Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. However, only 5 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will end up in prison, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
If you, someone you know, or a patient has been the victim of a sexual assault, you may not know where to turn. The immediate aftermath of a sexual assault can be confusing and overwhelming, but help is standing by. We’ll talk about the steps you can take after a sexual assault, including seeking medical attention, reporting the crime to authorities, and taking legal action against the perpetrator.
You or the victim may be traumatized during the immediate aftermath of an assault. You may have trouble getting home or taking any kind of action at all. Regardless of where the assault took place, the first step is to get to a safe location. If you were assaulted outside of your home, call a friend or family member who can come and get you, or secure some other form of transportation. You can also call 9-1-1.
If you were assaulted in your home and the perpetrator is still inside the house, you may want to leave if you can and go stay with a friend or family member; if you are unable to leave or are afraid to, call 9-1-1 for immediate assistance. Your personal safety is all that matters at this time. If you do not feel safe in your own home, it is critical that you call someone you trust who can take you to a safe place. You may not want to be alone during this time, so reaching out to a loved one may be the best choice.
It’s important to understand that what happened was not your fault; don’t ever make excuses for the perpetrator. There is never an excuse for sexual assault. If someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault and they start to blame themselves for the incident, remind them that what happened is not “ok” and that no one has the right to sexually assault another person.
Seeking Medical Attention
Once you’ve reached a safe location, you can either call 9-1-1 or the Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). The hotline will connect you to a trained staff member in your area. This person will quickly direct you to a local facility that specializes in caring for survivors and victims of sexual assault. Depending on your preferences, the hotline may send a professional to accompany you at this time. If you can’t drive yourself to the facility, you can have a family member or loved one drive you, call a cab, or have the hotline send transportation.
Before you leave for the facility, it’s best to avoid bathing or taking a shower. Bring along a spare change of clothes if you can.
When you arrive at the facility, a healthcare provider will be there to ask you questions and comfort you during this time. You will have to decide whether you want to receive what’s known as a sexual assault forensic exam, also known as a “rape kit.” If you say yes, you’ll be examined by a trained professional such as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), who will collect DNA evidence that may help you bring the perpetrator to justice. It’s best to collect this evidence as soon as possible.
You do not need a sexual assault forensic exam to receive treatment. This step is entirely optional. Be sure to ask a staff member to explain your options to you in order to make the best decisions for your well-being.
If you decide to go to an urgent care clinic instead, the facility may have a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner onsite who can perform the exam, or they will refer you to, or provide transportation to, a nearby facility that does.
Protecting Your Sexual Health
A healthcare provider at the facility will also walk you through the steps you should take to protect your sexual health. It’s possible that you may have been infected with an STD or HIV, but the only way to be sure is to get tested. Based on what happened during the assault, the healthcare provider will suggest tests that should be performed now and those that should be repeated in the future.
However, some Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners may recommend holding off on getting tested, as the test results may be used against victims in a court of law. For example, if test results come back positive for an STD, these results may be used to suggest a lifestyle of promiscuity on the part of the victim. There are certain rape shield laws in place that are designed to protect victims of sexual assault, and these laws vary from state to state. The nurse will walk you through your options at this time.
In addition to, or in place of, STD testing, you may receive what’s known as prophylactic treatment, or medication that’s designed to ward off STDs before they take hold in your body. Some of these medications may come with side effects, but the nurse will explain your options, including what to expect from these medications and the risks of forgoing medication.
Depending on what happened during the assault, the nurse may recommend being treated proactively for common STDs such as syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV. Treatment may include receiving a shot, taking a one-time medication, taking antibiotics for several days or a week, and taking what’s known as PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis.
PEP is only taken in emergency situations and is designed to prevent HIV from taking hold in the body after a possible infection. PEP must be taken within 72 hours, or 3 days, of the possible infection in order to be effective. You may take a one-time medication or receive a prescription for PEP, for which you’ll need to take a pill once or twice daily for 28 days. PEP can weaken your immune system for several days, weeks, or even months.
Common side effects of PEP include:
- Feeling depressed or tired
- Trouble sleeping
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Weight loss
Depending on the nature of the assault, you may also have questions about getting pregnant at this time. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner will answer your questions and present you with a series of options.
If you’re worried about paying for medical treatment after a sexual assault, you should still seek immediate medical attention. There are several victim compensation funds that are designed to help victims pay for treatment, but some of these programs require victims to report the crime to authorities within 72 hours.
Mental and Emotional Trauma
You may be feeling and experiencing a variety of emotions during the aftermath of a sexual assault. Many victims experience depression and anxiety during this time. You may also experience flashbacks of the incident or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as mood swings, hypervigilance, losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, and withdrawing from social situations.
Some victims also struggle with eating disorders, substance abuse, self harm, sleep disorders, and even thoughts of suicide. Remember that you are not alone. If you or someone you know is dealing with these issues, contact the Sexual Assault Hotline for immediate assistance.
Reporting the Crime
It’s important to report the sexual assault to authorities. You may not feel ready to report the crime right away, but it’s best to learn about your options in case you decide to take legal action down the line It’s also vital to report it and get help in order to receive effective treatment to protect you against possible STDs, since many are only effective within the first couple of days after the incident. If you’re worried about the perpetrator retaliating against you, you can request a restraining order to secure your safety.
To report the crime, you can either call 9-1-1, your local police department, or campus police if you are on a college campus. You can also tell your healthcare provider that you’d like to report the crime when you arrive at a care facility or hospital.
When reporting the crime, you will likely speak with a law enforcement professional that specializes in handling sexual assault cases. Most police departments provide what’s known as Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs). These teams include medical personnel, law enforcement, and sexual assault service providers who will work together to streamline the investigation as much as possible. They will minimize the number of repetitive questions and facilitate cooperation between departments.
Sexual assault cases are subject to a statute of limitations, which means you will no longer be able to prosecute the perpetrator once a certain amount of time has passed. The statute of limitations varies from state to state, but law enforcement professionals will walk you through this process.
If you’re hesitant to report the crime, keep this information in mind before making a final decision:
- If the perpetrator did not finish the assault, remember that attempted assault is still a crime and should be dealt with as such.
- Around two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim. Even if you know the perpetrator, sexual assault is still a crime.
- If you’re currently in a relationship with the perpetrator and you’ve given them consent in the past, you can still report the crime.
- If you have no physical injuries, you can still report the crime. Most assaults do not result in physical scarring or bruising.
- If you’re worried that law enforcement officers won’t believe your case, remember that most officers will take your side. If you do not like the office that’s been assigned to your case, you can always request a new officer or investigator.
- If you were intoxicated during the assault, you can still report the crime. Officers will focus on bringing the perpetrator to justice.
These cases can take a while, so try to be patient as investigators collect evidence. If you’re not feeling well during the investigation or interview, you can always take a break. Some questions may make you feel uncomfortable, but officers are there to listen to what you have to say. There may be follow-up questions down the line, so try to stay available during the investigation.
Once you’ve made your case to authorities, you will have to decide whether you want to press charges against the perpetrator. Ultimately, the decision to press charges will go to the state, based on the evidence, but they will still ask for your consent. Rarely will investigators press charges without the victim’s permission.
If the state decides to press charges, the perpetrator will likely be offered a plea bargain, which means asking the perpetrator to confess to their crimes in exchange for a lighter sentence. If the perpetrator declines, the case may go to trial, in which case you may have to testify in court.
While this guide is meant to give you information about what to do after a sexual assault, these cases often depend on a variety of factors. Sexual assault laws vary from state to state, so the process of reporting the crime and seeking treatment may look different for every victim.