Surviving Sexual Assault

Lara Long, Emily E. Mazurak and Morgan Wharton

Updated July 2012

Sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes in the United States, with researchers estimating that more than half of all sexual assaults and rapes go unreported. Based on the 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey, someone is sexually assaulted approximately every two minutes in the United States[1].

Rape and sexual assault are not exactly the same. While there are several definitions for these two terms, rape is most commonly defined as unwanted sexual intercourse, while sexual assault is defined as any unwanted sexual activity, including touching, fondling, kissing, intercourse or any other sexual activity that a person does not agree to. Based on these definitions, rape is considered to be one type of sexual assault.  What is important to remember is that intercourse does not have to occur for a person to have been sexually assaulted.

While anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, the majority of sexual assault victims are female, and the majority of people committing the assault (the perpetrators) are heterosexual males. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that one in five women and one in 71 men experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.[2] Sexual assault is not necessarily about sex; it is a form of violence motivated by the need for control and power. Unfortunately, rape and sexual assault are all too common in our society. While not all sexual assaults are reported in the United States, the National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that 232,960 females were sexually assaulted in 2006, which is roughly 600 women a day.[3] This survey also showed that 47% of victims were assaulted by a friend or acquaintance (sometimes referred to as date rape). The CDC reports that in 8 out of 10 sexual assaults, the victim knows the perpetrator.

It is important to know how to protect yourself from sexual assault, and if it does happen to you or someone you know, how to survive it. The following questions and answers provide advice on how to be a survivor and not just a victim. Fortunately, there are resources available to help you or someone you care about through the healing process.

What can I do to reduce my risk of being sexually assaulted?

There is no way that any of us can guarantee our safety, but there are some precautions that we can take to minimize the risk of being sexually assaulted. Even so, it’s important to realize that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault.

Since most sexual assaults involve people who know each other, consider these tips when out with acquaintances or on a date.[4]

  • Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable, try to remove yourself from the situation immediately.
  • Have a buddy system.  Don’t be afraid to let a friend know if someone or something is making you uncomfortable or if you are worried about your or your friend’s safety.
  • If someone you do not know or trust asks you to go somewhere alone, tell him or her that you would rather stay with the group.
  • Set limits on sexual activity. It is okay to speak up when you have had enough.
  • Be aware when someone is intruding on your personal space. It may be a sign that this person does not respect your boundaries and will not listen when you say, “no!’.
  • Go out on group dates when possible to avoid being alone with someone you do not know that well.
  • Clearly communicate what you want and do not want.

Sexual assaults can also involve a stranger. Keep these tips in mind: [5]

  • Be observant and aware of your surroundings.
  • Walk with confidence.
  • Again, trust your instincts and immediately remove yourself from any situation or location that makes you feel nervous or uncomfortable.
  • It is unfortunate, but true: more people will respond to a call to “Fire” rather than “Help.”
  • When in a parking lot, have your keys in your hand before you start walking to your car and once you get in your car, lock your doors immediately. Also, have your keys out and ready when you are going in your house and as soon as you are inside, lock the door behind you.
  • Walk in well-lit areas and drive on well-lit streets.
  • Make sure that your cell phone is with you and charged, but avoid talking on it while walking somewhere at night or even in the day if you are in an unsafe area. Being distracted makes you an easy target.
  • Avoid putting headphones in both ears when walking so you can be more aware of your surroundings.
  • Never hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers.
  • Keep the doors of your house/apartment locked at all times.
  • If you are driving and think that you are being followed, drive to the nearest police station, fire department, or open business.
  • If you have to leave your car at a mechanic/auto body shop or parking garage, leave only the key to your car.

What should I do if I’ve been sexually assaulted?

If you have been sexually assaulted, the first thing to do is to get to a safe place away from your attacker. Once you are away from your attacker and in a safe place, follow the steps below: [6]

  • Call 911 or the police. You can call the police from the hospital.
  • DO NOT shower/bathe/clean yourself in any way or change your clothes. Also you should not clean up the crime scene and/or move anything the offender may have touched. This can all be used as evidence.
  • Get medical attention as soon as possible. You can go to a hospital emergency room where you can be checked for injuries and you can receive treatment to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). They may be able to conduct a “rape kit” exam to collect evidence for possible prosecution of the attacker.
  • If you think you may have been drugged, you can ask the medical staff to take a urine sample.
  • Call someone to talk to. It can be a friend, a family member, or someone at a hotline. If you’ve been assaulted, it’s very important to talk to someone about how you are feeling – even if you don’t think you want to or need to. There is a national sexual assault hotline that is free and confidential: 1-800-656-HOPE.
  • Write down any details that you remember about the attack and the attacker immediately. Many women are amazed at what they will forget because of the stress and trauma.
  • Even if the sexual assault happened a while ago, it’s never too late to get help and it’s always important to talk to someone.
  • Remember that it will take time to heal after being sexually assaulted. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling will help you move forward.
  • And most of all, remember that it was not your fault.

