Sexual assault takes many forms including attacks such as rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats. Usually a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person’s body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person’s consent. Some types of sexual acts which fall under the category of sexual assault include forced sexual intercourse (rape), sodomy (oral or anal sexual acts), child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape. Sexual assault in any form is often a devastating crime. Assailants can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members. Assailants commit sexual assault by way of violence, threats, coercion, manipulation, pressure or tricks. Whatever the circumstances, no one asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted.
In most jurisdictions, the term sexual assault has replaced the term rape in the state statutes. This was done to be more gender-neutral and to cover more specific types of sexual victimization and various levels of coercion. For example, some state codes define Sexual Assault in the First Degree or Aggravated Sexual Assault as physically or psychologically forced vaginal, anal or oral penetration – which has typically been thought of as rape.
Sexual Abuse, Sexual Misconduct, Sodomy, Lascivious Acts, Indecent Contact, and Indecent Exposure are all examples of possible sexual assault charges. Basically, almost any sexual behavior a person has not consented to that causes that person to feel uncomfortable, frightened or intimidated is included in the sexual assault category.
The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believe they are undergoing a medical procedure. Some examples of sexual assault include:
- Someone putting their finger, tongue, mouth, penis or an object in or on your vagina, penis or anus when you don’t want them to;
- Someone touching, fondling, kissing or making any unwanted contact with your body;
- Someone forcing you to perform oral sex or forcing you to receive oral sex;
- Someone forcing you to masturbate, forcing you to masturbate them, or fondling and touching you;
- Someone forcing you to look at sexually explicit material or forcing you to pose for sexually explicit pictures; and
- A doctor, nurse, or other health care professional giving you an unnecessary internal examination or touching your sexual organs in an unprofessional, unwarranted and inappropriate manner.
Reactions of Sexual Assault Victims
Since every person and situation is different, victims of sexual assault will respond to an assault in different ways. Many factors can influence an individual’s response to, and recovery from, sexual assault. These may include the age and developmental maturity of the victim; the social support network available to the victim; the victim’s relationship to the offender; the response to the attack by police, medical personnel, and victim advocates; the response to the attack by the victim’s loved ones; the frequency, severity and duration of the assault(s); the setting of the attack; the level of violence and injury inflicted; the response by the criminal justice system; community attitudes and values; and the meaning attributed to the traumatic event by the sexual assault survivor. Some survivors of sexual assault will find they can recover relatively quickly, while others will feel the lasting effects of their victimization throughout their lifetime.
Possible Physical Effects of Sexual Assault
Possible Emotional/Psychological Effects of Sexual Assault
- Social withdrawal
- Numbing/apathy (detachment, loss of caring)
- Restricted affect (reduced ability to express emotions)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Diminished interest in activities or sex
- Loss of self-esteem
- Loss of security/loss of trust in others
- Impaired memory
- Loss of appetite
- Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide and death)
- Substance Abuse
- Psychological disorders
Possible Physiological Effects of Sexual Assault
- Hyper-vigilance (always being “on your guard”)
- Exaggerated startle response (jumpiness)
- Panic attacks
- Eating problems/disorders
- Self-mutilation (cutting, burning or otherwise hurting oneself)
- Sexual dysfunction (not being able to perform sexual acts)
- Hyper-arousal (exaggerated feelings/responses to stimuli)
In addition to these effects, a survivor of sexual assault may develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health disorder primarily characterized by chronic anxiety, depression and flashbacks which develop after experiencing significant trauma such as combat, natural disaster or violent crime victimization. PTSD is diagnosed by a mental health professional when the biological, psychological and social effects of trauma are severe enough to have impaired a survivor’s social and occupational functioning.
If an Individual is Sexually Assaulted
It is important that the victim of sexual assault understand that no matter where they were, the time of day or night assaulted, what they were wearing, or what they said or did, if they did not want the sexual contact, then the assault was in no way their fault. Persons who commit sexual assault do so out of a need to control, dominate, abuse and humiliate. Sexual assault is the articulation of aggression through sex, and has little to do with passion, lust, desire, or sexual arousal.
Survivors of sexual assault, as stated earlier, react in many different ways following the assault(s). Whatever the reaction, it may be helpful for the victim of sexual assault to call a friend, relative, partner, the police, or an advocate specifically trained in assisting victims of sexual assault. Some prosecutor’s offices, police departments, and every local sexual assault program have trained advocates who work with sexual assault victims and can provide a variety of services including:
- Accompaniment to the hospital, during the rape exam and to the police station;
- Information about reporting procedures and what to expect;
- Legal advocacy and court accompaniment;
- Emergency crisis intervention, counseling and referrals;
- Counseling for the victim’s partner, spouse or family;
- Assistance in finding care for children; and
- Information about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and pregnancy testing.
