Sexual Abuse or Assault (Rape)
Sexual abuse or assault (rape) can happen to anyone. If this has happened to you, you are not to blame. Sexual abuse is any type of sexual activity that is done against your will. It can be nonviolent sexual abuse, such as nontouching sexual exposure (like being forced to look at sexual pictures) or unwanted or forced sexual touching. Or it can mean a violent sexual assault, such as rape or attempted rape. The attacker may be a stranger, someone you do not know well, a close friend, or a family member (incest). Many victims of abuse or assault know their attacker.
Teens and young adults may be at risk for becoming victims of sexual assault or violent behavior in situations where certain drugs are used.
It is often hard for people to talk about sexual abuse or assault. The abused person often feels shame or guilt and may be too afraid of the abuser to say anything. But it is important to seek help and then continue to get help for as long as you need it. Talk to the police or to a health professional, such as a doctor, nurse, or counselor. Or call a local rape crisis center. Any of these people can help you get medical treatment, deal with your feelings, and take steps to stop the abuser or rapist.
Nonviolent sexual abuse
Sexual abuse can be something spoken or seen, or it can be anything that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact. This type of abuse may occur over and over. Examples of nonviolent sexual abuse include forcing a person to:
- Look at a naked body or naked genital area.
- Watch, look at, or be a part of sexual pictures.
- Watch a sexual act, such as masturbation.
- Be touched (fondled).
Violent sexual assault
Violent sexual assault is any forced sexual contact where something is put into (penetrates) the vagina, anus, or mouth. Violence or fear is used to force the person to have sex. Examples of violent sexual assault include:
- An object placed into the vagina or anus.
- Forced oral sex.
- Forced sexual intercourse (rape).
If you have been abused or assaulted, contact your doctor as soon as possible. If you have questions about how soon you should be seen, you can check your symptoms.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Sexual abuse is any type of sexual activity that is done against your will. It can be:
- Nonviolent sexual abuse, such as unwanted touching or being forced to watch or look at sexual pictures.
- Violent sexual assault, such as rape or forced oral sex.
Neglect is a form of abuse. It happens when caregivers do not protect the health and well-being of the person they are supposed to take care of.
Two common types of neglect are:
- Child neglect. This happens when parents (or other caregivers) fail to provide a child with the food, shelter, schooling, clothing, medical care, or protection the child needs.
- Elder neglect. This includes failing to provide an older person with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and other basics. Neglect can include failing to pay nursing home or medical costs for the person if you have a legal responsibility to do so.
If you have just been sexually abused or assaulted, try to preserve any evidence of the attack.
- Do not change your clothes.
- Do not bathe, shower, brush your teeth, or clean up in any way.
- Do not eat or drink anything.
- Do not smoke.
- Write down everything you can remember about the assault and about the person who assaulted you.
Physical abuse may include:
- Acts of physical violence, like hitting, pushing, shaking, slapping, kicking, pinching, choking, strangling, and burning.
- Threats of physical violence against you, your family, or your pets.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need help soon.
Call your local YMCA, YWCA, hospital, clinic, or police department, or call an abuse hotline.
You may also call 911.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need help right away.
Call your local hospital, clinic, or police department, or call an abuse hotline.
You may also call 911.
If you feel threatened or need immediate help:
- Call 911.
- If you have been assaulted:
- Call the police immediately, or call a health professional such as a doctor, nurse, or counselor.
- Remember the assault (rape) was not your fault.
- Find a safe environment—anywhere away from the attacker.
- Preserve evidence of the attack—do not change clothes, eat, drink, smoke, bathe, brush teeth, or clean up in any way. Write down all the details about the attack and the attacker.
- Get medical attention. Even with no physical injuries, it is important to determine the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, or HIV. To preserve evidence, ask the hospital to do a special exam (called a forensic medical exam). If you think you may have been drugged, ask that a urine sample be taken.
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline toll-free (1-800-656-HOPE or 1-800-656-4673) for free, confidential counseling.
- Call the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline toll-free (1-866-331-9474) or (1-866-331-8453 TTY).
- Find local resources that can help in a crisis. Your local rape crisis center or hotline, police department, mental health clinic, or hospital can help you.
- Be alert to warning signs, such as threats or drunkenness, so that you can avoid a dangerous situation.
- If a child tells you that he or she has been sexually abused or assaulted, stay calm. Tell the child that you believe him or her and that you will do your best to keep him or her safe. Report the abuse or assault to the local police or a child protective services agency. For more information, see the topic Child Abuse and Neglect.
If you have been a victim of abuse and continue to have problems related to the abuse, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For more information, see the topic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
If you are concerned that sexual abuse or assault has occurred, call your doctor to decide if and when you should see a doctor or get other help.
Sexual abuse and assault is never the victim's fault. But there are some things you can do that may help reduce your risk.
- When you go to a party, go with a group of friends. Arrive together, watch out for each other, and leave together.
- Do not leave your beverage unattended or accept a drink from an open container.
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
- Do not allow yourself to be alone with someone you do not know or trust. Do not get a ride from someone you do not know.
- Think about how intimate you want to be in a relationship, and clearly state your limits.
Reduce the chance of your child being sexually abused or assaulted:
- Teach your children that it is against the "rules" for adults to act in a sexual way with children. Use examples.
- Teach your children that it is okay to say no and that it is okay to leave the situation if they are uncomfortable.
- Teach your children that their bodies are their own and that it is okay if they do not want a hug or other contact that might make them uncomfortable.
- Speak to your children about using the proper names for their body parts. Informed children are better able to talk to you about someone acting in a sexual way with them.
Organizations such as Planned Parenthood can help you learn more about reducing your chances of being a victim. Contact Planned Parenthood toll-free at 1-800-230-PLAN (1-800-230-7526) or online at www.plannedparenthood.org.
Preparing For Your Appointment
If you have made an appointment with your health professional, you may be able to get the most from your visit by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- Has anyone forced you to have sexual activities?
- Has the sexual abuse increased recently? When was the last forced sexual contact?
- Has a child, family member, or friend been forced to have sexual activities? When did it occur? What action was taken?
- Has the abuser threatened violence against your children or other people? Is he or she violent toward your children?
- Is the person who harmed you using any illegal drugs or alcohol?
- Does the person who harmed you have access to guns or other violent weapons?
- Do you have any risk factors that increase your chance of becoming a victim of sexual abuse or assault?
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine