According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. You never want to think about a worst-case scenario happening to you — but the scary truth is that 1 in 6 women will experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. And if you or a friend is assaulted, you may not be sure what to do next. Here are a few key steps you can take to stay safe, seek help, and start the healing process.
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1. Find a safe place.
First and foremost, make sure you’re out of harm’s way. “You need to ensure that you’re safe and that the perpetrator is gone,” says Janika Joyner, a licensed clinical social worker and certified clinical trauma professional in Virginia.
If you’re in immediate danger, call 911. Otherwise, find someone who can help you navigate the next steps — that can be a parent, a friend, the RA at your dorm, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673).
2. Seek medical care.
The idea of a medical exam may be nerve-wracking after an assault, but it’s important to get care ASAP. “Trained staff can provide you with emergency contraception, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and referrals to a counselor,” says Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor in New York who specializes in treating survivors of sexual assault.
You’ll also be offered a sexual assault forensic exam, also known as a rape kit. “You’ll be asked about your medical history, and receive a head-to-toe examination that will document your injuries and collect evidence,” says Sara McGovern, a spokesperson for RAINN. “Having a rape kit done allows you to safely store evidence should you decide to report the crime.” (To help with DNA collection, try to avoid showering or washing your hands before the exam.)
Getting a rape kit done doesn’t mean you’re obligated to report the assault — that’s still 100% up to you. But if you decide to report it down the road, the evidence will be there.
To find a nearby medical facility that’s trained in caring for sexual assault survivors, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
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3. If you’re ready, report it.
With the rise of the #MeToo movement, sexual assault survivors are (f-i-n-a-l-l-y) being heard and believed more than ever before. But you still might not feel completely comfortable reporting your assault — and that’s okay too.
“The decision to report to law enforcement is entirely yours,” McGovern says. “Some survivors say that reporting and seeking justice helped them recover and regain a sense of control over their lives. Knowing what to expect can help you feel more comfortable talking to law enforcement. Know that the reporting process may take awhile, and some questions might feel uncomfortable, but you can take breaks, and you can have support, like a trained advocate or trusted friend or family member.”
There are two ways to report a sexual assault:
· Call your local police department. You’ll be asked to give a statement and describe the assault — this can take a few hours, and the questions may feel intrusive, but you can ask for a break whenever you need one.
· If the assault happened on campus, you may also want to notify the campus safety department and the school administration. Your school website should have specific info on how to do this and what their process is.
And just FYI, you don’t have to choose between reporting to law enforcement and reporting to your school — you can do both.
4. Build a support system.
Talk to a parent, friend, or school counselor about what happened. If you’re nervous about telling your family or friends you were assaulted, Joyner says, a counselor or advocate can help you prepare for that intense convo. “Don’t be afraid, and don’t suffer in silence,” she adds. “There are people out there who can help you.” The directory at Psychology Today can help you find a therapist or counselor near you who specializes in caring for survivors of sexual assault.
Sexual assault survivors may deal with triggers and panic attacks, so even if you have super-supportive family and friends, it’s worth talking to a professional too. “Counseling can help you manage problems that are related to the assault, like nightmares, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, and relationship concerns,” Stamoulis says. “You’ll be given coping tools that are just right for you as an individual.”
5. Don’t just brush off a bad experience.
It’s not uncommon for sexual assault survivors to have a tough time processing what happened, or feel hesitant to label it as rape. But any time an experience feels nonconsensual, it’s important to talk to someone about it. “If you’re wondering whether or not your experience ‘counts’ as assault, that’s a big deal, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition of assault,” Stamoulis says.
6. DO NOT blame yourself.
Last but not least — it doesn’t matter what you wore, where you hung out, how much you drank, or how well you knew the rapist — what happened is not your fault in any way. “Do not judge or blame yourself for what you did or didn’t do,” Stamoulis says. “You did the best you could for yourself in that moment.”