What Is Sexual Assault?

woman sitting after assault

Sexual assault is any kind of sexual contact, behavior, or activity that you did not consent or actively agree to. Sexual assault can come in several forms and may include:

  • Unwanted touching or fondling, above or under clothes
  • Sending unsolicited sexual photos or text messages
  • Watching sexual acts without consent
  • Someone exposing themselves to you in public
  • Sexually harassing or threatening someone
  • Being forced or coerced to perform sexual acts, such as oral, vaginal, or anal sex
  • Rape or attempting to penetrate someone's body without their consent

Perpetrators, or people who commit sexual assault, can pressure someone into having sex through emotional coercion, manipulation, physical force, intimidation, or other threats.

Sexual Assault Statistics

  • 8 in 10 people who have been sexually assaulted know the person who assaulted them
  • Most people who are assaulted are those who identify as girls and women, but people of all genders can be sexually assaulted
  • 1 in 3 women in the United States have experienced sexual violence of some kind, and many are assaulted during childhood
  • Over 90% of those who commit sexual assault against women are men
  • In college, over 26% of female students, 23% of transgender/genderqueer/non-conforming students, and approximately 7% of male students experience sexual assault

What Is Consent?

Consent is a specific, clear, and verbal agreement (e.g., saying "yes") to sex or other sexual activities. You cannot give consent if you are:

  • Under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Asleep or unconscious
  • Unable to consent due to disability or illness
  • Underage (this age ranges from 16 to 18 depending on the state you live in)
  • In unequal power dynamics with the other person (e.g., boss and employee, teacher and student, etc.)
  • Being pressured or coerced to perform sexual acts

Consent is an active yes, not just silence or the absence of saying "no.” You can withdraw consent at any time. It's important to note that having consented to sexual activity with someone in the past doesn’t imply consent in the present. It’s also specific—meaning that saying “yes” to kissing doesn’t automatically mean “yes” to oral sex. Flirting, dancing provocatively, or wearing revealing clothing are not forms of consent either.

The following section details the physical and psychological effects of sexual assault. For more resources or support, please visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

Health Effects of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can have significant effects on your mental and physical health—some of which can impact you immediately, while others that may last for years or throughout your life. 

Physical Effects

The immediate physical effects of sexual assault include:

In addition, over time, people who have experienced sexual assault may be more likely to have symptoms of:

Psychological Effects

After you’ve experienced trauma, such as sexual assault, it's common to notice changes in how you approach other areas of your life. You may feel angry, stressed, fearful, or find it difficult to stop thinking about the incident. You also might find yourself feeling constantly “on guard.” Keep in mind: it's OK to feel however you are feeling.

Unfortunately, people who experience sexual assault are also more likely to also experience:

Looking for Support?

If you are experiencing a crisis, or know someone who is, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for free and confidential support 24/7. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources or call the number below to reach Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline.

(800) 662-4357

Effects on Quality of Life

Those who experience sexual assault may find that the physical and psychological impacts of their trauma can affect other areas of their life. After experiencing sexual assault, you may face challenges such as:

  • Trouble concentrating at work or school
  • Feeling detached from your surroundings
  • Not being able to feel a connection in your relationships
  • Difficulty keeping up with daily routines, such as eating, exercise, and hygiene
  • Engaging in risky behaviors around sex, drugs, and alcohol

It’s important to remember that over time, the effects of sexual assault may decrease. But, it’s also a good idea to seek support and the care you need to help you recover from the incident.

Where You Can Get Help

If you have experienced sexual assault, you may find that you need multiple kinds of support, from short-term to long-term. 

In the immediate aftermath of an assault, here are some steps you may consider taking:

  • Go to a safe place and call 911 if you are in danger or 988 for crisis support.
  • Call 911 or go directly to a hospital or police station to file a report. If you will be reporting the assault and/or are being medically examined after the incident, do not change your clothes or shower, as this can remove important evidence that may support your case.
  • Visit an urgent care or emergency department to examine you for immediate health concerns or collect evidence to support your police report
  • Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-856-4673), which will connect you to a local provider who can share local resources available to you, such as accompanying you to the hospital or police station and crisis management

In the long term after the assault, you may find therapy helpful. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been shown to improve psychological recovery after sexual assault. If you’re looking for a therapist, specifically ask them about their experience in treating trauma or talk to your primary care provider for a referral.

Finally, as you’re learning to navigate life after the sexual assault, support from your loved ones can be critical. If you are nervous about seeking medical or mental health care after your assault, you may want to ask a friend or family member to come with you. Over time, you will begin to feel better, but surrounding yourself with love and support will make it much easier. 

How to Stay Safe

It's important to remember: no one can prevent sexual violence but the perpetrator and it is never your fault. There are actions you can take to make yourself and others safer from sexual assault, but the survivor is not the person to blame for the assault.

Some strategies to stay safe include:

  • Have a plan: Stay close to friends when at parties, bars, or clubs, and look out for each other when you're out. Make a plan before you go out and ensure you all leave together. 
  • Take care of your friends: Ensure you take care of friends who have had too much to drink. Don't leave your friends alone when they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol. If you see someone leaving with a person who seems too drunk to consent, step in and try to separate them.
  • Keep your drink safe: Don’t leave your drink alone or with a stranger. Sometimes perpetrators add alcohol or drugs to drinks to make it easier to take advantage of someone. If you feel drunk and haven’t had anything (or much) to drink, get help right away as it could be possible that someone put a drug into your drink.
  • Meet in public: Avoid meeting up with people in private places for the first time. 
  • Be vigilant: Pay attention when walking alone. Seek out brightly lit areas and avoid wearing headphones.
  • Share your location: If you have friends or family you trust, you may consider sharing your location with them via your phone or an app. Some apps can send an automatic alert to them if you press a button. You can also come up with a code word you can text them which will let them know you're in danger.
  • Charge your phone: Ensure your phone is charged before using a ride-share service or taxi to get home. 

Most importantly, trust your instinct, or “gut feeling.” If you feel uncomfortable in a situation or around someone, leave. If you’re unable to leave, try to call someone else who can help you.

A Quick Review

Sexual assault, or any form of sexual activity without consent, can have significant short and long-term physical and psychological health effects. Going through sexual assault can feel difficult, unfair, and traumatizing. It's important to note that whatever you are feeling is OK and to not blame yourself for the incident.

A traumatic event like sexual assault may stay with you for years. However, support is available to help you on your journey toward healing. Getting immediate help from a healthcare provider, filling out a police report, and relying on your loved ones for care and support may help.

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7 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S Department of Health and Human Services - Office on Women’s Health. Sexual assault.

  2. Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network. Sexual assault.

  3. MedlinePlus. Sexual assault.

  4. Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network. Campus sexual violence: Statistics.

  5. Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network. What consent looks like.

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Statutory rape: A guide to state laws and reporting requirements.

  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Common reactions after trauma.

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