Sexual assault is a crime and can refer to any type of sexual activity where consent is not obtained or freely given. The person responsible for the assault is often someone known to the victim, and can be, but is not limited to, a friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor. Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim.
There are many different types of sexual assault. Certain types, including sexual harassment, threats, intimidation, peeping, and taking nude photos, do not include physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator. Other types of sexual assault, such as unwanted touching, sexual assault, and rape, do include physical contact.
”Sexual assault” in everyday language is a general term that includes rape and other offenses like assault/battery and sexual groping. The definitions and labels for sexual offenses can differ slightly from state to state. In some states, sex without consent is called “rape,” while in others, it is called ”sexual assault,” ”sexual intercourse without consent,” or “sexual penetration without consent.” Though the term “assault” may bring physical attack to mind, it isn’t just about hitting. Sexual assault can also include using force or fear to make you do things that you don’t want to do.
Why are people sexually violent toward others?
Sexual assault is not about offenders getting pleasure from sex or any other form of harassment, but rather about them asserting power and control over someone else. Some offenders have been abused themselves, but this is not always the case, and there’s no evidence that a victim or survivor of sexual assault will become a perpetrator. To learn more about the theories behind sexual aggression, check out the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
How experiencing sexual assault might affect you
Everyone reacts to the types of sexual assault differently. Individuals can experience a variety of immediate, short-term and long-term effects on her (or his) physical and emotional well being. These can include:
Shock and denial. Someone who has been a victim of sexual assault might not accept that it has really occurred. Has this really happened to me? and Why me? might be common questions that someone might ask himself or herself.
Fear. After any form of sexual assault occurs, a person might be afraid of the offender, other people, or of being alone. A person might also be afraid to deal with the medical, legal or social consequences of the crime, and of being rejected by loved ones because of the sexual assault.
Silence. A sexual assault survivor might be unable to talk about the experience or describe what it means and feels like.
Anxiety. A survivor might always be on edge. He or she might be unable to relax or feel safe.
Depression. Survivors might be at a greater risk of depression after the incident.
Guilt and blame. A survivor might continually question the events leading up to the violent event, and find fault with him or herself, or others for the assault. Questions he or she might ask include Why did I go there? Why did I let it happen? Why did I not fight back?”
Low self-esteem. A survivor might feel ashamed or dirty after the assault.
Isolation. A survivor might want to be alone, and have a tendency to close him or herself off from friends and family members. A survivor might also have a hard time getting emotionally close to others after experiencing sexual assault.
Nightmares and flashbacks. Images and memories of the violence might continue in a survivor’s daily life and sleep.
Mood swings. Survivors might quickly change moods from anger and rage to tears and despair.
Loss of confidence. Survivors might become apathetic or self-conscious when working, studying or socializing with friends.
Loss of trust. After an assault, a victim might have a hard time trusting people who weren’t even connected with the incident, including friends and family members.
Lack of intimacy. Survivors might be afraid of, or uncomfortable in, sexual relationships after an assault.
To stay safe, play it safe
Most sexual assault occurs within a relationship (intimate partners, family members, or acquaintances). On average, 74% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, and 30% are by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But sexual assault can also happen outside of relationships. Check out the CDC fact sheet on sexual assault or the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website for more statistical information.
Here are some tips or things you can do to keep safe:
- Plan to go out and hang out in a group;
- Go out with people you feel safe with and who you know have your best interests at heart. Good friends make sure that their friends are safe and make safe choices;
- Have transportation plans to make sure you can get to where you’re going and back safely. Carry money for a taxi-cab just in case;
- Let someone—like your parents, siblings or roommates—know where you’re going and when you’ll be home. If your plans change, let these people know - check out the Circle of 6 App to do this with your smartphone;
- Alcohol and sex can be a dangerous mix. Remember: if you aren’t in control of yourself, you won’t be able to control your situation;
- Avoid being alone and isolated with someone you don’t know well. If you start to feel uncomfortable, go with your feelings, and get to a safe place as fast as you can;
- Take a self-defense class at your local high school, college or recreation center.
Agreeing to one type of activity such as kissing doesn’t mean that it’s a ”green light” for other sexual contact. Remember: it’s OK to change your mind and say no at any stage. Also keep in mind that you shouldn’t stop being careful just because you know the person you’re with. You might not know the person as well as you think.
Sexual assault and the law
In the United States, laws relating to sex and sexual assault can differ between states. Crimes such as statutory rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse can just mean people having sex under a certain age (the age of consent), and do not necessarily include force. The age of consent varies between the states, ranging from 14 to 18, with most states setting it at 16. This means that having sex with someone under that age, even if it is consensual, is a crime. Some states base the penalty for these violations on the age of the offender, with older offenders receiving harsher punishments. For example, in certain states, a minor might receive as little as six months or one year in prison, and an older offender might receive life imprisonment. Most penalties range from 10 to 30 years, depending on age and state, according to the Connecticut General Assembly Report.
The federal government has certain laws to ensure that all victims of violence have their rights. Since 2003, every state has some sort of crime compensation program and victims’ rights legislation. The Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a component of the Justice for All Act of 2004, specifies the roles of various criminal justice officials in supplying the information the victim is to receive, as well as in implementing victims’ rights. A second act, the Violence Against Women Act of 1998, enhances the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and increases the jail time of the accused perpetrator before the trial. These laws, along with other state and federal laws are continuously updated and reauthorized.
Sexual assault is a crime. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or was a victim of another type of sexual assault —either recently or in the distant past—you have the right to report it to the police. If you decide to report an assault, an officer will take your statement. If the assault was recent, he or she might also ask you to have a medical examination, during which a health care professional will make sure you’re physically OK and possibly take evidence. Check out the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network for more about what happens during an examination and who might conduct it.
Where to get help
Finding the courage to talk about sexual assault is important.
If you need help, you can call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Center for Victims of Crime hotline at 1-800-FYI-CALL. You can also call The Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 to find help in your area. And remember do not hesitate to call your doctor, nurse, or local health professional if you feel comfortable doing so.
Each state has a sexual assault coalition that can provide with state-specific information and resources. You can access each state’s coalition through the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice.
For emergency situations that require immediate and urgent assistance call 911.
How do I know this?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Victims of Crime
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
U.S. National Institute of Justice
Connecticut General Assembly
National Criminal Justice Reference Service
Last reviewed: Mar 11, 2013