Sexual assault affects everyone, but it disproportionately affects women. One in six women and one in 33 men have been the victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. Not only is sexual assault a traumatic physical experience, it can cause emotional and mental trauma that in turn can lead to mental illnesses (post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorders), trouble in school or at work, and trouble maintaining relationships. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. If you have been the victim of sexual assault, there is support available to you.
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What is sexual assault?
Any nonconsensual sexual experience is a sexual assault. These experiences could include rape, which is generally defined as 1) Any form of unwanted penetration of the vagina or anus with a body part or object, or 2) Forced oral penetration by another individual’s sex organ. However, penetration is not necessary for an event to be defined as sexual assault. Molestation; forced, nonpenetrative sexual acts; unwanted touching; and unwanted kissing are other forms of sexual assault.
Sexual harassment, also unwanted and offensive, is not exactly the same as sexual assault. While sexual assault can technically be considered harassment (or unwanted attention, pressure, or coercion), sexual harassment more frequently includes oral or written commentary and little to no physical contact. Types of sexual harassment include suggestive or sexual comments; sexual jokes; or uninvited exposure to sexual images, objects, or actions (e.g., an individual exposing themselves to you). Sexual harassment may also include sexism, which isn’t always sexual. A man who makes derisive comments about women to a woman is still committing sexual harassment.
Both sexual assault (which may be prosecuted as assault, battery, or criminal sexual conduct) and sexual harassment are illegal. Sexual harassment is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is intended to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, among other things. If you are the victim of sexual harassment, and you feel that this harassment creates an unsafe work or classroom environment, you are well within your rights to report it.
Consensual sex and sexual assault or harassment are not the same. Consensual sex is voluntary; sexual assault and harassment are not. Consent is important—whether you say “yes” or “no”—because it draws the boundaries between sex and assault. Giving or refusing consent is also empowering. It gives people the agency to say “no” or to say “yes” based on their personal beliefs, level of trust, and what they want at a specific moment in time. This is equally important for people who are sexually active and for people who are not.
How do I respect my partner?
You don’t want to be pressured, so it is easy to see why you shouldn’t pressure anyone else into any sexual activity. Ask questions before and during a sexual encounter, and genuinely listen to your partner’s answers. If your partner says “no,” is unsure, or doesn’t give an answer either way, stop the encounter. Do not pressure your partner into anything that he or she has already said they do not want to do.
It can be uncomfortable, but having a mature conversation about each of your desires before anything occurs is the best way to ensure you’re on the same page. Be respectful of your partner and his or her choices. Treat your partner the way you would like to be treated.
What if my partner is pressuring me into doing something I’m not comfortable doing?
If something does not feel right, you can say “no” at any time. Of course, you can say “no” before anything begins, but you can also change your mind in the middle of a sex act if you’re no longer certain that you want to continue. There is no reason to feel ashamed of turning down a sexual experience. Say “no” calmly and firmly. Your partner should always listen to your needs and respect your wishes.
Respect doesn’t always happen, though, particularly if you or your partner are under the influence. If your partner is persistent and you have the ability to leave, leave. Someone who continues to pressure you to agree to sex acts after you’ve said “no” does not respect you or your body. Likewise, someone who equates sex with love is mistaken and manipulative. Think twice about continuing a relationship in which you’re continually pressured to agree to something you do not want.
If you are in a situation where sexual assault seems imminent or you are being physically threatened, you can and should take whatever steps you deem necessary to protect yourself and your life. This may involve running away, fighting your attacker, or submitting to the assault. Anything that happens once you’ve said “no” is not your fault.
What are acquaintance and date rape?
Occasionally, some people realize that their partners, friends, or significant others are not respecting their wishes. These situations can lead to acquaintance rape or date rape.
Acquaintance rape is a sexual assault perpetrated by someone that the victim knows or trusts. However, a classmate, neighbor, or other acquaintance may be the perpetrator. Rape perpetrated by someone whom the victim doesn’t know is referred to as stranger rape.
