No matter the circumstances, sexual assault is always wrong. No one should be forced to do anything against their will. Unfortunately, the effects of the experience don’t end once the event is over. It’s just the beginning. What does the victim have to deal with in the future? How can the outcomes be improved? What can we do to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault?
It happens in every community and affects people of all genders and ages. What is it? Sexual violence. It’s any unwanted sexual contact, no matter who it’s with. It can be verbal, visual, or non-contact—anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual activities or attention. A person may use force, threats, manipulation, or coercion to commit sexual violence.
There are many forms of sexual violence, such as sexual harassment, solicitation of minors through the Internet, possession of child pornography, exposing one’s genitals or a naked body to other(s), masturbating in public, watching someone engage in private acts without their knowledge/permission, non-consensual image sharing, unwanted sexual touching (above or below clothing), sexual exploitation/trafficking, sexual assault by a person’s spouse/partner, child sexual assault/incest, forcible sodomy (anal or oral sex against a person’s will), forcible object penetration (either one person doing this to another or causing a person to penetrate her or himself), and rape.
Examples of non-contact sexual abuse are parents who have sex in front of their children or make sexually inappropriate comments to them. It’s important to note that while both sexual assault and sexual harassment include non-consensual sexual contact, there are some distinct differences.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it’s unwanted sexual advances or contact; harassing a person based on their sex; making offensive comments or jokes about a particular gender; or pressure to go on a date or perform sexual favors.
Sexual harassment is often used in a legal context and usually refers to a workplace. However, it can include cat-calling, making sexual gestures/comments, staring, referring to someone using demeaning language, and giving unwanted or personal gifts.
Victims of sexual violence are people of all ages, races, genders, religions, and with/without disabilities. The statistics show that 16.1% of women and 9.6% of men have experienced sexual coercion in their lifetime. Also, 27.2% of women and 11.7% of men have unwanted sexual contact, and 18.3% of women and 2.6% of men have been raped at some point in their lives.
Over half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance. Almost 80% of female victims experienced their first rape before 25, with 42.2% undergoing their first completed rape before 18. When it comes to ethnic differences, 32% of multiracial women, 27.5% of American Indian/Alaska Native women, 21% of non-Hispanic black women, 20.5% of non-Hispanic white women, and 13% of Hispanic women are raped during their lifetimes.
For male victims, 52.4% reported being raped by an acquaintance and 15.1% by a stranger. Just over a quarter of male victims suffered their first rape when they were ten years of age or younger. Close to 7.1% of men were made to penetrate someone else (attempted or completed) at some point in their lifetime. Most men who were made to penetrate someone else reported that the perpetrator was either an intimate partner (44.8%) or an acquaintance (44.7%).
Closer Look at Specific Types
The evidence demonstrates that victims often know the person who sexually assaults them. The most common type of sexual assault is acquaintance rape. It makes up more than 80% of rapes, with 50% of them occurring on dates. With this type, a person you know/trust forces you to have sexual intercourse. It happens on a first date, at a party, or after you’ve known someone for a long time. It can occur in any relationship, such as friends, classmates, or coworkers; boyfriends and girlfriends; internet friends and contacts; teachers and students; coaches and athletes; religious leaders and parishioners; or doctors and patients.
Sometimes, an acquaintance will use drugs to facilitate rape, but most often, strangers use them. Typically, this type of rape happens when you are at a party, club, or social event. Usually, you’re with people you know and don’t think you have any reason to fear. However, someone secretly drops a drug (ex. roofies or ecstasy) in your drink. When the drug dissolves, it’s usually odorless and can be colorless and tasteless.
As you consume the drink, the drug takes effect, causing you to feel drowsy, dizzy, confused, uncoordinated, slur your speech, lose inhibition, impair your judgment, and reduce levels of consciousness. This means that you can’t escape, resist, or call for help. Since these drugs often cause amnesia, you don’t remember what happened and who assaulted you. It’s important to note that alcohol can also impair your judgment, lower inhibitions, and affect your consciousness.