- Immediately after an assault, it is most important that the victim find a safe place, such as a neighbor or friend’s house, police station, or hospital. If the assault occurred in the home, the house should be secured as soon as possible by locking all the doors and windows. If a survivor is hurt, it is imperative to immediately dial 911 to request an ambulance or have a trusted friend or relative transport the survivor to the nearest medical facility for evaluation and treatment.
Reporting the Assault(s)
- The decision to report a sexual assault lies within the discretion of the sexual assault survivor. If a sexual assault survivor plans to report the assault to law enforcement, it is crucial for evidentiary reasons that they do not:
- Shower, bathe, or douche;
- Throw away any clothes that were worn at the time of the assault;
- Brush or comb their hair;
- Use the restroom;
- Brush their teeth or gargle;
- Put on makeup;
- Clean or straighten up the crime scene; and
- Eat or drink anything.
If planning to report, it may prove helpful for the survivor to immediately write down everything they can remember about the assault including: what the assailant(s) looked like (e.g., height, weight, scars, tattoos, hair color, clothes); any unusual odor; any noticeable signs of intoxication; anything the assailant(s) said during the assault; what kinds of sexual activities were demanded and/or carried out; what kinds of weapons, threats or physical force were used; and any special traits noticed (e.g., limp, speech impediments, use of slang, lack of erection, etc.). Writing it down will not only aid the survivor in recalling details should they be required to testify, but it also gives the sexual assault survivor an active role in the investigation, which can allow for a feeling of empowerment and an element of control in a situation where control had previously been taken away.
The survivor who reports the assault to the authorities will most likely have to undergo a sexual assault forensic examination, sometimes called a “rape kit.” During this procedure a doctor or nurse will collect the evidence necessary to establish that a crime occurred and, if possible, establish who committed the crime. To do so, the nurse or doctor will perform an internal examination (either vaginally, anally or both) taking swabs of any secretions left by the perpetrator and will do the same to the victim’s mouth if any oral contact was made during the assault. In addition, samples of the victim’s hair and pubic hair will be plucked from the root, and many times several hairs need to be collected so some discomfort will be felt. The pubic hair will also be combed through to collect any foreign hair, secretions, or matter. The clothes the victim was wearing will be held as evidence also, so it is a good idea for the survivor to bring along a change of clothes to the hospital. A series of photographs will also be taken of the victim, including anywhere there are bruises, scrapes or cuts.
A victim who chooses to report the assault will probably be asked to describe their victimization in detail to several different officers and investigators. The survivor may also have to tell a nurse what happened, and may want to share their feelings with an advocate. If the case is pursued, at a later date the survivor will be interviewed by the prosecutor’s office, and may have to take part in different hearings in which the victim is asked questions about the assault. The sexual assault survivor who plans to prosecute should know it may take months or years for a case to go to trial, so he or she should be prepared to talk about their victimization many times before ever having to testify before a trial jury or judge.
It is the fear of intrusive and re-victimizing court procedures that prevent many sexual assault survivors from reporting their assault(s). Many factors contribute to under-reporting including shame and embarrassment, self-blame, fear of media exposure, fear of further injury or retaliation, and fear of a legal system that often puts the victim’s behavior and history on trial. A majority of states now have laws called “rape-shield” statutes, which prohibit any non-relevant evidence of the victim’s past sexual history from being used by the defense at trial.
There are benefits to reporting sexual assaults, however, which include being eligible for state crime victim compensation funds. If a victim is eligible, these funds can possibly pay for the sexual assault forensic examination; other medical expenses; one-time or ongoing sexually transmitted disease testing; psychological counseling and treatment; lost wages; and other services and assistance.
In addition, many sexual assault survivors report that choosing to follow through with prosecution contributes to a feeling of accomplishment and empowerment because they are attempting to protect themselves and others in the community from being victimized. Many victims also report the attempt to put their assailant(s) in jail allows for a feeling of closure, enabling them to put the assault behind them. Moreover, it is only by more individuals reporting sexual assaults that pressure can be placed on the legal system and the community at large to reduce the negative consequences on victims who report sexual assaults. Furthermore, if individuals who commit sexual assault offenses are not apprehended and prosecuted, they will continue to commit sexual offenses. The more sex offenders that are apprehended and prosecuted, the fewer victims of sexual assault.
