Sexual assault can happen to any one of us, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. These forms of sexual violence are among the most underreported and/or unreported crimes in both the United States and the world due to the intensely difficult nature of the crimes.

Sexual violence is defined as any sexual act committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent. The act can be completed or attempted and can involve actions such as grabbing, fondling, verbal threats, and rape. Rape is a crime that combines elements of power, anger, control, and sexuality. It is one of the most common types of sexual assaults and is NOT primarily motivated by sex. According to statistics, women rarely make false reports about sexual assault, and no victim should ever be blamed for her victimization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives. According to the World Health Organization [WHO], violence against women is a major health problem and violation of women’s human rights and has been experienced by approximately 35% of women across the world.

What is Consent?

Consent is always given freely and all people in a sexual situation must feel they are able to say “yes” or “no” or stop the sexual activity at any time. Consent is a clear and unambiguous agreement to engage in a particular activity. It should NEVER be assumed because:

  • Of the way you dress, smile, look, or act;
  • Two or more people are dating or have had sex in the past;
  • Two people are married;
  • One of the individuals involved is silent when someone attempts to engage in sexual activity;
  • One of the individuals involved does not physically resist when someone attempts to engage in sexual activity; or
  • One of the individuals involves is incapacitated (under the influence of alcohol or drugs).

If you are not 100% sure that your partner wants to have sex, you do not have that person’s consent and sexual activity without the consent can be considered rape or sexual assault.

Consequences of Sexual Assault

There are many short- and long-term consequences to sexual assault including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Shock, denial, anxiety, shame, or guilt
  • Fear, nervousness, and hyper-alertness or vigilance
  • Emotional mood swings (e.g., crying then laughing)
  • Worry or rumination (i.e. intrusive thoughts about the trauma)
  • Increased need to control everyday experiences
  • Nightmares, feelings of helplessness, panic, or feeling out of control
  • Distrust of others
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety
  • Attempted or completed suicide
  • Diminished interest/avoidance of sex
  • Isolation or ostracism from family or community
  • Engaging in unhealthy behavior or the use of harmful substances

Reporting Sexual Assault

Reporting requirements for sexual assault or rape vary by state. Some states require all sexual assaults be reported. In some states, victims are not required to file a police report immediately, while in other states, an evidence kit will not be collected unless the police are notified. Many states have rape crisis centers, witness assistance and/or advocacy programs that can provide valuable information and support in the form of emotional support, help with finding resources, and filling out required paperwork.


Sexual assault is a severe, complex problem and, in most communities, the solutions are equally as complex. The most successful efforts focus on:

  • Equipping the victim with knowledge, awareness, or self-defense skills (also called “risk reduction techniques”) such as self-defense classes
  • Attempting to change risk and protective factors to reduce a potential perpetrator’s likelihood that he/she will engage in sexually violent behavior
  • Changing social norms that support sexual violence and empower men and women to intervene with peers to prevent sexual assaults

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the free, confidential 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you would like to learn more about sexual assault, check out our Course in Sexual Assault, Gender Violence, and Rape.