By most definitions, date rape is specifically perpetrated by a person who expects to have a sexual relationship with a romantic partner or significant other. Often, either alcohol, drugs, or both are used to facilitate date rape.
Like all sexual assaults, acquaintance and date rapes are devastating. Those who suffer through these experiences are often left with conflicted feelings. They may not want to report the perpetrators, or they may feel guilty for ever having trusted them.
How is date rape perpetrated? How can I keep myself safe?
Date rape can happen to anyone, though you are at more risk if you’ve been drinking or doing drugs since your judgment is already impaired. Alcohol is the most common substance used to facilitate date rape. Drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, and ketamine may also be given to the victim to force compliance, reduce inhibitions, and prevent new memories from forming.
- Rohypnol is illegal in the United States, but in other countries it may be prescribed to treat insomnia. Commonly known as roofies, Rohypnol is a muscle relaxant. Side effects include sleepiness, impaired judgement, confusion, and memory loss, making it a sought after date rape drug. Side effects occur almost immediately and last up to eight hours. While name brand Rohypnol has been altered to turn blue when it comes into contact with clear and light-colored liquids, many Rohypnol-esque drugs are not name brand and don’t include the added safety measure of the dye. Unfortunately, Rohypnol and similar drugs are unscented and unflavored.
- GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) is a synthetic drug that causes euphoria, sleepiness, confusion, memory loss, and hallucinations. GHB occurs naturally in the human body in very small amounts, but the drug itself is illegally “cooked” in labs. Side effects occur almost immediately and last up to six hours. If the given dosage was too large, side effects may be deadly; they include unconsciousness, coma, and death. GHB is either a liquid or a white powder that may taste vaguely salty. Once dissolved in liquids is has no scent and no color.
- Ketamine is a fast-acting animal tranquilizer. Side effects begin to occur immediately and include hallucinations, elevated heart rate, nausea, and memory loss. While hallucinations may only last for an hour, other side effects remain for up to 24 hours. Ketamine comes in either liquid or powder form, but both are unscented and tasteless.
The best way to avoid ingesting date rape drugs is to get or make (from containers that you open) all of your own drinks, not to accept drinks from people who you don’t know or trust, and to keep your drink with you at all times, even in the bathroom. If you are worried about a drink that was left unattended, dump it and get a new one. Further steps you can take to protect yourself include going to parties or bars with a group of friends, watching the bartender as your drink is being made, and setting a hard limit for the number of drinks you will ingest over one evening.
If your drink turns blue or turns cloudy, or if you feel like you’ve been drugged (you may suddenly feel confused, excessively drunk, tired, or dizzy), call 9-1-1 immediately and notify a friend or a bartender. Do not leave with anyone. Wait for paramedics to arrive.
How do I avoid a sexual assault?
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to avoid a sexual assault. Sexual assault can happen to anyone (virgins, married people, women, men, children, transgender individuals, the elderly, etc.), and it is relatively common on college campuses. In fact, more than one in five women and one in 20 men will experience rape or sexual assault as undergraduate students.
Assault is inherently unwanted and oftentimes forced through violence or coercion. That said, many media outlets and online forums practice something called victim-blaming, which suggests that victims could have prevented their own assaults. This is a tragic and hurtful misconception that takes the blame away from the perpetrator of the attack. If you experience an assault, it is not your fault and you were not asking for it. You are not to blame for the way you dressed, the route you walked, or anything that happened to you while you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
What do I do if I have experienced a sexual assault of any kind?
Consent is essential to your health and safety. It keeps you in control of your body and encourages you to respect those around you. If you did not give your consent and think you may have experienced an assault, for instance, after waking up in an unfamiliar location, having little to no recollection of the night, feeling as if you’ve been sexually active, or noticing that your clothes aren’t on properly, there are resources out there to help you. Your assault is never your fault.
