Counseling Services: Sexual Assault
This page contains information about the nature of sexual assault. It is intended to help answer some questions you might have if you think you are or may have been a victim. This information is only a tool to help you better understand issues of sexual assault. If you think that you or someone you know might be a victim of sexual assault, PLEASE GET HELP!
Sexual assault can take many forms including rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats. Usually a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person’s body in a sexual way without that person’s consent. This can even include contact through clothes. Some types of sexual acts which fall under the category of sexual assault include forced sexual intercourse (rape), sodomy (oral or anal sexual acts), child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape. Sexual assault in any form is a devastating crime. Assailants can be strangers, but are more often acquaintances, friends, or family members. Assailants commit sexual assault by way of violence, threats, coercion, manipulation, pressure or tricks. Whatever the circumstances, no one asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted.
In most state statutes, the term sexual assault has replaced the term rape. This was intended to be more gender-neutral and to include more specific types of sexual victimization and various levels of coercion. Some state codes define First Degree Sexual Assault or Aggravated Sexual Assault as physically or psychologically forced vaginal, anal or oral penetration. This has typically been referred to as rape.
Sexual Abuse, Sexual Misconduct, Sodomy, Lascivious Acts, Indecent Contact, and Indecent Exposure are all examples of sexual assault charges. Almost any sexual behavior to which a person has not consented, or that causes that person to feel uncomfortable, frightened or intimidated can be included in the sexual assault category.
The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened, unconscious, under the influence of a substance, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believed they are undergoing a medical procedure.
What kind of acts can be sexual assault?
- Someone putting their finger, tongue, mouth, penis or any other object in or on your vagina, penis or anus when you don’t want them to;
- Someone touching, fondling, kissing or making any unwanted contact with your body;
- Someone forcing you to perform oral sex or forcing you to receive oral sex;
- Someone forcing you to masturbate, forcing you to masturbate them, or fondling and touching you;
- Someone forcing you to look at sexually explicit material or forcing you to pose for sexually explicit pictures;
- A doctor, nurse, or other health care professional giving you an unnecessary internal examination or touching your sexual organs in an unprofessional, unwarranted and inappropriate manner.
Reactions of Sexual Assault Victims
Since each person is different, victims of sexual assault will respond to an assault in different ways. Many factors can influence an individual’s response to, and recovery from, sexual assault. These may include the age and developmental maturity of the victim, the social support network available to the victim, the victim’s relationship to the offender, the response to the attack by police, medical personnel, and victim advocates, the response to the attack by the victim’s loved ones, the frequency, severity and duration of the assault(s), the setting of the attack; the level of violence and injury inflicted, the response by the criminal justice system; community attitudes and values, and the meaning attributed to the traumatic event by the sexual assault survivor (Koss & Harvey, 1991). Some survivors of sexual assault will find they can recover relatively quickly, while others will feel the lasting effects of their victimization throughout their lifetime.
Possible Effects of Sexual Assault
Numbing/apathy (detachment, loss of caring)
Restricted affect (reduced ability to express emotions)
Diminished interest in activities or sex
Loss of self-esteem
Loss of security/loss of trust in others
Loss of appetite
Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide and death)
Possible Physiological Effects of Sexual Assault
Hypervigilance (always being "on your guard")
Exaggerated startle response (jumpiness)
Self-mutilation (cutting, burning or otherwise hurting oneself)
Sexual dysfunction (not being able to perform sexual acts)
Hyperarousal (exaggerated feelings/responses to stimuli)
In addition, a survivor of sexual assault may develop Rape-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (RR-PTSD). According to the National Women’s Study, nearly one-third of all rape victims develop RR-PTSD sometime during their lifetimes (National Center for Victims of Crime & Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1992). PTSD is a psychological disorder characterized by chronic anxiety, depression and flashbacks which develop after experiencing a significant trauma such as a sexual assault. RR-PTSD is diagnosed by a mental health professional when the biological, psychological and social effects of trauma are severe enough to have impaired a survivor’s social and occupational functioning (Allen, 1995 p.169).
What should you do if you are sexually assaulted?
It is important that the victim of sexual assault understand that no matter where they were, when they were there, what they were wearing, or what they said or did, if they did not want the sexual contact, the assault was not their fault. Persons who commit sexual assault do so out of a need to control, dominate, abuse and humiliate. Sexual assault is the articulation of aggression through sex, and has little to do with passion, lust, desire, or sexual arousal.
Survivors of sexual assault, react in many different ways following the assault(s). Whatever the reaction, it may be helpful for the victim of sexual assault to call a friend, relative, partner, the police, or an advocate specifically trained in assisting victims of sexual assault.
Some prosecutor’s offices, police departments, and local sexual assault program have trained advocates who work with sexual assault victims and can provide a variety of services including:
- Accompaniment to the hospital, during the rape exam and to the police station;
- Information about reporting procedures and what to expect;
- Legal advocacy and court accompaniment;
- Emergency crisis intervention, counseling and referrals;
- Counseling for the victim’s partner, spouse or family;
- Assistance in finding care for children; and
- Information about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and pregnancy testing.
Immediately after an assault, it is most important that the victim find a safe place, such as a neighbor or friend’s house, police station, or hospital. If the assault occurred in the home, the house should be secured as soon as possible by locking all the doors and windows. If a survivor is hurt, it is imperative to either immediately dial 911 to request an ambulance or have a trusted friend or relative transport the survivor to the nearest medical facility for evaluation and treatment.
