Sexual Assault

woman crunchedSexual assault can be a violent, unexpected, traumatic and sometimes life threatening event or series of events. Sexual assault is ANY unwanted sexual act or behaviour which is threatening, violent, forced or coercive and to which a person has not given consent or was not able to give consent.

Examples include:

  • Putting a penis, object or other parts of the body into someone’s mouth, anus or vagina.
  • Being forced to give or receive oral sex – putting a penis into someone’s mouth.
  • Being forced to masturbate or forced to watch someone masturbate.
  • Unwanted sexual touching – on private parts of the body.
  • Sexual harassment – making inappropriate sexual comments.
  • Voyeurism – someone exposing themselves to you.
  • Making someone watch a sexual act or pornography.

So, how can you figure if what happened was rape?

There are a few questions to consider.

There are three main considerations in judging whether or not a sexual act is consensual (which means that both people are old enough to consent, have the capacity to consent, and agreed to the sexual contact) or is a crime.

  1. Are the participants old enough to consent? Each state sets an “age of consent,” which is the minimum age someone must be to have sex. People below this age are considered children and cannot legally agree to have sex. In other words, even if the child or teenager says yes, the law says no.
    • In most states, the age of consent is 16 or 18. In some states, the age of consent varies according to the age difference between the participants. Generally, “I thought she was 18” is not considered a legal excuse — it’s up to you to make sure your partner is old enough to legally take part.
    • Because laws are different in every state, it is important to find out the law in your state. You can call your local crisis center or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE to find out more about the laws in your state.
  2. Do both people have the capacity to consent? States also define who has the mental and legal capacity to consent. Those with diminished capacity — for example, some people with disabilities, some elderly people and people who have been drugged or are unconscious — may not have the legal ability to agree to have sex.
    • These categories and definitions vary widely by state, so it is important to check the law in your state. You can call your local crisis center or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE to find out more about the laws in your state.
  3. Did both participants agree to take part? Did someone use physical force to make you have sexual contact with him/her? Has someone threatened you to make you have intercourse with them? If so, it is rape.
    • It doesn’t matter if you think your partner means yes, or if you’ve already started having sex — “No” also means “Stop.” If you proceed despite your partner’s expressed instruction to stop, you have not only violated basic codes of morality and decency, you may have also committed a crime under the laws of your state (check your state’s laws for specifics).

Common Questions

I didn’t resist physically – does that mean it isn’t rape?

People respond to an assault in different ways. Just because you didn’t resist physically doesn’t mean it wasn’t rape — in fact, many victims make the good judgment that physical resistance would cause the attacker to become more violent. Lack of consent can be express (saying “no”) or it can be implied from the circumstances (for example, if you were under the statutory age of consent, or if you had a mental defect, or if you were afraid to object because the perpetrator threatened you with serious physical injury).

I used to date the person who assaulted me – does that mean it isn’t rape?

Rape can occur when the offender and the victim have a pre-existing relationship (sometimes called “date rape” or “acquaintance rape”), or even when the offender is the victim’s spouse. It does not matter whether the other person is an ex-boyfriend or a complete stranger, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had sex in the past. If it is nonconsensual this time, it is rape. (But be aware that a few states still have limitations on when spousal rape is a crime.)

I don’t remember the assault – does that mean it isn’t rape?

Just because you don’t remember being assaulted doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen and that it wasn’t rape. Memory loss can result from the ingestion of GHB and other “rape drugs” and from excessive alcohol consumption. That said, without clear memories or physical evidence, it may not be possible to pursue prosecution (talk to your local crisis center or local police for guidance).

I was asleep or unconscious when it happened – does that mean it isn’t rape?

Rape can happen when the victim was unconscious or asleep. If you were asleep or unconscious, then you didn’t give consent. And if you didn’t give consent, then it is rape.

I was drunk or they were drunk – does that mean it isn’t rape?

Alcohol and drugs are not an excuse – or an alibi. The key question is still: did you consent or not? Regardless of whether you were drunk or sober, if the sex is nonconsensual, it is rape. However, because each state has different definitions of “nonconsensual”, please contact your local center or local police if you have questions about this. (If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape. Both people must be conscious and willing participants.)

I thought “no,” but didn’t say it. Is it still rape?

It depends on the circumstances. If you didn’t say no because you were legitimately scared for your life or safety, then it would likely be considered rape. Sometimes it isn’t safe to resist, physically or verbally — for example, when someone has a knife or gun to your head, or threatens you or your family if you say anything.

