Understanding Sexual Violence
- Your attacker was an acquaintance, date, friend or spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend, parent, sibling, guardian, other relative, professor, coach, or employer
- You have been sexually intimate with that person or with others before.
- You were drinking or using drugs.
- You froze and did not or could not say “no” or were unable to fight back physically.
- You were wearing clothes that others may see as seductive.
- You said “yes” but later said “no” and were not listened to.
Sexual assault/abuse is actual, attempted, or threatened sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent. Sexual assault/abuse is a criminal act that can be prosecuted.
Some forms of sexual assault/abuse include:
- Attempted rape
- Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
- Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
- Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape
Sexual assault and abuse are umbrella terms used to refer to multiple crimes, which include:
- Rape: a commonly used term to describe a sexual assault/abuse that includes unwanted, coerced and/or forced sexual penetration. The FBI defines 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.”
- Date Rape: sexual assault/abuse that occurs between people with an established relationship.
- Child molestation: any sexual contact with a child. Many children who are molested are too young to know what is happening and may not fight back. Some abusers use the child’s cooperation in these cases as “evidence” that no one was harmed. Examples of child molestation might include fondling or demanding sexual favors from a child.
- Incest: Incest describes sexual contact with a family member. While incestuous sexual activity may occur between consenting adults, most reported incest occurs as child abuse. Over a third of American sexual assault/abuse survivors under the age of 18 are abused by a family member, according to latest statistics. However, incest is an underreported crime, so the actual number of incest survivors may be higher.
- Non-consensual sexual contact: This category includes any unwanted sexual touching, such as groping or pinching. Attempted rape can also fall into this category.
Consent: the free and active agreement, given equally by both partners, to engage in a specific sexual activity.
Consent is not present when the other person:
- Is physically forced to comply
- Fears the consequences of not consenting
- Feels threatened or intimidated
- Is incapacitated by the use of alcohol or drugs
- Is coerced (compelled to submit through intimidation, threats, misuse of authority, manipulation, tricking, or bribing with actions and words)
- Says no, either verbally or physically (e.g., crying kicking or pushing away)
- Is not an active participant in the activity
- Is below the legal age of consent (varies in different states)
- Has a disability or mental impairment that prevent the person from making an informed choice
- Lacks full knowledge or information of what is happening
Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.
Approximately 8 out of 10 sexual assault/abuse cases are committed by someone known to the victim, often known as acquaintance rape.
Perpetrators of acquaintance rape might be a date, but they could also be a classmate, a neighbour, a friend, family member, coworker, etc. It’s important to remember that dating, instances of past intimacy, or other acts like kissing do not give someone consent for increased or continued sexual contact.
In other instances, the victim may not know the perpetrator at all. This type of sexual violence is sometimes referred to as stranger rape.
The Effects of Sexual Violence
Ensure your own safety
After the experience of sexual trauma, the first and most important factor should be prioritizing your safety and well-being.
Reach out for support
Once you feel more physically safe, it’s important to either contact the police, a crisis hotline and/or connect with a person you trust for support.
Consider your medical options
It is best to have the medical exam within 72 hours of the assault. It is ultimately up to you to decide what to do in accordance with your own physical, psychological and emotional needs. Even if you choose not to report, you should still go to the nearest hospital or clinic. You may feel okay, but it is still a good idea to talk with a medical care provider about tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections/diseases, and support services.
Additionally, they can provide you with a rape kit—a sexual assault forensic exam that can be used to collect DNA, blood samples and other evidence. If you are not ready to file a police report immediately, some centers can freeze the evidence and store it for later access.
Consider your legal options
If there is even a chance that you might want to report then you must preserve all evidence. Do not shower, urinate, change clothes (including undergarments), brush teeth, bathe, douche, or straighten up the area until the medical and legal evidence has been collected.
Some survivors are adamant that they want to file a police report or prosecute the assailant. For many others, they may be reluctant to report the assault immediately for various different reason. THIS IS OKAY, but we urge you to report, because you deserve justice for a trauma that can have a lifelong effect on you.
Victims of a crime have individual rights that depend on the laws of the location (state, territory or tribe) that the crime occurred.
Some of the laws and options that may apply are:
- Confidential access to victim advocates
- Availability of a forensic exam (rape kit) at no cost to you
- Time limits (statute of limitations) on certain legal actions
- Mandated reporting of the assault if you are a vulnerable person (child or elder adult)
- Confidential communication with service providers
- Testing or storage of evidence kits
- Possible financial compensation for you as a crime victim
Always try to contact a rape crisis centre in the area where you were assaulted, as they will be more familiar with the laws that apply in their area.