One of the more challenging types of rape to deal with is sexual assault by an intimate partner. This is when sexual acts are committed without a person’s consent or against a person’s will and when the attacker is their partner or ex-partner. Even though it’s common, it’s hard to prosecute and didn’t become a crime until the 1970s. It can be deeply traumatic, especially in an otherwise abusive relationship.
One type of rape that is especially heinous, but common, is child sexual abuse. It’s any sexual act with a child by a parent, an adult, or someone older or more powerful than the child. The abuse can be physical, verbal, or emotional. The sexual abuse of children can take many forms, such as sexual touching, exposing the child to pornography, taking pornographic pictures of the child, “peeping” at the child, exposing oneself to a child, and attempting/performing oral, anal, or vaginal penetration. Often it involves forcing, tricking, bribing, threatening, or pressuring a child to comply.
Typically, the perpetrator abuses a child to gain power over them. An offender will often threaten or manipulate the child to prevent them from disclosing the abuse, which is why 73% of child targets don’t tell about the abuse for a year or more, and 45% don’t disclose abuse until at least five years have passed. Around 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18. Almost 75% of adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well, with just over 21% of attacks being committed by a family member. Children are most vulnerable between 7 and 13 years old but 20% experience sexual abuse before age 8.
Certain warning signs may indicate child sexual violence is occurring. These include torn/stained underwear, frequent urinary/yeast infections, nightmares/anxiety around bedtime, bedwetting past the appropriate age, preoccupation with their body, anger/tantrums, depressed/withdrawn mood, and sexual knowledge/behaviors that are not age-appropriate. It’s vital to point out that these signs aren’t necessarily proof a child is being sexually abused because children may show these behaviors due to another issue.
However, it’s not your job to prove that child abuse is occurring. You only need needs “reasonable suspicion” that abuse is taking place to report it to Child Protective Services, who’ll investigate the situation. If you think a child is being abused, you can call your state’s Child Protective Services to investigate or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
Sexual Assault in Certain Populations
Men who go through sexual assault frequently deal with significant humiliation. Our culture has the stereotype that men always want sex. Therefore, when men report sexual assault, they face doubt and ridicule. Some even go so far as to blame the abuse on the man’s weakness or alleged homosexuality. This is especially true when a man accuses a woman of sexual abuse. Due to their shame, male survivors are reluctant to characterize the incidents as rape or abuse. To cope, some men resort to substance abuse or self-harm.
Homosexual and bisexual individuals experience higher rates of sexual assault than heterosexual people. Unfortunately, hate crimes account for many of the assaults against LGBTQ+ people. The lifetime prevalence rates for rape are 46% for bisexual women, 13% for lesbian women, and 17% for heterosexual women. The lifetime prevalence rates for sexual assaults other than rape are 47% for bisexual men, 40% for gay men, and 21% for heterosexual men. Rape statistics among men are limited. Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. Sexual crimes in the LGBTQ+ community are often not reported because survivors often fear revealing their gender identity or sexual orientation to others.
Certain races and ethnicities are more likely to experience sexual assault. The reason is many people of color are viewed as exotic, hypersexual beings, which means survivors are more likely to be labeled “willing” participants. Another issue is sexual assaults on white people are often punished more harshly than assaults on people of color. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), the prevalence rates for rape are 9.5% of Asian or Pacific Islander women; 15.0% of Hispanic women; 19.9% of white women; 20.7% of black women; 28.9% of American Indian or Alaskan Native women; and 31.8% for multiracial women. The report didn’t include data on male survivors.
Sexual violence occurs in the U.S. military in high numbers but is still thought to be underreported. Close to 50% of reports from women involved penetrative sexual assault (rape or penetration with an object). This rate was 35% for men. Due to the gender ratios in the military, a man in the military is ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a civilian man. Most perpetrators commit these crimes out of a desire for domination, not sexual attraction. Studies suggest only one in four survivors of military sexual assault report their attacks because they fear retaliation.
What is Consent?
You should ask for consent before you act! Consent is never implied and cannot be assumed, even in a relationship. Instead, individuals should communicate their desires, needs, and levels of comfort with different sexual interactions. Consent must be freely given and informed. It’s more than a yes or no, and the absence of a “no” does not mean “yes.”