HIV/AIDS and the Sexual Assault Survivor
A concern of many survivors of sexual assault is the possibility of transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as a result of their victimization. Though the actual risk of transmission from a single act of sexual assault is relatively low, the psychological stressor of possible HIV infection is quite significant for the survivor of sexual assault. If the survivor wishes to be tested for HIV, he or she should talk to a trained advocate or HIV/AIDS professional counselor about the testing process and options. In most cases if a victim has contracted HIV Disease as a result of the assault, he or she will test positive within two weeks of the assault. In some instances it may take up to three months for a positive result. If the victim decides to be tested, it is important to locate an anonymous testing site. To protect confidentiality, whenever possible avoid testing at a hospital or with a family physician. If the first test result is negative, follow-up testing should be conducted three months, six months and one year after the assault. Many victims also wish to know the HIV status of their assailant. Most states allow for testing of alleged and convicted sex offenders and disclosure of the results to the victim.
Services for the Sexual Assault Survivor
Whether or not a sexual assault victim chooses to report the assault(s) to the authorities, there is support and help for the survivor in most communities. The local rape crisis or sexual assault program’s advocates will work with a survivor no matter what course of action they choose to pursue. Along with providing direct service to victims, agencies also conduct sexual assault awareness, prevention and education programs in schools and the community, and work closely with their state sexual assault coalitions to advocate for fair legislation pertaining to victims of sexual crimes.
Many communities have established written protocols for response to sexual assault victims to ensure they are treated by all service providers in a consistent, responsible and sensitive manner. In addition, many jurisdictions have created multi-disciplinary teams, sometimes called S.A.R.T (Sexual Assault Response Team) programs. These teams usually consist of law enforcement officers, advocates, and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners or doctors that respond to crime scenes, hospitals and police stations to serve the immediate needs of the sexual assault survivor. Communities use this comprehensive approach to sexual assault victim assistance to reduce the negative aftereffects and trauma associated with sexual victimization by limiting the number of interviews and providing the survivor with immediate resources for assistance.
Furthermore, many prosecutors’ offices and law enforcement agencies have Victim/Witness programs that work closely with victims once they have decided to report and/or prosecute. These criminal justice system-based service providers in most jurisdictions can assist a victim in filing for state crime victim compensation funds; will file a restitution claim with the Court; will notify a victim of hearings, possible plea negotiations and court schedule changes; will accompany a survivor to various court proceedings; will explain the legal process and legal proceedings to the survivor; and will interact on the behalf of the victim’s interests with the various attorneys, court personnel, and the survivor’s employer or school.
Many communities also have community mental health centers that provide psychological counseling, support groups and, if necessary, referral to psychiatrists for medication assessments. Most of these centers provide services on a sliding-fee scale basis, charging clients according to what they can afford.
The effects of sexual victimization can be severely traumatic, and survivors generally find that time-limited or even long-term counseling is extremely important to their recovery. Even after initial crisis counseling, victims may find it helpful to return to counseling periodically when it becomes difficult to manage the aftereffects of sexual assault without further guidance and assistance. If the survivor does not wish to contact a sexual assault or rape crisis advocate or mental health counselor, they may want to talk through their feelings with a trusted family member, friend, or member of the clergy.
What to do for a Victim of Sexual Assault
Sexual assault affects not only the victim, but the loved ones and family of the survivor, as well as the community. Family members and friends many times not only have to help their loved one manage the after effects of the assault but also have to deal with their own feelings about the victimization of someone they care about. Those that live with the survivor may become concerned about their security and may have similar feelings and responses as those the survivor experiences. Family members in some communities can find support groups for loved ones of those who have been victims of sexual assault. The immediate neighborhood as well may be affected by the victimization of their neighbor and become more concerned about their personal safety. They may respond to the assault(s) by establishing a neighborhood watch program or installing better street lighting. Professionals in the community who have direct contact with the survivor may develop protocols, or guidelines for response, to sexual assault victims to ensure the needs of survivors are being addressed within their respective agencies.
To be of assistance to a survivor one should:
- Listen without judging;
- Let them know the assault(s) was not their fault;
- Let them know they did what was necessary to prevent further harm;
- Reassure the survivor that he or she is cared for and loved;
- Encourage the sexual assault victim to seek medical attention;
- Encourage the survivor to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, mental health professional or someone they trust; and
- Let them know they do not have to manage this crisis alone.
For more information on how one can help survivors of sexual assault, contact a local rape crisis or sexual assault program, prosecutor’s office or sexual assault coalition and ask how to volunteer.
* Click here for more specific information about male victims of sexual assault.
Sexual Assault in the Military
Sexual Assault Support for the DoD Community. Anonymous, confidential and secure support for members of the active duty military community available live 24/7. Click the icon below or go to www.safehelpline.org or call 877-995-5247.
For additional information:
Centers for Disease Control National HIV/AIDS Hotline
Institute on Violence, Abuse & Trauma
Men Stopping Rape
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network