Everyone reacts differently to sexual assault/abuse, so do not feel that anything is wrong with you and the way you feel.
All of the following responses are normal:
Shock and denial
In the immediate aftermath of an assault/abuse, most survivors experience shock, derealisation, and a sense of being overwhelmed. You might think, ‘Did this really happen to me?’ or ‘Why me?’, and feel unable to accept that it actually happened.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Symptoms of PTSD include repeated thoughts of the assault/abuse; memories and nightmares; avoidance of thoughts, feelings, and situations related to the assault/abuse; and increased stimulation (e.g., difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, irritability).
It is common for survivors to fear people and be vulnerable even when going through the regular activities of life. They may be afraid to be alone, or afraid of being with lots of people. Survivors may lack safety even in their own environment, which makes them feel vulnerable and may fear that they will be assaulted again.
Survivors may be unable to talk about the assault/abuse, or to describe what it feels like to have been assaulted, out of fear of being judged or shamed. Try to SPEAK ANYWAY!
Anxiety and Nightmares
Survivors may experience shaking, anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares after an attack. This can begin shortly after the attack and continue for a long period of time. Nightmares may replay the assault/abuse or include dreams of being chased, attacked, etc. Survivors often fear that they are “losing it” and may feel that they should be “over it by now”.
Many survivors will fall into a depressive state. It can create feelings of hopelessness or despair. It may also reduce one’s sense of self-worth. Depressive feelings may be mild and fleeting, or they can be intense and long-lasting.
Guilt, Shame, Self Blame
Most survivors feel guilty and ashamed about the assault. Survivors often question that they somehow may have “provoked” or “asked for it”, that they shouldn’t have trusted the assailant, or that they should have somehow prevented the assault/abuse. These feelings are the result of society’s myths about sexual assault/abuse, rape, and sexuality. Survivors will often start to doubt their ability to make good judgments or trust their own instincts. You might ask yourself, ‘Why did I go there/allow it/not fight back?’ Remember, it was NOT your fault!
Some survivors battle with self-love after such an invasion of their body. Many may lose self-confidence, feel ‘unworthy’, ‘ashamed’ or ‘dirty’.
Some sexual assault victims/survivors feel their experience sets them apart from others. Oftentimes, they feel differently or think that others can tell that they have been sexually assaulted/abused just by looking at them. Some survivors do not want to bother anyone with their troubles, so they do not talk about the incident or their feelings. Survivors may withdraw or distance themselves from family and friends. Being around others is helpful.
Survivors might find that their mood changes quickly from anger and rage, to tears and despair, and back again. This is all normal after sexual trauma.
Loss of trust
Survivors might find it hard to trust people in their social circle, family and/or strangers.
Survivors may have different reasons to feel angry. There is often as much anger at the events following the assault/abuse, as toward the assault/abuse itself: changing lifestyle, loss of freedom, or towards friends and family. Anger is an appropriate, healthy response to sexual assault/abuse. Survivors vary greatly in how express anger. It may be especially difficult to express anger if a survivor has been taught that being angry is never appropriate. Anger can be vented in safe and healthy ways, or can be turned in, where it may become sadness, pain, or depression.
Survivors may experience a variety of sexual distresses after an assault/abuse. Some survivors may want no sexual contact whatsoever; others may use sex as a coping mechanism. Some people may experience some confusion about separating sex from sexual abuse. Particular sexual acts may provoke flashbacks and thus, be very difficult for the survivor to engage in.
There are many other emotions that may come about that are all very normal after sexual abuse. Recognizing, understanding, and controlling your feelings can be very difficult.
The first step in controlling your emotions is recognizing how you feel and noticing when your emotions get in the way. If you can figure out how you’re feeling early on, you can get your feelings under control faster and more easily. Then you’ll be able to feel better and begin your healing more efficiently. This is a part of your survival.
Voices Beyond Assault (VBA) wants survivors to remember that your ups and downs are normal. Realize that your feelings are a common and a normal response to your trauma.
- Process your experience – Learn healthy coping habits can help effectively process trauma.
- Reconnect to yourself and your life – Getting back in tune with yourself and your norms
- Have a network of support – Connecting with other survivors
- Be empowered by your survival – Thrive past your trauma