Each person knows and understands what is going on (you are not unconscious, blacked out, asleep, underage, or have an intellectual disability); you know what you want to do; you are able to say what you want to do or don’t want to do, and you are aware that you are giving consent (and are not impaired by alcohol or drugs).
Also, a person can change their mind at any time. In addition, past consent doesn’t mean future consent, and saying “yes” to a particular sexual activity is not consent for all types of sexual activity. It’s critical to point out that not fighting back, wearing sexy clothing, dancing, or flirting doesn’t imply consent.
What to do if you’ve been raped?
The most important thing to do if you’ve been raped is to get to a safe place. Then, you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. After you’re safe, despite wanting to rid of the feeling by bathing or changing clothes, don’t. Also, don’t brush, comb, or clean any part of your body, including your teeth. If you do any of these, you might destroy crucial evidence. Another thing is not to touch or change anything at the scene of the assault.
At the hospital, you need to be examined and treated for injuries. They can also give you medicine to prevent HIV and some other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. The exam will include a rape kit to collect evidence, such as fibers, hairs, saliva, semen, or clothing left behind by the attacker. You can ask for a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE) or a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). Either of these are specifically trained to help victims of rape.
Keep in mind you don’t have to decide whether to press charges while at the hospital. If you think you were drugged, talk to the hospital staff about testing for date rape drugs. These drugs pass through the body quickly and may not be detectable by the time you get tested if you wait. Try to write down as many details as you can remember about the person and what happened. With all of this information, if you decide to press charges, authorities will be better able to help you and find the person who assaulted you.
The hospital staff can connect you with the local rape crisis center and hotlines, which have trained volunteers and other professionals (such as mental health professionals) who can help you find support and resources near you.
Remember, victims are never at fault! If you have been sexually assaulted, it is not your fault, regardless of the circumstances. Unfortunately, rape is often not reported or convicted. Many victims don’t talk about their experience with anybody, sometimes for years, because they fear they won’t be believed, are afraid of retaliation, have shame or fear of being blamed, experience pressure from others, distrust towards law enforcement, or a desire to protect the attacker for other reasons. This precludes them from getting the help they need. No question, these events are incredibly stressful, both physically and psychologically. This means the risk for long-term mental and physical health problems is high.
Each survivor reacts to sexual violence in their own way. It’s key to remember that what happened to you isn’t normal or ok, but your reactions are. It can impact your daily life no matter when it happened. Sexual violence can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a survivor.
Some survivors go into shock after being assaulted. The emotional reaction to sexual assault is complex and often confusing. Some common emotional responses are guilt, shame, fear, numbness, shock, and feelings of isolation. While all of these feelings are common, survivors need to deal with their feelings to prevent a problem later in their recovery. The fear and confusion will lessen, but the trauma may disrupt the survivor’s life for some time. It can take weeks, months, or years for the healing to take place; it varies from person to person.
There are short-term physical effects, such as personal injuries, concerns about pregnancy, or the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. The long-term physical impacts are headaches, long-term pain, trouble sleeping, poor physical and mental health, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, severe anxiety, stress, fear, alcohol/drug abuse, depression, and self-injury or suicide. Numerous studies have found that sexual abuse survivors are 26 times more likely to use drugs.
The long-term psychological effects of survivors are post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and isolation. These individuals try to regain control of their lives in various ways. Some survivors try to forget the attack. Others withdraw from people and try to give the impression that they are all right. Often, they find themselves not caring about things that are usually important to them. Many people deal with specific fears, such as fear of death, being in situations that serve as reminders of the assault, or having to see the assailant again.
One area that many survivors struggle with is feelings about sexuality. Some find that sex stirs up frightening emotions associated with the assault. If you are single, it takes time to decide when you want to share your experience with potential partners. If you are in a relationship, it’s vital to tell your partner how you feel and talk about your comfort level with intimacy. Your partner should respect your needs.