If you’ve been raped or sexually assaulted, or even if you aren’t sure, contact the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) for free, confidential help, day or night.

I’ve been Sexually Assaulted, now what?

It’s hard to know what to do, how to feel, or what your options are after a sexual assault. Please know that you’re not alone. Below are some things to keep in mind. If you are in immediate danger or seriously injured, call 911.

  1. Your safety is important. Are you in a safe place? If you’re not feeling safe, consider reaching out to someone you trust for support. You don’t have to go through this alone.
  2. What happened was not your fault. Something happened to you that you didn’t want to happen—and that’s not OK.
  3. Call the hotline: 800-942-0649, a staff member will walk you through the process of getting help at your own pace.    You can also visit online.rainn.org to chat anonymously. Support specialists can also provide information on topics you might have questions about

Preserving Evidence:

DNA Evidence from a crime like sexual assault can be collected from the crime scene, but it can also be collected from your body, clothes, and other personal belongings. You may choose to have a sexual assault forensic exam, sometimes known as a “rape kit,” to preserve possible DNA evidence and receive important medical care. You don’t have to report the crime to have an exam, but the process gives you the chance to safely store evidence should you decide to report at a later time.  An advocate from our program can take you to have a forensic exam completed or we may receive a call from hospital staff once you respond to a medical facility with Sexual Assault trained nurses.

What is a rape kit?

You may have heard the term “rape kit” to refer to a sexual assault forensic exam. The term rape kit actually refers to the kit itself—a container that includes a checklist, materials, and instructions, along with envelopes and containers to package any specimens collected during the exam. A rape kit may also be referred to as a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK). The contents of the kit vary by state and jurisdiction and may include:

  • Bags and paper sheets for evidence collection
  • Comb
  • Documentation forms
  • Envelopes
  • Instructions
  • Materials for blood samples
  • Swabs

Preparing for a sexual assault forensic exam

If you’re able to following an assault, try to avoid activities that could potentially damage evidence such as:

  • Bathing
  • Showering
  • Using the restroom
  • Changing clothes
  • Combing hair
  • Cleaning up the area

It’s natural to want to go through these motions after a traumatic experience. If you have done any of these activities, you can still have an exam performed. You may want to bring a spare change of clothes with you to the hospital or health facility where you’re going to have the exam.

In most cases, DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours in order to be analyzed by a crime lab—but a sexual assault forensic exam can reveal other forms of evidence beyond this time frame that can be useful if you decide to report. Place your belongings, including the clothes you were wearing, in a paper bag to safely preserve evidence.

How long is the exam?

The length of the exam may take a few hours, but the actual time will vary based on several different factors. It may be helpful to have someone to support you during this time. If you call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or contact a local sexual assault service provider, you may be connected with an advocate who can talk to you about the examination and offer support. The advocate may also be able to accompany you during the actual exam. Be aware that if you invite someone other than an advocate into the exam room, they could be called as a witness if you decide to report the crime.

What happens during a sexual assault forensic exam?

The steps below outline the general process for the exam. Remember, you can stop, pause, or skip a step at any time during the exam. It is entirely your choice.

  • Immediate care. If you have injuries that need immediate attention, those will be taken care of first.
  • History. You will be asked about your current medications, pre-existing conditions, and other questions pertaining to your health history. Some of the questions, such as those about recent consensual sexual activity, may seem very personal, but these questions are designed to ensure that DNA and other evidence collected from the exam can be connected to the perpetrator. You will also be asked about the details of what has happened to you to help identify all potential areas of injury as well as places on your body or clothes where evidence may be located.
  • Head-to-toe examination. This part of the exam may be based on your specific experience, which is why it is important to give an accurate history. It may include a full body examination, including internal examinations of the mouth, vagina, and/or anus. It may also include taking samples of blood, urine, swabs of body surface areas, and sometimes hair samples. The trained professional performing the exam may take pictures of your body to document injuries and the examination. With your permission, they may also collect items of clothing, including undergarments. Any other forms of physical evidence that are identified during the examination may be collected and packaged for analysis, such as a torn piece of the perpetrator’s clothing, a stray hair, or debris.
  • Possible mandatory reporting. If you are a minor, the person performing the exam may be obligated to report it to law enforcement. You can learn more about mandatory reporting laws in your state through RAINN’s State Law Database.
  • Follow up care. You may be offered prevention treatment for STIs and other forms of medical care that require a follow up appointment with a medical professional. Depending on the circumstances and where you live, the exam site may schedule a follow up appointment, or you can ask about resources in your community that offer follow up care for survivors of sexual assault. Someone from the exam site may also be able to provide information or resources aboutreporting options.

