What You Should Know About Rape And Sexual Assault

In the United States, someone is raped or sexually assaulted every two minutes. While the incidence of sexual assault has fallen by over 60 percent since 1992, rape and sexual assault are still all too common. Most victims of rape are women, but men can also be the victims of rape and sexual assault. One in six women and one in 33 men in America will be victims of a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault during their lifetimes. The majority of rape victims are white, but women of other races and ethnic backgrounds have a slightly higher rate of rape or attempted rate (18.8 percent for black women, 34.1 percent for Native American or Alaskan Native women, and 24.4 percent for mixed race women, compared to 17.7 percent for white women). Overall, 17.7 million American women and 2.78 million American men have been the victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

Educating yourself and those around you about the reality of rape and sexual assault can help lower your risk of becoming a victim. Of all sexual assaults, 73 percent are committed by a non-stranger (a friend, an acquaintance, a classmate, a teacher, a relative, or an intimate partner). Half of all rapes and sexual assaults take place in the victim’s home or within one mile of home: 40 percent occur in the home, 20 percent occur in a friend, relative, or neighbor’s home, and 1 in 12 occur in a parking garage. Sixty-seven percent of all rapes or sexual assaults occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m... Knowing where rapes tend to occur, who might be a rapist, the tactics rapists use to commit sexual assault, and what to do to make yourself safer can help you avoid becoming a victim. It is not always possible to prevent sexual assault: the person responsible for a rape or sexual assault is the rapist, not the victim. Knowing what to do if you become the victim of a rape or sexual assault can help you take action to heal yourself and, if you choose, to prosecute the offender.

Rape and Sexual Assault Information

Sexual assault refers to a range of undesired behaviors up to but not including actual penetration that are completed or attempted without the victim’s will or when a victim cannot give consent (because of the victim’s age, disability, or state of intoxication). Examples of actions that constitute sexual assault include: voyeurism, self-exposure, touching or fondling the victim’s genitals or breasts, unwanted exposure to pornography or lewd material, and public exposure of photographs or images taken privately or without the victim’s knowledge. Sexual assault may or may not involve threatened or actual physical force, weapons, intimidation, coercion, or pressure. Sexual harassment is related to sexual assault. Behaviors that constitute sexual harassment include: degrading verbal or written remarks, gestures, or jokes, indecent exposure, and unwanted sexual touching or grabbing. Sexual harassment may occur in the workplace or among coworkers or colleagues and include undesired or unwelcome sexual or romantic advances, requests for sexual favors, or other behaviors that constitute a hostile or intimidating work environment.

The definition of rape varies by state, but a standard definition is: non-consensual penetration (oral, vaginal, or anal) of the victim by objects or the perpetrator’s body parts. A rapist may use physical force, threats of bodily harm, or intimidation. A rapist may also perform non-consensual penetration while the victim is incapacitated or unconscious due to mental or intellectual disability, alcohol or drug consumption (either self-induced or forced), age (status as a minor), or other legal barriers to consent. Both rape and sexual assault are felonies in most jurisdictions. Both men and women can be the victims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape, although the majority of victims are women. Fifteen percent of sexual assault or rape victims are children under the age of 12.

Rapist and Attacker Tendencies and Tactics

Despite the common imagery of rapists lurking in the bushes to attack women walking home alone, most rapes are not committed by strangers, but by people the victim knows. Stranger rapists may presume on a victim’s trust, such as impersonating a police officer and pulling a victim over on a deserted stretch of road, or pose as another “helping professional”, such as a teacher or doctor.

Acquaintances, friends, or current or former romantic partners may presume upon prior intimate encounters to engage in sexual activity without the victim’s consent. Each sexual act requires verbal consent. Tactics used by the acquaintance rapist include: intruding into the victim’s personal space physically, though seemingly accidental touches or casual hugs or touches. The rapist may play on the victim’s emotional vulnerability or empathy by “sharing” personal information or stories so that she lowers her defenses. The victim may feel uneasy and uncomfortable, but the rapist assures her that nothing is wrong and continues his assault, ignoring her requests for him to stop.

On college campuses, alcohol plays a large role in sexual assault and rape. An attacker—often someone the victim knows—may encourage or force a victim to drink alcohol and become intoxicated or may take advantage of a victim’s intoxication to forcibly assault her without her consent. Rapists will seek out venues where intoxicated potential victims are likely to be, such as parties and bars. Some rapists will put date rape drugs, such as GHB, Ketamine, or Rohypnol, into a victim’s drink to incapacitate her. GHB, also known as Liquid Ecstasy, relaxes a victim’s inhibitions, causes drowsiness, and may result in a loss of consciousness. Ketamine, also known as Special K, makes the victim feel as if she is separated from her body and detached from reality. Rophynol, or Roofies, causes a victim to become drowsy, dizzy, and lack motor control and coordination. Rapists may also pressure victims to try drugs as part of a social event before luring them away from the group.

Current technology can aid both acquaintance rapists and stranger rapists to commit their crimes. An attacker may break into a car to steal a GPS unit and use the unit to find a victim’s home address. Social networking sites, especially when used with lax privacy controls, allow acquaintances or strangers (friends of friends) to virtually stalk a victim. After reading status updates, virtual “check ins” at restaurants, bars, or other locations, and studying pictures, a rapist can determine where and when to attack the victim.

