, often regularly or repeatedly.


1. “Types of Exploitation, Human Trafficking & Slavery.” Stop the Traffik, Available here.
2. “Exploitation.” Preventing Exploitation Toolkit, Available here.
3. “What Is Abuse?” Edmonton Police Service, Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Human Trafficking” By Ben Taylor (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
2. “Cycle of Abuse” By Avanduyn -(Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

A California psychologist has alleged that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when both were in high school in Maryland.

As the nation debates the accusation, the terms “sexual abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment” – and even “rape” – are cropping up daily in the news. This isn’t new – the #MeToo movement over the last year has put those terms in more common circulation.

Many people want to understand these behaviors and work to prevent them. It helps if we are consistent and as precise as possible when we use these terms.

But what does each term mean?

We are three scholars who have specialized in the scientific study of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment over several decades.

Let’s start by defining each of these terms. Then, we can look at how these behaviors sometimes overlap.

Sexual abuse

The term that has been in the news most recently with reference to sports doctor Larry Nassar’s trial is sexual abuse, a form of mistreating children. Sexual abuse is mainly used to describe behavior toward children, not adults.

All 50 states have laws that recognize that children are not capable of giving informed consent to any sex act. In the United States, the age at which consent can be given ranges from 16 to 18 years.

Sexual abuse can include many different things, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity. Sexual abuse of a child is a criminal act.


In 2012, the FBI issued a revised definition of rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The revised law is gender neutral, meaning that anyone can be a victim.

When carefully examined, the FBI definition does not look like most people’s idea of rape – typically perpetrated by a stranger through force. The FBI definition says nothing about the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator and it says nothing about force. It does, however, say something about consent, or rather, the lack of it. Think about consent as your ability to make a decision about what happens to your body.

A perpetrator can compel a victim into a penetrative sex act in multiple ways. A perpetrator can ignore verbal resistance – like saying “no,” “stop” or “I don’t want to” – or overpower physical resistance by holding a person down so they cannot move. A person can penetrate a victim who is incapable of giving consent because he or she is drunk, unconscious, asleep, or mentally or physically incapacitated; or can threaten or use physical force or a weapon against a person. Essentially, these methods either ignore or remove the person’s ability to make an autonomous decision about what happens to their body. State laws vary in how they define removing or ignoring consent.

Perpetrators can’t defend against charges of rape by claiming they were drunk themselves or by saying they are married to the victim.

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

Sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault have been used interchangeably in coverage of events leading to the #MeToo movement, and this practice, though unintentional, is confusing. In contrast to the specific criminal act of rape, the term sexual assault can describe a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways. But sexual assault overlaps with rape because the term includes rape.

Social and behavioral scientists often use the term “sexual violence.” This term is far more broad than sexual assault. It include acts that are not codified in law as criminal but are harmful and traumatic. Sexual violence includes using false promises, insistent pressure, abusive comments or reputational threats to coerce sex acts. It can encompass noncontact acts like catcalls and whistles, which can make women feel objectified and victimized. It includes nonconsensual electronic sharing of explicit images, exposure of genitals and surreptitious viewing of others naked or during sex.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a much broader term than sexual assault, encompassing three categories of impermissible behavior.

One is sexual coercion – legally termed “quid pro quo harassment” – referring to implicit or explicit attempts to make work conditions contingent upon sexual cooperation. The classic “sleep with me or you’re fired” scenario is a perfect example of sexual coercion. It is the most stereotypical form of sexual harassment, but also the rarest.

A second, and more common, form of sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention: unwanted touching, hugging, stroking, kissing, relentless pressure for dates or sexual behavior. Note that romantic and sexual overtures come in many varieties at work, not all of them harassing. To constitute unlawful sexual harassment, the sexual advances must be unwelcome and unpleasant to the recipient. They must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to “create an abusive working environment,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unwanted sexual attention can include sexual assault and even rape. If an employer were to forcibly kiss and grope a receptionist without her consent, this would be an example of both unwanted sexual attention and sexual assault – both a civil offense and a crime.

Most sexual harassment, however, entails no sexual advance. This third and most common manifestation is gender harassment: conduct that disparages people based on gender, but implies no sexual interest. Gender harassment can include crude sexual terms and images, for example, degrading comments about bodies or sexual activities, graffiti calling women “cunts” or men “pussies.” More often than not, though, it is purely sexist, such as contemptuous remarks about women being ill-suited for leadership or men having no place in childcare. Such actions constitute “sexual” harassment because they are sex-based, not because they involve sexuality.

Come-ons, put-downs: They’re both bad

In lay terms, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention are come-ons, whereas gender harassment is a put-down. Still, they are all forms of sexual harassment and can all violate law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Historically, social attitudes towards all these hostile actions have assumed a continuum of severity. Sexist graffiti and insults are offensive, but no big deal, right? Verbal sexual overtures cannot be as bad as physical ones. And, if there was no penetration, it can’t have been all that bad.

These assumptions do not hold up to scientific scrutiny, however. For example, researchers at the University of Melbourne analyzed data from 73,877 working women. They found that experiences of gender harassment, sexist discrimination and the like are more corrosive to work and well-being, compared to encounters with unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.

We have tried to clarify terms that are now becoming household words. Of course, life is complicated. Abusive, assaulting or harassing behavior cannot always be neatly divided into one category or another – sometimes it belongs in more than one. Nevertheless, it is important to use terms in accurate ways to promote the public’s understanding.

Finally, we take heed that society is in a period like no other and one we thought we would never see. People are reflecting on, and talking about, and considering and reconsidering their experiences and their behavior. Definitions, criminal and otherwise, change with social standards. This time next year, we may be writing a new column.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Feb. 7, 2018.