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What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is any kind of sexual activity, contact, or experience that happens without your consent. That means the sexual activity happens even though you don't agree to it.
Sexual assault may happen with:
- Physical force or threats of force
- Sexual coercion (being pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way)
- Alcohol or drugs, including date rape drugs
Sexual assault may also be called sexual violence or sexual abuse. It affects millions of people each year. Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. Many victims first experience sexual assault during childhood. Most victims are girls and women. But many boys and men are also victims of sexual assault.
If you've been sexually assaulted, it's never your fault. It's something that happens to you.
What does sexual assault include?
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual activity, including:
- Sexual activity with physical contact, which is everything from sexual touching or kissing to rape or attempted rape
- Sexual activity without physical contact, which includes things that may happen in person, online, or through texts, such as:
- "Flashing" or exhibitionism (when someone shows you their genitals without asking you for permission)
- Being forced to look at sexual images or pose for sexual photos
- Being sent unwanted texts with sexual photos or messages
- Voyeurism (when someone watches private sexual acts without permission)
- Getting sexual threats or being sexually harassed (unwelcome sexual comments, requests for sexual favors, or other sexual behavior that's ongoing)
Any sexual activity that happens without your consent is sexual assault.
What does "consent" mean?
Giving your consent means that you clearly and freely say "yes" to sexual activity. Your consent means that you:
- Know and understand what's going on.
- Can say what you want to do and don't want to do.
- Are not underage.
- Are not being pressured or tricked to do things you don't want to do.
Giving consent is not:
- Silence. Not saying "no" doesn't mean you're saying "yes."
- Having consented in the past. Having said "yes" to sex with someone in the past doesn't mean that you've agreed to all sexual activity in the future. That's true when you're dating or in a lasting relationship.
- Being passive and not fighting off an attacker.
You cannot give consent if you are:
- Drugged, drunk, passed out, or asleep.
- Mentally unable to consent due to illness or disability.
- Underage (States have different laws about how old you must be to give legal consent to sexual activity.).
- Sexually coerced. This means that someone is pressuring you to participate in sexual activity. Agreeing to sex under pressure is not giving consent. The pressure may include:
- Abusing power over you, for example, a boss threatening your job.
- Making threats to harm people you care about.
- Making false promises to reward you for sex.
- Threatening to end a relationship or spread rumors about you.
- Wearing you down by constantly asking for sex or making you feel guilty or obligated.
Who commits sexual assault?
Both men and women commit sexual assault. A person who commits sexual assault may be a stranger, but more often it's someone you know, for example:
- A friend or acquaintance
- Someone you work with
- A neighbor
- A family member
- A current or past romantic partner, including a spouse
What are the possible health effects from sexual assault?
Sexual assault may have many health effects. Many of them can affect your lifelong health and well-being. The effects may include:
- Physical effects such as:
- Bruises or genital injuries
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Ongoing problems with:
- Female reproductive health
- Digestive disorders
- Your heart
- Sexual health
- Psychological effects such as:
- Depression or anxiety
- Thoughts about suicide
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Sexual assault victims are more likely to smoke, have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), use illegal drugs, and have risky sexual behavior. Girls who experience sexual violence are more likely to become victims of intimate partner violence in adulthood.
What can I do if I'm a victim of sexual assault?
If you are in danger or need medical care, call 911. If you can, get away from the person who assaulted you and get to a safe place as fast as you can.
You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to connect with a sexual assault service provider in your area who can direct you to local resources.
Getting support after a sexual assault may help you cope better and reduce the long-term effects. Victim services like rape crisis centers may provide a safe, healing place where you can find support.
Studies show that treatments such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) can help victims cope with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Can sexual assault be prevented?
Sexual assault is never the victim's fault. No one who has been assaulted should be blamed for something that they did or did not do.
You can take some steps to try to be safer around others:
- Go to parties with friends. Look out for each other. If a friend seems drunk or drugged, get them to a safe place. Have a plan for how you'll get home, too.
- Keep control of your drink. Someone could add alcohol or put a drug in it without you knowing.
- Meet people for the first time in a public place.
- Listen to your "gut feelings." If you feel uncomfortable around someone, leave.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. When walking alone, stay in busy well-lit areas. And don't wear headphones; you want to be able to hear what's happening around you.
Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention
- Sexual Assault (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health) Also in Spanish
- Understanding Sexual Violence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - PDF
Prevention and Risk Factors
- Sexual Violence Is Preventable (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Common Reactions After Trauma (National Center for PTSD) Also in Spanish
- Date Rape Drugs (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health) Also in Spanish
- Military Sexual Trauma (Department of Veterans Affairs) - PDF
- Sexual Assault against Females (National Center for PTSD)
- Sexual Assault: Males (National Center for PTSD)
- Sexual Violence on Campus: Strategies for Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - PDF
- What Is Rape and Date Rape? (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health)
Statistics and Research
- Intersection of Intimate Partner Violence and HIV in Women (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - PDF
- National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2016/2017 Report on Sexual Violence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - PDF
- Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013 (Department of Justice)
- Sexual Violence: Data Sources (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Sex Offenses (National Institutes of Health)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Sexual Assault (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Evaluation of the Strength at Home Group Intervention for Intimate Partner...
- Article: Application Value and Research Progress of Human Microbiome in Sexual Assault...
- Article: "I Don't Want to Be Known as a Weak Man": Insights...
- Sexual Assault -- see more articles
Find an Expert
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Also in Spanish
- Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women
- National Center for PTSD
- Resources by State on Violence against Women (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health) Also in Spanish
- Sexual violence (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish