What Is Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault is any sexual contact or sexual attention committed by force, threats, bribes, manipulation, pressure, tricks, or violence. It includes rape and attempted rape, child molestation, incest, and sexual harassment. Sexual assault is a terrifying and often brutal crime: assailants can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members. The devastating effects are shared by victims and those who love them.

Rape is a crime of violence, anger, and power. It is not motivated by sexual desire.

Rapists use sexual violence as a weapon to control, humiliate, and hurt their victims. Anyone can become a victim. Victims are not selected for their attractiveness or appearance. Sexual assault of any type is never a victim's fault. No one ever "asks for" or deserves to be sexually assaulted.

Types of Sexual Assault

  • Stranger Rape
    The victim and offender have no relationship and will not recognize each other.
  • Non-Stranger Rape
    Sexual contact occurs within a relationship and is obtained through the use of force or coercion. The victim and offender know each other or can recognize each other prior to the assault. This is the most common type of sexual assault.

  • Marital Rape
    The victim and assailant are spouses. This type of rape often occurs within a domestic violence situation.
  • Multiple Rape
    There are multiple assailants with whom the victim may or may not be acquainted with.

Sexual Assault Facts

  • Rape is the most underreported crime in the United States.
  • One out of every eight women are victims of rape.
  • 76% of sexual assault victims knew the perpetrator of the assault.
  • 83% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 25.
  • While there has been a national decrease in the number of violent crimes, 10% in the last decade, since 1996, there has been an increase between 13% to 23% every year of sexual assault victimization.
  • 90% of sexual assault perpetrators did not possess a weapon at the time of the assault. However, most victims of sexual assault fear for their lives, fear threats of bodily harm, or fear threats of harm to friends or family.
  • Evidence collection is geared towards substantiating a forced sexual act, and not the identification of the perpetrator because most victims of sexual assault know the perpetrator.
  • The average number of rape victims per rapist is seven. Sexual assault perpetrator apprehension is a public safety concern.

Victim Issues

Victims of sexual assault may experience shock, numbness, disorientation, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal, denial, nightmares, flashbacks, rage, anger, revenge, depression, difficulty eating, or sleeping, extreme and unexplainable fears, guilt, and self-blame.

There is no typical sexual assault nor is there a typical pattern of responses to rape. However, counselors report that a victim may experience a number of different responses to rape.

  • Fear
    Victims of rape feel fear because of the threats made by the rapist and fear of what may happen if they don't do as the rapist says. The rapist often threatens to harm or kill victims if they report the crime, telling them he will "find them somewhere or somehow."

    Victims may also fear society's reaction if they tell anyone. People who have been raped are afraid the blame will be placed on them rather than on the rapist.

    Fear of other men may occur because of what the rapist has done. It is easy to generalize all men in the same category.

    Most victims of rape fear not being believed, especially if they victim knew the rapist or if the rapist was well known in the community.

  • Guilt
    Many times victims will internalize the mythology that the rape was somehow their fault. "I should have been wearing something else." "I should have locked the door." "It must have been something I did." It is important to remember that the rape is a crime committed against a victim and that the rapist is responsible for the assault.

    Many times victims will feel guilty that they didn't attempt to fight the rapist or they didn't fight hard enough. It is important to remember that staying alive is the most important thing and that fighting the attacker may cause more harm or even death to the victim.

    Some victims may feel that because they knew the rapist they should have known he wasn't as he appeared. There is no way of knowing who is a rapist and who is not. Victims may have been with their assailant before and were never raped - how would they know that this time would be different?

    Many victims have the idea that they would be able to resist or could take care of themselves if a rape were attempted. After the rape, self-doubt and guilt run rampant.

  • Embarrassment
    Many victims are embarrassed to talk about the physical details of the assault. They have been brought up to believe that their bodies and sexual activities are private and to be discussed.

    Talking or telling anyone about the rape may be embarrassing and painful.

    Many victims isolate themselves from family and friends because they are embarrassed to have friends and family find out about the assault.

    The victims may also fear being blamed by friends and family for the assault.

    The medical exam may also be embarrassing. A victim's body is again exposed to others, which may be an emotionally painful experience.

  • Anxiety
    Many victims feel extreme anxiety and often react by shaking. When they remember the incident, physical reactions such as shortness of breath, panic, shaking in fear, etc., are common. Nightmares occur frequently as well. It is important for them to realize they are safe and the physical reactions are occurring as a result of feelings about rape.
  • Questioning Why it Happened to Them
    Many victims of rape wonder why the rapist chose them or what it was that separated them from others. Rapists decide to rape, and they plan the rape. But they may not decide who the victim will be until the time of the attack. The decision may be based on who happens to be available, not because of who she is, what she does, or how she dresses.
  • Anger
    It is important to know that for many victims there is anger about the events following the rape, just as there is anger about the rape itself. Victims experience anger at having to change their lifestyles, and they feel anger because of the feelings of powerlessness. Anger can be a very appropriate reaction for victims of assault, because anger directed at the perpetrator can be the start of working through the assault. Counseling, reporting, and prosecuting may be ways to vent those feelings.