Reporting the Assault(s)
The decision to report a sexual assault lies within the discretion of the survivor. If a sexual assault survivor plans to report the assault to law enforcement, it is crucial to maintain evidence. To do this the victim should never do the following before getting advice from law enforcement:
- Shower, bathe, or douche;
- Throw away any clothes that were worn at the time of the assault;
- Brush or comb their hair;
- Use the restroom;
- Brush their teeth or gargle;
- Put on makeup;
- Clean or straighten up the crime scene; and
- Eat or drink anything.
If planning to report, it may prove helpful for the survivor to immediately write down everything they can remember about the assault including: what the assailant(s) looked like (e.g., height, weight, scars, tattoos, hair color, clothes); any unusual odor; any noticeable signs of intoxication; anything the assailant(s) said during the assault; what kinds of sexual activities were demanded and/or carried out; what kinds of weapons, threats or physical force were used; and any special traits noticed (e.g., limp, speech impediments, use of slang, lack of erection, etc.) (Johnson, 1985). Writing it down will not only aid the survivor in recalling details should they be required to testify, but it also gives the sexual assault survivor an active role in the investigation, which can provide a feeling of empowerment and an element of control in a situation where control had previously been taken away.
What to expect when you report a sexual assault.
The survivor who reports the assault to the authorities will most likely have to undergo a sexual assault forensic examination, sometimes called a "rape kit." During this procedure a doctor or nurse will collect the evidence necessary to establish that a crime occurred and, if possible, establish who committed the crime. To do so, the nurse or doctor will perform an internal examination (either vaginally, anally or both) taking swabs of any secretions left by the perpetrator and will do the same to the victim’s mouth if any oral contact was made during the assault. In addition, samples of the victim’s hair and pubic hair will be sampled from the root. On many occasions, several hairs need to be collected, so some discomfort may be possible. The pubic hair will also be combed through to collect any additional hair, secretions, or other foreign matter. The clothes the victim was wearing may also be held as evidence, so it is a good idea for the survivor to bring a change of clothes to the hospital. A series of photographs will also be taken of the victim, including areas where there are bruises, scrapes or cuts.
A victim who chooses to report the assault will be asked to describe the assault in detail to several different officers and investigators. The survivor may also have to tell a nurse what happened, and may want to share their feelings with an advocate. If the case is pursued, the survivor will be interviewed by the prosecutor’s office, and may have to take part in hearings in which the victim is asked questions about the assault. The sexual assault survivor who plans to prosecute should know it may take months or years for a case to go to trial, so he or she should be prepared to talk about their victimization many times before ever having to testify before a trial jury or judge.
Why you should report a sexual assault.
It is the fear of intrusive court procedures that prevent many sexual assault survivors from reporting their assault(s). Many factors contribute to under-reporting including shame and embarrassment, self-blame, fear of media exposure, fear of further injury or retaliation, and fear of a legal system that often puts the victim’s behavior and history on trial. A majority of states now have laws called "rape-shield" statutes, which prohibit any non-relevant evidence of the victim’s past sexual history from being used by the defense at trial.
There are benefits to reporting sexual assaults which include being eligible for state crime victim compensation funds. If a victim is eligible, these funds can possibly pay for the sexual assault forensic examination; other medical expenses; one-time or ongoing sexually transmitted disease testing; psychological counseling and treatment; lost wages; and other services and assistance.
In addition, many sexual assault survivors report that choosing to follow through with prosecution contributes to a feeling of accomplishment and empowerment because they are attempting to protect themselves and others in the community from being victimized. Many victims also report the attempt to put their assailant(s) in jail allows for a feeling of closure, enabling them to put the assault behind them (Johnson, 1985). Moreover, it is only through individuals reporting sexual assaults that pressure can be placed on the legal system and the community at large to reduce the negative consequences on victims who report sexual assaults. If individuals who commit sexual assault offenses are not apprehended and prosecuted, they will continue to commit sexual offenses. One widely recognized study found that 126 admitted rapists had committed 907 rapes involving 882 different victims (Abel et al., 1987).
HIV/AIDS and the Sexual Assault Survivor
A concern of many survivors of sexual assault is the possibility of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. According to the National Women’s Study, 40% of rape victims were significantly concerned about contracting HIV as a result of their assault. Though the actual risk of transmission from a single act of sexual assault is very low, the psychological stressor of possible HIV infection is quite significant for the survivor of sexual assault (Gostin et al., 1994). If the survivor wishes to be tested for HIV, he or she should talk to a trained advocate or HIV/AIDS professional counselor about the testing process and options. In most cases if a victim has contracted HIV, he or she will test positive within two weeks of the assault. In some instances it may take up to three months for a positive test result. If the victim decides to be tested, it is important to locate an anonymous testing site. If the first test result is negative, follow-up testing should be conducted three months, six months and one year after the assault. Many victims also wish to know the HIV status of their assailant. Most states allow for testing of alleged and convicted sex offenders and disclosure of the results to the victim.
Abel, Gene, et al. (1987). "Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Non-incarcerated Paraphiliacs." Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2(1): 3-25.
Allen, Jon. (1995). Coping with Trauma. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
Gostin, Lawrence et al. (1994). "HIV Testing, Counseling, and Prophylaxis After Sexual Assault." Journal of the American Medical Association, 271(18): 1436-1444.
Johnson, Kathryn. (1985). If You Are Raped: What Every Woman Needs to Know. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications, Inc.
Koss, Mary & Harvey, Mary. (1991). The Rape Victim: Clinical and Community Interventions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Library of Social Research.
National Center for Victims of Crime & Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA: National Center for Victims of Crime.
Ringel, Cheryl. (1997). Criminal Victimization 1996: Changes 1995-96 with Trends 1993-96. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
Adapted from information by the National Victim Center, Washington , D.C.
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What Every College Student Needs to Know about Sexual Assault, Acquaintance Rape, and the Red Zone | CCWRC
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National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization
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