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Violence Against Women

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Sexual assault and abuse

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What are rape and sexual assault?

Rape is sex you don't agree to, including forcing a body part or an object into your vagina, rectum (bottom), or mouth. In the United States, 1 in 6 women reported experiencing rape or attempted rape at some time in their lives.

Sexual assault or abuse is any type of sexual activity that a person does not agree to, including:

  • Rape or attempted rape
  • Touching your body or making you touch someone else's
  • Incest or sexual contact with a child
  • Someone watching or photographing you in sexual situations
  • Someone exposing his or her body to you

Sometimes, sexual violence is committed by a stranger. Most often, though, it is committed by someone you know, including a date or an intimate partner like a husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend. Sexual violence is always wrong, and a person who is sexually abused does not ever "cause" the attack.

Keep in mind that there are times when a person is not able to agree to sex, such as if they are drunk or have been drugged with a date rape drug, or if they are underage.

Women who are sexually abused may suffer serious health problems, such as sexually transmitted infections, stomach problems, and ongoing pain. They also are at risk for emotional problems, like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, it is important to get help as soon as possible.

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Getting help for sexual assault

Take steps right away if you have been assaulted:

  • Get away from the attacker and find a safe place as fast as you can. Call 911.
  • Call someone you trust or a hotline, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
  • Protect any evidence. Do not clean any part of your body or comb your hair. Do not change clothes. Try not to touch anything at the crime scene.
  • Go to your nearest hospital emergency room right away. You need to be examined and treated for injuries you may not even know you have. Ask to be screened for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and for emergency contraception to help prevent pregnancy. The hospital also can collect evidence like hairs, saliva, semen, or clothing fiber that the attacker may have left behind.
  • Discuss filing a police report. If you're not sure whether you want to file a report, ask hospital staff if they can collect evidence without filing a report. It is best to collect evidence as soon as possible.

After a sexual assault, you may need a lot of emotional support. Every woman responds differently, but reactions can include feeling terribly shocked, confused, and afraid. Some women experience denial or feeling emotionally numb. Whatever your experience, reach out to people who care about you and get help from a mental health professional. The hospital usually can put you in touch with a counselor or support group. Even if a long time has passed since you were abused, you still can get help.

If someone you know has been abused or assaulted you can help by listening and offering comfort. If the person wants, you also can go along to the police station, the hospital, or counseling sessions. Make sure the person knows the abuse is not his or her fault, and that it is natural to feel angry and ashamed.

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Staying safe from sexual assault

Steps you can take to reduce your chances of being sexually assaulted include:

  • Making sure you don't drink too much alcohol, so you can keep yourself safe
  • Parking in well-lit areas
  • Not leaving a social event with someone you just met
  • Keeping your car and home doors locked
  • Having your key ready as you approach your door

Read more tips for avoiding sexual assault. One important way to stay safe at clubs and parties is to learn more about date rape drugs. These are drugs that have no smell or taste that can be slipped into drinks. They are used to make it hard for a person to fight off a rape or to remember what happened. You can read answers to frequently asked questions about date rape drugs.

Another important way to avoid sexual abuse is to leave a relationship that is becoming unhealthy. Remember, no one has a right to pressure you into doing sexual things you do not want to do. If you think your relationship may be abusive, learn more about the signs of abuse.

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More information on Sexual assault and abuse

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Sexual Assault Fact Sheet - This fact sheet explains sexual assault and gives information on what to do if you've been sexually assaulted, where you can go for help, how you can protect yourself, and how you can help someone who has been sexually assaulted.

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Content last updated: May 18, 2011.

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