The Road to Meaningful Living

A Survivor’s Guide to Sexual Assault

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, sexual assault includes any sexual activity for which a person does not give consent.

Sexual assault can involve physical acts such as rape or unwanted touching, but non-physical actions, such as flashing the genitals, are also considered sexual assault.

The Office on Women’s Health reports that one-third of women in the United States have experienced sexual violence, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a quarter of men have been victims.

Types of Sexual Assault

There are numerous types of sexual assault, including:

  • Rape, whether vaginal, oral, or anal
  • Sexual activity when a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and unable to consent
  • Forcing a person to do things he or she doesn’t want to do during sex
  • Taking videos or pictures of a person during sex without permission
  • Coercing a person to engage in sexual activities for money
  • Unwelcomed touching

Sexual Assault Versus Sexual Harassment

Sometimes sexual assault can be mistaken for sexual harassment, but the two are different.

Sexual assault is any type of sexual interaction that occurs without a person’s permission, whereas The Center for Family Justice reports that sexual harassment is any type of unwanted sexual conduct that embarrasses a person.

Sexual harassment can involve verbal remarks, provocative gestures, sexual stares, or unwanted touching.


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Coping Strategies for Sexual Assault

Statistics on Sexual Assault

The Office for Victims of Crime has reported the following statistics concerning sexual assault:

Police receive notification of only one-third of sexual assaults.

During their lives, 19 percent of women and 2 percent of men experience rape, whereas 44 percent of women and 23 percent of men suffer from another form of sexual assault.

In 2015, there were 0.3 cases of sexual assault per 1,000 men and 2.2 cases per 1,000 women.

Only 19 percent of sexual assault victims receive supportive services.

Among heterosexual females who are raped, 38 percent of them experience the first assault between the ages of 18 and 24, and 28 percent experience it between the ages of 11 and 17.

A survey of college students has revealed that 65 percent of students who suffer rape share the experience with a friend or relative, whereas under 10 percent of them notify police or school administrators.

Treating Sexual Assault

Despite the psychological consequences of sexual assault, effective treatment is available. As the authors of a report in a 2009 edition of Clinical Psychology Review have reported, treatment for sexual assault tends to focus on recovering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

According to the research, various forms of therapy, including cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, stress inoculation training, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing may be effective for treating victims of sexual assault.

Counseling Services

Local community mental health centers can provide information about treatment programs for sexual assault and complete the intake process for anyone seeking treatment. It is important that treatment programs are comprehensive and provide services to address the trauma of the sexual assault, as well as any co-occurring conditions, such as substance use disorders.

In treatment, victims of sexual assault can talk about their experiences, process their emotions, and overcome the trauma associated with the sexual violence.

While ongoing counseling services are likely necessary to heal from trauma, immediate treatment of sexual assault typically involves contacting law enforcement and receiving treatment from a local hospital, where staff can assess and treat any injuries sustained during the assault. Sexual assault is a violation of the law, and law enforcement officers can investigate to determine if a crime has been committed.

National Sexual Assault Hotline

The Office on Women’s Health has also reported that there is a National Sexual Assault Hotline that can offer support 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, and provide linkage to resources. This hotline can be reached by calling 800-656-4673.

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE)

In hospital settings and in some domestic violence shelters, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) can provide a forensic medical evaluation and coordinate with law enforcement officials who are investigating sex crimes. These professional are trained to collect evidence after an assault in a manner that it can be used in a court trial in the future.

The International Association of Forensic Nurses provides a search tool that can locate SANE service providers.

Misconceptions About Sexual Assault

Assaults Don’t Happen Within Relationships

There are some common misconceptions surrounding sexual assault. One such misconception is the belief that a person cannot be assaulted by someone with whom they are in a relationship. While this belief is relatively widespread, the reality is that among female rape victims, 51 percent report that an intimate partner was the perpetrator, as determined by the results of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

Abusers are Complete Strangers

Another misconception some people may hold regarding sexual assault is that the perpetrator is likely to be a random stranger. In reality, 40.8 percent of female rape victims report that the abuser was at least an acquaintance.

Among men, 52.4 percent of rape victims report that an acquaintance was the abuser, and only 15.1 percent of them report being abused by a stranger.

It is more likely that a person will suffer sexual assault at the hands of a partner or someone they know than from a complete stranger.

Men Don’t Get Sexually Assaulted

People may also hold a stereotypical view that women are always the victims of sexual assault, with men being the perpetrators, but as The Office for Victims of Crime has reported, nearly one-fourth of men experience a sexual assault other than rape during their lives, and 2 percent experience rape. While women may more often be the victims of sexual violence, men can also experience a sexual assault.

Sexual Assault Prevention

Treatment is available to assist those who experience an act of sexual assault, but prevention is also possible.

Personal Safety

The Office on Women’s Health recommends taking steps to remain safe in social situations. These steps can include:

  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Keeping an eye on your drink to avoid someone adding date rape drugs
  • Meeting dates in public locations
  • Going out with groups of friends
  • Having an agreement with friends to look out for each other
  • Finding a phone app that can alert friends or police if you are unsafe
  • Developing a code word to use with friends or family if you are unsafe and need help
  • Leaving a situation if you don’t feel safe

Actions You Can Take as a Bystander

Bystanders can also prevent sexual assault from occurring. The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) recommends that bystanders use the CARE intervention if they feel someone might be unsafe. This involves the following strategies:

C – Create a Distraction

For example, if a bystander feels a person might be at risk of sexual violence, he or she could ask the victim if he or she would like to leave to get food.

A – Ask

Asking might involve directly approaching the potential victim and inquiring if everything is okay.

R – Refer

Referring includes speaking to an authority figure, such as a law enforcement officer, and informing him or her of the concern of potential sexual assault.

E – Enlist

Enlisting means finding another person to assist with intervening with the potential victim.

The Power of Men

Men can play an important role in preventing sexual assault by vocalizing if they witness behavior that appears risky or is degrading to women.

It is critical that men support potential victims and step in if they see another man harassing a woman.

Sexual Assault Risk Factors

While some factors can serve to prevent sexual assault, there are others that increase a person’s chances of being a victim of sexual violence.

A study in a 2017 publication of the medical journal PLOS ONE evaluated factors that contribute to increased occurrence of sexual assault and identified the following risk factors:

  • Female gender
  • Not conforming to gender expectations
  • Financial difficulty
  • Being incapacitated by drugs or alcohol
  • Not identifying as heterosexual
  • Participation in a sorority or fraternity
  • Binge drinking
  • History of sexual assault
  • Having numerous casual sexual partners instead of being in a monogamous relationship

Using caution and being aware of risk factors can prevent a sexual assault and the mental health consequences that follow sexual violence. If you have been a victim of sexual assault, it is important to reach out for help and remember that the incident was not your fault.

See State Resources for Sexual Assault


  8. – Resources by state on violence against women

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