Rape and Sexual Assault Prevention

Rape is always the fault of the rapist, never the victim. Nothing a victim does or fails to do causes a rape or makes him or her “deserve” the assault. However, there are ways to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. In social situations, such as parties, bars, or clubs, practice safe drinking. Do not leave your drink unattended or out of your site, even for a minute. Ask for a drink to be opened or mixed from bottles opened in front of you. Do not accept drinks from others if you did not see them opened. Avoid drinking from open containers, such as punch bowls or buckets. Attend parties or go to clubs with friends, watch out for each other, and leave together. Do not leave with someone you don’t know or do not agree to go home with someone you met at the party, even if you do know him from class or work.

When going out on a date, decide on what you will and won’t do in advance. Have a plan for how to get out of an uncomfortable situation: call a friend, have a friend plan to call you to check in at a certain time, or have an excuse ready (such as the need to work early, call your ill parent, pick up a friend, or feed your dog). Be up front with your date about your sexual expectations and limits before you have anything to drink or before you engage in intimate, emotional discussions. If something the other person does makes you feel uncomfortable, use your pre-planned excuse and leave. Trust your instincts and do not worry about hurting your date’s feelings or looking foolish—you can always explain or talk later on the phone, if necessary. 

In any situation, know your surroundings. Park in well-lit, public areas and avoid parking garages, especially after dark or if you are alone. Do not overburden yourself with bags or packages and have your keys ready. Always know where you can run if you feel uncomfortable—a nearby store, restaurant, or hotel, for example. Walk with a purpose and avoid isolated, lonely areas such as parks. Avoid using headphones or becoming engrossed in a phone conversation when walking alone, as this could leave you vulnerable. Do not allow yourself to become isolated with strangers or with someone who makes you feel uneasy and never get into a car with such a person. For parents, discuss what sexual assault is with your children. Explain what areas of the body are okay for people to touch and what areas should only be touched or exposed to a doctor or parent at bath time. Explain that if anyone touches a child in those areas or shows their own parts to the child that your child should immediately tell you and that you will believe them. Talk to your child about how people may try to gain his trust—such as asking for help looking for a lost dog, wanting to show him a tree house or cool toy, or telling him his mommy or daddy is hurt and needs the stranger to drive the child to the hospital—and prepare excuses or responses for the child to use.

What to do if You are Raped or Sexually Assaulted

If you are raped or sexually assaulted, your first response should be to get to a safe place, away from the attacker. Call 911, a friend or family member, or a rape crisis center for help. As soon as you are able, write down the details of the attack: where it occurred, what led up to the attack, who said and did what, and any details about your attacker and the attack itself you can remember. Even though you may want to “wash off” what happened, avoid taking a shower or bath, urinating, douching, brushing your teeth, eating or drinking, combing your hair, changing your clothes, or washing your hands before you go to the hospital or rape crisis center. If the attack occurred at your home or work, do not touch anything at the scene. If you suspect you were drugged, tell the doctor or police officer immediately so that they can test for drugs. Talk honestly and openly with the police officer, even if you are embarrassed. They have heard similar stories in the past and they want to help you. It is important to tell them every detail that you remember. Remember that you can always withdraw your complaint at a later date if you change your mind and that you can report a rape days, weeks, or even years after it has occurred.

Go to a hospital or rape crisis center, even if you do not want to report the rape. Even if you do not think you are injured, you may have internal injuries. You can also get tested for sexually transmitted infections and HIV at the hospital. Seek counseling, either through the hospital or through a rape crisis center. Rape is a terrible, traumatic event that can lead to depression and other difficulties. Counseling from trained professionals can help you heal.

Dealing with the Aftermath of a Rape or Sexual Assault

The most important thing to remember after a rape or sexual assault is that anything that happened was not your fault. Rape is physically and emotionally damaging and traumatic. Victims of rape often feel angry, frightened, numb, confused, degraded, ashamed, embarrassed, withdrawn, depressed, nervous, or anxious. Some may have experience nightmares or insomnia. Some rape victims experience difficulty eating and may even develop eating disorders or substance abuse problems. Rape victims may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, which includes feelings of severe anxiety, helplessness, stress, and fear, flashbacks to the rape, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and outbursts of anger. Many survivors experience rape trauma syndrome, either immediately after a rape or for months or years afterward. In the acute stage of rape trauma syndrome, the victim feels numb, has dulled senses, and may experience physical symptoms like vomiting, tremors, and nausea. Victims may feel bewildered, cry often, and have a deep need to wash or clean themselves. In the outward adjustment stage, the victim returns to her normal life but continues to feel anxiety, stress, helplessness, fear, depression, and have mood swings, panic attacks, or flashbacks. Victims may employ coping mechanisms, such as pretending everything is fine, constantly talking about the rape or refusing to mention it at all, analyzing the rape, or moving to a new house or city or drastically altering their appearance. Many victims hesitate to enter new relationships, trust others, or continue normal sexual relationships with a spouse or partner. In the renormalization stage, victims begin to resolve negative feelings and focus their lives on other things besides the assault.

While some victims only want to forget the rape ever happened, burying the emotions and not talking about the rape will not undo the damage and help you heal. Healing is difficult and will take time. Receiving counseling from trained professionals will provide you with the support you need to heal. Counseling may be through one-on-one sessions with a therapist or rape crisis counselor or through a group therapy session with other rape survivors. Online resources, such as support groups, may also help.

Hotlines and Crisis Centers


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