Actions to Take If You Think You Have Been Drugged and/or Sexually Assaulted
If you or a friend feel dizzy, confused, or have other sudden, unexplained symptoms after drinking a beverage, call a family member, friend, the police, a doctor, or 911 for help in getting to a hospital. Here are the steps you should take:

  • Get to a safe place and call a rape crisis center for information or support. For a toll free crisis hotline, call      1-800-656-HOPE         1-800-656-HOPE
  • Determine whether or not to report the incident to the police. If there is any chance you want to report the assault, the person should not shower, bathe, douche, change clothes, or straighten up the area until medical and legal evidence is collected because these actions will destroy evidence.
  • If you want to report the incident, first call the police and then go to the hospital and have the medical evidence collected.
  • Go to a hospital, clinic or private doctor for treatment of external and/or internal injuries, tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and support services.
  • Request a urine test to detect the presence of sedating substances as quickly as possible. Every hour matters. Chances of getting proof are best when the sample is obtained soon after the substance has been ingested, but the test can be reliable even on a sample obtained 72 hours later. The test can be requested by law enforcement officers, rape crisis centers or the hospital emergency department.

Developed by Coalition Against Sexual Assault ND, with format from the D.C. Rape Crisis Center

If you know someone who has been raped, you can:

1) Know the facts about sexual assault.

The more educated you are about sexual assault, the more likely you are to be a positive support for a loved one who has been assaulted.
It is important to learn:

  • how often sexual assault happens in your area as well as statewide.
  • what the effects of sexual assault are on victims and their loved ones.
  • guidelines on how best to support victims while taking care of your own emotional needs.
  • who the mental and physical care professionals are in your area.

2) Support the victim.

  • Listen without judging or giving advice. The victim may be feeling afraid (of being raped again, of being killed by the rapist); vulnerable; out of control; embarrassed; ashamed; guilty; angry and grief-stricken.
  • Do not criticize the victim's feelings. Do not tell a victim to feel or not feel a certain way.
  • Do not criticize the victim's actions. The victim made the best decisions possible in a dangerous situation.
  • Do not press for information. Allow the victim to share information that feels comfortable. Respect victim privacy and boundaries.
  • BELIEVE THE VICTIM. Speculation, criticism and doubt will prevent victims from talking about the assault, and possibly discourage them from seeking help from the criminal justice system, hospital, or local rape crisis center.
  • Give support. Be prepared that recovery may take years. The victim will need support throughout the entire process.

3) Know what to expect.

  • Victims' feelings vary during the crisis reaction, and these feelings are unpredictable.
  • Victims may feel numbness, sadness, grief, terror, happiness that they are alive, and confusion.
  • Feelings may be expressed or controlled. A victim may be outwardly upset or appear very calm.
  • Over time, feelings may be accompanied by loss of appetite and disturbance in sleep patterns such as nightmares.

4) Get help to deal with your own feelings.

  • You may experience rage, guilt, and blame.
  • You may feel impatient with the long, slow process of healing.
  • Anger is a natural reaction to what has happened, but extreme rage toward the rapist may only frighten the victim.
  • Guilt may be the result of feeling responsible for protecting the victim. You could not have prevented the assault. The responsibility for this crime belongs with the assailant.
  • Accept your feelings. You may want to talk to a counselor or advocate about what you are experiencing. You and the victim will have to deal with many feelings; talking about it together can help. Recovery takes time and patience.

5)"Rape Trauma Syndrome" or "Rape-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" describes what many victims continue to experience long after the rape.

  • Victims may mentally and physically relive the assault many times (flashbacks).
  • The victim may be afraid of seeing the rapist or fearful of all people for a time. Victims may be afraid to leave home, or afraid of crowds. This is because their trust in the environment has been destroyed.
  • Most rape victims continue to experience physical discomfort; nightmares; loss of appetite; sexual dysfunction; and extreme mood swings. A victim must grieve a sexual assault similar to any type of loss. Grieving takes a long time. The victim will likely go through cycles of denial, resolution, anxiety and grief.
  • The victim of rape must have understanding and support for the changes that will be experienced. Recovery is possible, but life has been significantly altered. It may be helpful to talk with a trained counselor. A support group with other victims may also be helpful.

6) Everyone reacts with different feelings.

Respect not only the survivor's feelings and your own, but other family members' as well. Responses will vary but the victim's well-being is the important issue.

(Adapted from Advocate Program at Crisis Services, Inc.)