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Sexual assault fact sheet

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault and abuse is any type of sexual activity that you do not agree to, including:

  • Inappropriate touching
  • Vaginal, anal, or oral penetration
  • Sexual intercourse that you say no to
  • Rape
  • Attempted rape
  • Child molestation

Sexual assault can be verbal, visual, or anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. Examples of this are voyeurism (when someone watches private sexual acts), exhibitionism (when someone exposes him/herself in public), incest (sexual contact between family members), and sexual harassment. It can happen in different situations:  in the home by someone you know, on a date, or by a stranger in an isolated place.

Rape is a common form of sexual assault. It is committed in many situations — on a date, by a friend or an acquaintance, or when you think you are alone. Educate yourself on “date rape” drugs. They can be slipped into a drink when a victim is not looking. Never leave your drink unattended — no matter where you are. Attackers use date rape drugs to make a person unable to resist assault. These drugs can also cause memory loss so the victim doesn’t know what happened.

Rape and sexual assault are never the victim’s fault — no matter where or how it happens.

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What do I do if I've been sexually assaulted?

These are important steps to take right away after an assault:

  • Get away from the attacker to a safe place as fast as you can. Then call 911 or the police.
  • Call a friend or family member you trust. You also can call a crisis center or a hotline to talk with a counselor. One hotline is the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). Feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and shock are normal. It is important to get counseling from a trusted professional.
  • Do not wash, comb, or clean any part of your body. Do not change clothes if possible, so the hospital staff can collect evidence. Do not touch or change anything at the scene of the assault.
  • Go to your nearest hospital emergency room as soon as possible. You need to be examined, treated for any injuries, and screened for possible sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pregnancy. The doctor will collect evidence using a rape kit for fibers, hairs, saliva, semen, or clothing that the attacker may have left behind.

While at the hospital:

  • If you decide you want to file a police report, you or the hospital staff can call the police from the emergency room.
  • Ask the hospital staff to connect you with the local rape crisis center. The center staff can help you make choices about reporting the attack and getting help through counseling and support groups.

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Where else can I go for help?

If you are sexually assaulted, it is not your fault. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or support. Help is available. You can call these organizations:

There are many organizations and hotlines in every state and territory. These crisis centers and agencies work hard to stop assaults and help victims. Find contact information for these organizations. You also can obtain the numbers of shelters, counseling services, and legal assistance in your phone book or online.

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How can I lower my risk of sexual assault?

There are things you can do to reduce your chances of being sexually assaulted. Follow these tips from the National Crime Prevention Council.

  • Be aware of your surroundings — who’s out there and what’s going on.
  • Walk with confidence. The more confident you look, the stronger you appear.
  • Know your limits when it comes to using alcohol.
  • Be assertive — don’t let anyone violate your space.
  • Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable in your surroundings, leave.
  • Don’t prop open self-locking doors.
  • Lock your door and your windows, even if you leave for just a few minutes.
  • Watch your keys. Don’t lend them. Don’t leave them. Don’t lose them. And don’t put your name and address on the key ring.
  • Watch out for unwanted visitors. Know who’s on the other side of the door before you open it.
  • Be wary of isolated spots, like underground garages, offices after business hours, and apartment laundry rooms.
  • Avoid walking or jogging alone, especially at night. Vary your route. Stay in well-traveled, well-lit areas.
  • Have your key ready to use before you reach the door — home, car, or work.
  • Park in well-lit areas and lock the car, even if you’ll only be gone a few minutes.
  • Drive on well-traveled streets, with doors and windows locked.
  • Never hitchhike or pick up a hitchhiker.
  • Keep your car in good shape with plenty of gas in the tank.
  • In case of car trouble, call for help on your cellular phone. If you don’t have a phone, put the hood up, lock the doors, and put a banner in the rear mirror that says, “Help. Call police.”

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How can I help someone who has been sexually assaulted?

You can help someone who is abused or who has been assaulted by listening and offering comfort. Go with her or him to the police, the hospital, or to counseling. Reinforce the message that she or he is not at fault and that it is natural to feel angry and ashamed.

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More information on sexual assault

For more information about sexual assault, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:

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The information on our website is provided by the U.S. federal government and is in the public domain. This public information is not copyrighted and may be reproduced without permission, though citation of each source is appreciated.

Sexual assault fact sheet was reviewed by:

Joyce Lukima
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Content last updated: July 16, 2012.

Resources last updated: July 16, 2009.

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