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Sexual Violence and Rape: What You Need to Know

Sexual violence is sexual behavior that is forced on someone against their will. It can cause physical and emotional harm. Rape is one type of sexual violence.

Sexual violence can happen to people of any age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. With the right care and support, people can recover. They can reclaim their sense of safety and well-being.

If you have been raped, sexually abused, or assaulted, it’s not your fault. No matter what. You deserve care and support. To start, confide in someone you trust. And reach out to trained people who can help.

If you need help right away, get to a safe place. Then call the National Sexual Assault Hotline or 800.656.HOPE (4763). It’s free and confidential. Trained counselors are there to help 24 hours a day.

Find out what to do after a sexual assault.

What Is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is unwanted sexual behavior that is forced on someone. Sexual violence is not part of healthy sexual behavior. It’s a form of aggression. It’s an attempt to have power over someone.

Sexual violence can take many forms. It can include:

  • sexual assault, attempted rape, or rape
  • unwanted sexual touching, kissing, groping, or fondling
  • a person exposing themselves in a sexual way to someone else — in person or online
  • forcing someone to do or watch sex acts
  • stalking, sexual threats, or making a person feel unsafe
  • unwanted or rude sexual comments, sexual harassment, or sexual bullying
  • gender-based hate, ridicule, harassment, or threats

People might use different terms for different types of sexual violence. For example, they might call it dating violence. Or they might call it sexual abuse, sexual trauma, or incest. It depends on the situation. No matter what people call it, sexual violence is never OK. There is no excuse and no situation that gives a person the right to force unwanted sexual behavior on someone else.

What Is Rape?

If someone forces their penis, fingers, or another object into the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person against their will, it is called rape. If they try to do this, it is called attempted rape or sexual assault. If someone who does this is a current partner, an ex, an acquaintance, someone at a party, or a date, people might call it intimate partner violence. Or they might call it dating violence, acquaintance rape, or date rape. Any type of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault is a crime.

People who commit acts like this may use force or threats. Or they may use drugs or alcohol to make someone unable to protect themselves.

Do People React to Sexual Violence in Different Ways?

Yes. Every person and every situation is different. At the time it happens, many people react with fear or have a sense that what is happening seems unreal. Some fight or struggle with their attacker. Some may try to run or escape. Some scream or call out for help. Others may feel so afraid they feel frozen, unable to scream, run, fight, or move.

All these reactions are normal. They happen because sexual violence threatens a person’s sense of safety. It triggers a basic survival response. A person will do whatever they can to protect themselves and survive.

After an event of sexual violence, some people have physical injuries that need medical care. People might also have deep emotional hurt called trauma.

Does Sexual Violence Affect People Later?

It can. In the days and weeks that follow, it’s normal to think about what happened. People may feel different emotions. Some feel anxious, stressed, or fearful. Others feel sad, withdrawn, or angry. Some feel ashamed, disgusted, betrayed, or harmed. It can be hard to feel safe or to trust others. Some may feel alone or detached from people in their lives. Others don’t know what to do or how to feel.

Some people might want to talk about what happened. They reach out for help and support. Others keep what happened to themselves. Some try to suppress their feelings or act as if everything is fine. It can take time to open up or to process what happened.

People might feel guilty or blame themselves. They might wonder what they could have done to prevent it. But sexual violence is never their fault. No matter what they did or didn’t do. No matter what they wore, who they trusted, what they said, or where they went.

Can Sexual Violence Cause PTSD?

Some (but not all) people develop PTSD symptoms after rape or sexual violence. They may have vivid thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks of the event. They may feel anxious or on edge. They may be easily startled, or extra watchful for danger, even where they are safe. They may avoid places or people that remind them of what happened to them. If symptoms like these last for more than a few weeks, it might be PTSD.

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a trauma. If it develops after rape or sexual assault, is also called rape-trauma syndrome. There is therapy to help people recover from PTSD after sexual trauma.

How Can People Recover From Sexual Violence?

There are ways to recover from sexual violence. Experts are ready to listen. Therapy can help people heal. To begin, people can:

  • Confide in someone they trust. Let that person know what happened. If needed, a trusted person can go with them for medical care.
  • Get medical care to treat any injuries or other health issues.
  • Get the right therapy and support. Choose a therapist who is trained to help people heal from the trauma of sexual violence. Meet with them as often as they suggest. Between sessions, practice the coping skills or other homework they suggest.
  • Talk with an expert about next steps. What people need can vary. Some need to find out about reporting sexual violence, abuse, or harassment. Some need to learn how to leave a violent relationship. There are people who can help. If you need to find one, your therapist, the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, or Planned Parenthood can help you.

How Do People Find a Way to Move On?

Moving on after sexual violence happens a little at a time. It helps to track small steps of progress toward feeling better, stronger, and safer.

As they heal, many people draw on inner strengths. Some find deep courage. Some become kinder toward themselves. Some grow more open to people they can talk to. Some find new ways to manage their emotions. Some find more joy in their life. Slowly, people reclaim their sense of safety and well-being. They find a way to move on.

People don’t forget what happened to them. But when they get the help and healing they need, most find that they don’t dwell on it. They might not think about it very much at all. And when they do, it doesn’t trigger the painful feelings it once did. It becomes a past event. They pay more attention to what’s present in their lives. They can look toward the future with hope.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date Reviewed: Jun 2, 2023

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