Where can I get help?

There are many resources available if you’ve been sexually assaulted. However, sometimes it’s difficult to know who to turn to and decide where to go.

To speak with a counselor or an advocate, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline:

1-800-656-HOPE

For information on resources and knowing your rights, click:
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/help/rape.htm

To find local resources in your state, click:
http://www.feminist.org/911/resources.html

What can I expect to happen if I have a sexual assault exam?

It may be helpful to bring someone with you to the exam. This can be a friend or someone from a hotline or local women’s center. If you would feel comfortable, you can have someone in the room with you during the exam. The following will occur at an exam:

  • A history will be taken to check for injuries and determine treatment needed for you.
  • A pelvic exam will need to be conducted.
  • With your consent, a “rape kit” will be used to collect evidence. It is possible that the attacker may have left behind evidence (hair, saliva, semen, etc.) that could help to identify him. Swabs will need to be taken from your mouth, genitals, and rectum, along with hair samples. They will check under your fingernails for evidence of the attacker’s blood or skin.
  • Photographs will need to be taken of any bruises and other injuries.
  • Blood tests will be conducted to check for pregnancy and STD’s. It is important for you to consult with the doctor to review the results of these tests once they are received.
  • Tell the nurse or doctor at any time during the exam if you need to take a break or you want to stop the exam.

The doctor should inform you about emergency contraception.  Currently there are two forms of emergency contraception on the market: Plan B and ella. If the doctor does not offer emergency contraception, and there is the possibility that you may become pregnant after the attack, you can ask for it yourself. Plan B should be taken within 72 hours to be effective in preventing a pregnancy. Ella, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in August 2010, can prevent pregnancy up to five days after sexual intercourse.[7] Plan B and ella are a form of birth control that works after sex. They prevent pregnancy by delaying the release of an egg from the ovaries and, possibly, by thickening cervical mucus and making “swimming conditions” for sperm unfavorable. [8] [9] [10] Studies indicate that emergency contraception does not prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, which is why emergency contraception is not abortion. [8] [9]

You can get more information on Plan B specifically at http://www.planbonestep.com/ and on ella at http://www.center4research.org/2010/08/fda-approves-5-day-emergency-contraceptive/.

How can I help a friend who has been sexually assaulted?

If you know someone that has been sexually assaulted, she (or he) needs your support and understanding. Sexual assault is a traumatic experience. Remember that it may take time for your friend to heal both physically and emotionally. Also, many victims of sexual assault do not report it right away. Those who commit sexual assault are likely to do it again if they are not reported and held accountable for their crimes. You can also call a hotline to discuss ways to talk to your friend. Most importantly, know that the assault was not your friend’s fault and respect your friend’s right to make decisions that he or she is comfortable with.

For more information on sexual assault, check out these sites:

http://www.womenshealth.gov/violence/
http://www.rainn.org/
http://www.usdoj.gov/ovw/

For information on date rape drugs, go to:
http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/date-rape-drugs.cfm

To read the report Sexual Assault on Campuses: What Colleges and Universities Are Doing About It, click:
http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/205521.pdf


[1] U.S. Department of Justice. 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2007

[2] Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. 2011.

[3] Bureau of Justice Statistics (table 2, page 15), Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2006 Statistical Tables

[4] RAINN. Ways to Reduce your Risk of Sexual Assault. 12 May 2005. Available at http://www.rainn.org/get-information/sexual-assault-prevention, Accessed September 1, 2010.

[5] RAINN. Ways to Reduce your Risk of Sexual Assault. 12 May 2005. Available at http://www.rainn.org/get-information/sexual-assault-prevention, Accessed September 1, 2010.

[6] DNA & Crime Victims: What Victims Need to Know. The National Center for Victims of Crime. 2008. http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc/main.aspx?dbID=DB_DNAResourceCenter240

[7] Food and Drug Administration.  FDA approves ellaTM tablets for prescription emergency contraception. 2010.  Availiable at: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm222428.htm.  Accessed September 1, 2010.

[8] Trussell, James and Kelly Cleland. (2012). Emergency contraception: How it works (how it doesn’t). Science Friday. Retrieved from http://sciencefriday.com/blogs/06/15/2012/emergency-contraception-how-it-works-how-it-doesn-t.html

[9] Lloyd, S. (2012). Controversy surrounding emergency contraception. EmpowHER. Retrieved from http://www.empowher.com/sexual-well-being/content/controversy-surrounding-emergency-contraception?page=0,0

[10] clinical proceedings. (2011). Update on Emergency Contraception. In Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (Ed.).