Who can perform the exam?

Not every hospital or health facility has someone on staff that is specially trained to perform a sexual assault forensic exam and interact with recent survivors of sexual assault. When you call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) you will be directed to a facility that is prepared to give you the care you need.

  • Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) — registered nurses who receive specialized education and fulfill clinical requirements to perform the exam
  • Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFEs) and Sexual Assault Examiners (SAEs) — other healthcare professionals who have been instructed and trained to complete the exam

Why should you consider having a sexual assault medical forensic exam?

  • It won’t cost you. You should not be charged for the exam. The Violence Against Women Act requires states to provide sexual assault forensic exams free of charge if they wish to remain eligible for critical anti-crime grant funding. If you are charged for the exam, immediately contact your local sexual assault service provider.
  • You can have time to decide if you want to report. The decision to report the crime is entirely yours. It may take some time to decide what to do. Having a sexual assault forensic exam ensures that the forensic evidence will be safely preserved if you decide to report at a later time.
  • It increases the likelihood of prosecution. The importance of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases cannot be overstated. Not only does DNA evidence carry weight in court, but it may prevent future sexual assaults from occurring. Even if the perpetrator is not prosecuted, their DNA may be added to the national database, making it easier to connect the perpetrator to a future crime.
  • Your health matters. Sexual assault can impact your physical health. You may have injuries and trauma related to the assaults that aren’t immediately visible. During an exam you may be able to access treatment for these injuries, receive preventative treatment for STIs, and obtain emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy.

How long will the evidence be stored?

The amount of time an evidence kit will be stored varies by state and jurisdiction. A SANE, advocate, or law enforcement officer should let you know how long the evidence will be stored and the state’s rules for disposing the kit. It’s important to note that the amount of time the kit is stored doesn’t necessarily match up with the amount of time that legal action can be taken against a perpetrator, also known as the statute of limitation. If you have questions about timing, statutes of limitation, or any other concerns, contact your local sexual assault service provider.

 

After a sexual assault, you may wish to seek medical attention to treat any possible injuries and to check for injuries you may not be able to see.

How do I find medical care?
Once you’re in a safe place, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4653) to be connected with a local sexual assault service provider. They will direct you to the appropriate local health facility that can care for survivors of sexual assault. They can also send an advocate to help walk you through the process of receiving medical care during this tough time. If you can, it’s best to avoid showering or bathing before arrival. Bring a change of clothing with you if you are able.

In addition to receiving medical attention, you may wish to have a sexual assault forensic exam, sometimes called a “rape kit.” During this exam, someone specially trained to perform this exam, such as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), will collect DNA evidence that can help identify the perpetrator. You do not have to agree to a forensic exam to receive treatment, but doing so may give you a stronger case against the perpetrator if you decide to report the crime now or down the road.

What do I need to know about STIs?
There may be a risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) during a sexual assault. The only way to know for sure if you have an STI is to get tested. Based on what happened, a healthcare professional will recommend which tests are important to have now and which may need to be repeated in the future.

In some cases, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) may suggest you do not get tested. Despite rape shield laws, there may be a concern that positive test results could be used against patients to suggest sexual promiscuity, according to the Department of Justice.1

You may also be offered prophylactic treatment, medication that is designed to ward off STIs before they take hold in your body. Some of these medicines have very strong side effects, especially medicines designed to prevent HIV. The healthcare professional should tell you what to expect and help you make an informed decision about these medications. If you have questions about what to expect or need clarification on how to take the medicine, you should feel comfortable asking.

What do I need to know about pregnancy?
Oftentimes survivors have questions about pregnancy. These questions are best answered by healthcare professionals who can discuss the survivor’s physical health. To learn more about medical health issues related to pregnancy visit the National Institutes of Health.

How much will it cost?
Like all healthcare, there may be some costs associated with medical attention and medication, but these costs shouldn’t keep you from getting the care you need. There are victim compensation programs that can help cover some of the expenses. Most victim compensations funds require you to report the crime to law enforcement within 72 hours in order to be eligible.