If your partner experienced sexual violence, you must realize that there’s probably a temporary or permanent change in the relationship. Communication is the key, so try to talk openly about the issue. If your partner hasn’t brought it up, gently ask them about it. It’s essential to remember that while some things may change for a while, most survivors recover from the trauma and have healthy, loving lives.
Many people don’t think of economic concerns surrounding sexual violence, including medical expenses, lost wages from time off work, property damage, criminal justice expenses, and crisis/mental health service fees. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that individual victims of sexual violence sustain $122,461 over a lifetime in costs associated with these factors. Other research demonstrates that sexual violence can derail a person’s education and employment, resulting in a $241,600 income loss over a lifetime.
Getting support after a sexual assault can help. It’s critical to remember that you’re not alone nor to blame for the situation. It’s a good idea to reach out to friends or family, talk to a counselor/advocate, or join a support group. Talking with someone who understands can help you sort out the emotional aftermath. A recovery process that includes this helps survivors develop confidence, strength, insights, and abilities. Some things that may help afterward are reminding yourself that the feelings/sensations are memories of the past, you survived the trauma, and that you are safe now.
Another consideration is breathing because it’s normal to have rapid breathing when you’re scared. Focus on taking deep breaths and being aware of your senses (ex. ask yourself what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling in the current moment). If you have a flashback or nightmare, tell someone by calling a friend, family member, or crisis hotline. It’s helpful to identify ways in which you feel vulnerable and work with friends, family, or advocates at a crisis center to make a plan that will make you safe.
Impact on Others
Sexual violence doesn’t just impact the victim but also their parents, friends, partners, children, spouses, and coworkers. Often, loved ones experience similar reactions and feelings to those of the survivor, including fear, guilt, self-blame, and anger. The best way to provide support is by listening and offering comfort to the victim. Remind them that you believe them and reinforce the message that they aren’t at fault. Tell them that it’s natural to experience confusion, have problems remembering what happened, or feel angry/numb/ashamed. You can ask the person whether they would like you to go with them to the hospital or counseling.
Above all, friends and family should have patience with the healing process. When sexual violence happens in a community, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, campuses, and cultural/religious communities often feel fear, anger, or disbelief that it happened. Any type of violence destroys a sense of safety and trust. Instead, it creates an environment of fear and oppression. It’s important to realize that sexual violence is preventable through community members’ collaborations at multiple levels of society.
While you might not be able to prevent sexual assault, you can take steps to be safer around others. If you’re planning on going to a party or gathering with friends, arrive together, check in with each other frequently, and leave together. Before you go, talk about your plans for the evening so that everyone knows what to expect. Being aware of how much you drink is key. Drinking alcohol doesn’t make any attack your fault, but alcohol can make you more susceptible to attack. It’s essential to keep control of your drink. If at any point you feel drunk and haven’t drunk any alcohol or if the effects of alcohol feel more potent than usual, get help.
Awareness of your surroundings is paramount. If you’re walking alone, don’t wear headphones so you can hear what’s happening around you. Stay in busy, well-lit areas, especially at night. If you’re going on a date with someone new, meet in a public place. Always have a plan to get home. If you plan to use a ride-share service from an app, make sure your phone is charged or bring a charger. It can help to have a credit card or cash on hand if you need to leave quickly.
Listen to your instincts or “gut feelings.” If you feel uncomfortable in any situation for any reason, leave. Don’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings or being disliked. If a person prevents you from leaving, get someone else’s attention who can help you get to safety.
It’s a good idea to have a code word with your family and friends that means “Come get me; I need help” or “Call me with a fake emergency.” You can also download a free app on your phone to use if you feel unsafe or are threatened. Some apps share your location with your friends or the police if you need help. Others can set up an app to send you texts throughout the night to make sure you’re safe. If you don’t respond, the app will notify the police.
Sexual violence is always wrong! The victim is never to blame, regardless of the situation. If you’re a victim, seek help (see the resources below). It’s up to everyone to ensure that sexual violence is prevented as much as possible and reported if not. This will help lessen the short- and long-term impacts that it has on individuals and society.
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
National Center for Victims of Crime
National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Child Abuse Hotline
Department of Defense Safe Helpline (for military personnel)