What you choose to do after experiencing an assault is up to you. You may access counseling, medical services, or legal advocates before reporting the assault to your campus or local police department, but know that you do not have to report an assault to law enforcement officers if you do not want to.
If you think that you might want to report a sexual assault, there is a sequence of events that should be followed:
- Call 9-1-1 and explain the situation. If you are hurt, have an ambulance or a friend drive you to the emergency room; law enforcement officers can meet you there. When making a statement to law enforcement officers, be as accurate as possible. This is hard if you’ve been drugged or don’t know what happened, but try to relay the timeline precisely, at least including the events that led up to and followed your assault. If you knew your attacker, say so; if not, try to describe him or her in detail. You will be asked any number of questions about the assault, and many of them will be uncomfortable. Do your best and be truthful; if you go to court, your statement will be a major piece of evidence against your attacker.
- This step is optional. You do not have to involve the police immediately if you do not want to. Hospitals have trained staff that can conduct forensic exams in cases of sexual assault without involving law enforcement officers. Getting to the hospital soon after the event, however, is imperative to gathering the largest amount of evidence should you decide later on to report the attack. This type of exam should be free.
- Do not clean up. Your body is a crime scene and changing your clothes, showering, brushing your teeth, or using the restroom will damage or destroy DNA evidence that could be used against your attacker. Likewise, if the assault took place in your home, do not change the sheets or tidy the room. Crime scene examiners can photograph the location and search for further evidence at the location where the assault occurred.
- Ask for a drug test. If you don’t know what happened but suspect you may have been drugged, ask the hospital staff to perform a drug test. If you can at all avoid it, do not use the bathroom before being seen by a doctor. Date rape drugs, particularly GHB, leave your system between a few hours and a few days after ingestion. Whether drug levels are detectable also depends on your metabolism, the dosage, and the sensitivity of the drug test. Using the restroom will decrease the likelihood of a drug test being positive.
- Ask for a rape kit. This is a head-to-toe examination that searches your body for evidence that you’ve been sexually assaulted. A doctor may perform an internal exam; photograph any injuries that you’ve sustained; and check your body for hair, skin, and any other trace evidence that may have been left by your attacker. Your clothing may also be taken into evidence.
- Get follow-up care. When you arrive at the hospital for your forensic exam, the doctors and nurses will treat any physical injuries that you incurred as a result of your assault. Physical injuries aren’t the only ones that need to be cared for, though. Depending on your sex, you may also be offered emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy or further testing to determine if you’ve contracted any STIs and need to be given the treatment that follows.
Whether or not you want to report your sexual assault, you should get medical care. Visit the emergency room if you have severe or life-threatening injuries. You could also choose to visit your general practitioner, an urgent care doctor, or the campus health center. You are not required to disclose your assault, but you may want to so that you can get the best care. If you are worried about pregnancy, ask for emergency contraception. If you are worried about STIs, ask your doctor to run STI tests. Once results are back, follow up with your doctor about any treatment that may be necessary.
Once you’ve cared for your physical ailments, consider other, less visible ones. Your mental and emotional well-being is just as important as caring for your body. You may choose to talk to a friend or family member about what happened to you, but if you prefer to remain anonymous, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). There are also online chat options available in both English and Spanish. Whether you call or chat, you will be connected to a trained professional whom you can talk to about what happened. He or she can provide immediate emotional support, but also connect you to local service providers who are trained to provide support to sexual assault victims. Local providers include therapists, lawyers, criminal justice system advocates, counselors, and educators.
Recovery will not come overnight. You may find that you have to face your attacker on campus, or discover that regaining a sense of safety on campus isn’t easy. Know that these feelings of anxiety are normal after experiencing a traumatic event. You may benefit from keeping close to a group of friends when walking through campus, carrying your phone at all times, or talking to someone at the campus health clinic.
You do not have to recover alone.
Page last updated: 03/2019