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Understanding Sexual Assault

Sexual assault involves a wide range of unwanted sexual behaviors that are performed against a person’s will, or when a person is unable to give consent because of their age, disability, level of intoxication, or other reasons. Each state uses a different legal definition to describe the abusive sexual acts. Many states include the following acts in their definitions: forced sexual intercourse, forced oral or anal sexual acts, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.

Perpetrators of sexual assault may be spouses, acquaintances, friends, family members, or strangers. They may use violence, threats, coercion, manipulation, or other forms of pressure or deception to commit sexual assault.

Forms of sexual violence include but aren’t limited too:

  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Child sexual assault and incest
  • Sexual assault by a person’s spouse or partner
  • Unwanted sexual contact/touching
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual exploitation and trafficking
  • Exposing one’s genitals or naked body to other(s) without consent
  • Masturbating in public
  • Watching someone engage in private acts without their knowledge or permission
  • Nonconsensual image sharing

Sexual assault affects every survivor differently, and each person’s response may be impacted by the nature of the assault, your individual and family history, or other life circumstances. There is no right way to react after a sexual assault, and you know best what choices are right for you. As you decide want you want to do next, remember that what happened to you is not your fault. The perpetrator alone is responsible for their actions.

What is Consent?

Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or provides an enthusiastic “yes” to a sexual act. Consent is always freely given for every change in activity and each participant can say no or stop the activity at any point. Consent is a legal definition and can change from state-to-state. To learn more about how consent is defined where you live and penalties for sex crimes, criminal statutes of limitations, and more please visit RAINN’s website, Laws in Your State.

Medical Options

You may have medical concerns following an assault, even if it was a long time ago. Some immediate concerns commonly include pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. A medical provider can address most immediate health concerns following a sexual assault.

Medical Forensic Exam

These forensic exams are only done by a trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. The documentation and samples collected during a sexual assault forensic exam may be helpful evidence if you choose to report the assault to law enforcement. If this is a consideration for you, it is best to have the exam within 120 hours of the assault and that you try not to wash any part of your body or your clothes until after the exam. You are still encouraged to seek medical attention even if you are past this time frame or already taken a shower.

You have the right to have a support person (family, friend, advocate) present with you. An ATVP advocate can be present with you. The costs of the initial sexual assault forensic exam are covered by Washington State’s Crime Victim Compensation program whether or not your choose to report to law enforcement.

As part of an exam, you should be offered emergency contraception and antibiotic prophylaxis that can prevent certain sexually transmitted infections

Legal Options

There are civil options that are separate from the criminal justice system that you might find helpful. For example, you may want to seek a sexual assault or domestic violence protection order in civil court that can prohibit the person who assaulted you from contacting you or coming within a certain distance of you, your home, and your workplace. An ATVP legal advocate can help you navigate this process as well as other legal processes. Please call our hotline to connect with an advocate: (509) 332- HELP | (208) 883-HELP.

Supporting Someone Experiencing Sexual Abuse:

A survivor’s support system can have a significant impact on their healing process. Receiving compassionate and validating responses from friends and family can make a real difference. As a family member or friend of a survivor, you may experience many emotions about what has happened and be unsure about how to act or what to say after a disclosure of sexual assault. Be reassured that there are many simple things that you can do to be a positive source of support and strength, such as:

  • Be available to listen when they are ready to talk and not probing for detailed information about the assault.
  • Emphasize that the sexual assault was not their fault, regardless of the circumstances.
  • Be nonjudgmental in your communication. Avoid questioning their decisions or actions before, during, and after the assault.
  • Create conditions where the survivor feels empowered to make their own decisions about reporting, prosecution and healthcare following an assault and respecting their wishes. They are in charge as much as possible about what happens next.
  • Increase your own awareness and knowledge of sexual assault.
  • Locate resources in your community that can provide additional support and services for sexual assault survivors, such as local sexual assault programs.
  • Be patient. Recovering from sexual assault is an ongoing process that will look different for everyone, and your friend or family member needs to know that you will be a consistent source of support.
  • Take care of yourself. It is okay to seek help if you are having a difficult time coping at a sexual assault program.

You may have difficulty in knowing what to say or do to help your loved one. It’s okay to not have all the answers; non-judgmental listening and simply being there is helping. Let your loved one know that you care, that you don’t blame them, and that you believe in them. Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy fixes for healing from sexual violence, so it’s important to be patient when the process seems to be taking what some consider to be a long time.