Sexual assault is a crime that can refer to any type of sexual activity or contact that you do not consent to. Sexual assault can happen through physical force or threats of force or if the attacker gave the victim drugs or alcohol as part of the assault. Sexual assault includes rape and sexual coercion.
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, 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 from country to country based on their laws. 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 sexual things that you don’t want to do.
What drives people to be sexually violent towards other people?
Sexual assault is not about offenders getting pleasure from sex or any other form of harassment, but rather, asserting power and control over someone else. Sexually violent people are not only strangers but are oftentimes people that victims know.
How does being sexually assaulted affect a person?
Everyone reacts to 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 or denial. Someone who has been a victim of sexual assault might not accept that it has really occurred.
- 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.
- A survivor might always be on edge. He or she might be unable to relax or feel safe.
- 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.
- Low self-esteem. A survivor might feel ashamed or dirty after the assault.
- Nightmares and flashbacks. Images and memories of the violence might continue in a survivor’s daily life and sleep.
- 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.
What does sexual violence look like?
Most sexual assault occurs within a relationship (intimate partners, family members) or by someone a person knows. A minority of sexual assaults happen by a stranger. Sexual assault can also occur even if someone is not physically attacked. Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after someone is pressured, tricked, or forced in a nonphysical way.
Anyone can use coercion — for example: husbands, partners, boyfriends, friends, coworkers, bosses, or dates.
Sexual assault that occurs through coercion is sometimes difficult to notice or identify.
A person may try to wear you down by asking for sex again and again or making you feel bad, guilty, or obligated. They may say things like, “If you really loved me, you’d do it,” or “You don’t know what you do to me.”
A person may make you feel like it’s too late to say no and say things like, “But you’ve already gotten me all worked up,” or “You can’t just make a guy stop”.
They may make you feel like not having sex will harm the relationship and say things such as, “I’ll break up with you if you don’t have sex with me.”
A person may make promises and for example say, “I’ll make it worth your while,” or
“You know I have a lot of connections.”
They may threaten your children, family, your career, home or school by saying things like “I really respect your work here. I’d hate it if something were to change that” or “I’ll do this to your daughter/son if you don’t do this with me”.
Sexual coercion is not your fault. If you are feeling pressured to do something you don’t want to do, speak up or leave the situation. It is better to risk a relationship ending or hurting someone’s feelings than to do something you aren’t ready or willing to do.
Some possible responses include:
“I do like you, but I’m not ready for sex.”
“If you really care for me, you’ll respect that I don’t want to have sex.”
“I don’t owe you an explanation or anything at all.”
Be clear and direct with the person coercing you. Tell him or her how you feel and what you do not want to do. If the other person is not listening to you, leave the situation. If you or your family is in physical danger, try to get away from the person as quickly as possible.
You cannot always prevent sexual assault. If you are assaulted, or if you find yourself in a situation that feels unsafe, it is not your fault. But you can take steps to help stay safe in general:
- 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;
- 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;
- Know your limits when using alcohol. Don’t let anyone pressure you into drinking or doing more than you want to.
- Trust your instincts. If you find yourself alone with someone you don’t know or trust, leave. If you feel uncomfortable in any situation for any reason, leave.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Especially if walking alone, avoid talking on your phone or listening to music with headphones. Stay in busy, well-lit areas, especially at night.
- If you are dating someone and pick up on cues where they are using coercion, ask yourself whether that relationship is right or healthy for you.
How to help
You can help a friend or family member who has been sexually assaulted by listening, offering comfort, and not judging. Reinforce the message that she or he is not at fault and that it is natural to feel angry, confused, or ashamed — or any combination of feelings.
To help a person that is being or was assaulted:
- Let your friend know you’re concerned about their safety. Be honest. Tell them about times when you were worried about them. Let them know you want to help.
- Be supportive. Listen to your friend. Keep in mind that it may be very hard for them to talk about the abuse. Tell him/her that she is not alone and that people want to help.
- Don’t place shame, blame, or guilt on your friend. Don’t say “You shouldn’t have gone out”, say “I believe you and this is not your fault.” Tell her you understand that her situation is very difficult.
- If your friend decides to stay in an abusive relationship, continue to be supportive. Your friend may decide to stay in the relationship, or she may leave and then go back many times. It may be hard for you to understand, but people stay in abusive relationships for many reasons. Be supportive, no matter what your friend decides to do.