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UPDATED March 10, 2016

Sexual Assault / Rape

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Basic info

back to topWhat is sexual assault?

The term “sexual assault” generally means unwanted sexual contact, or in other words sexual contact against your will, and without consent. The legal definition varies by state, but sexual assault and domestic violence organizations consider any unwanted sexual contact or activity, including rape, to be sexual assault.

Sometimes, people are sexually assaulted or raped by strangers, but even more often, people are sexually assaulted by someone they know – a friend, date, relative, acquaintance, or even a long-time partner or spouse.  There is often overlap between domestic violence and sexual assault because one of the ways abusers harm their partners is through sexual assault.

Sexual assault or rape can happen to anyone regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation. 

Legal definitions for crimes related to sexual assault are precise and vary by state.  We list some (not all) of the crimes related to sexual assault in each state on our Crimes page. 

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back to topWhat is rape?

Rape is a form of sexual assault.  Again, legal definitions are different in every state, but generally, rape is forced sexual intercourse.  Force doesn’t always have to be physical force where the perpetrator physically overpowers the victim; force could include psychological coercion (being "talked into it"), threats to cause harm to the person or a loved one if the person doesn’t submit to the sexual intercourse, or other circumstances in which the victim feels that there is no other option than to submit to the unwanted sexual activity.  Rape can also include situations where the victim may be drunk, drugged, asleep, unconscious, or for any reason unable to consent.  

Most legal definitions of rape include vaginal, anal or oral penetration by a body part or an object.  In every state, spousal rape is also a crime, so even if you are married, it is illegal for your spouse to have sexual intercourse with you against your will.

Legal definitions for crimes related to rape are precise and vary by state.  We list some (not all) of the crimes related to rape in each state on our Crimes page.

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back to topWhat is statutory rape?

Statutory rape is the crime of sex with a minor when the sex is agreed to by both parties, not forced.  The reason why it is considered rape is because the minor is considered to be too young to legally consent to sex or sexual contact.  The age at which a person is too young to consent to sex or sexual contact varies by state, and often varies by different crimes.  For example, if an adult has "consensual sex" with a person under the age of 12, that might be rape in the first degree, carrying a heavy sentence.  If an adult has "consensual sex" with a person who is 16 years old, then that might be rape in the third degree and carry a lighter sentence.  Also, for a 16 or 17 year old victim, the adult may have to be more than 5 or 10 years older than the victim, depending on the state.  These are just examples; the rules are very different for every state.  For specific information about the statutory rape laws in your state, you can send us a message on our Email Hotline.

Every state also has laws against sexual acts with minors, aside from sexual intercourse (including physical sexual contact, oral sex, exposing one's genitals, etc.).  For specific information about the laws regarding sexual acts in your state, you can find a lawyer in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page.


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Steps to take after a sexual assault

back to topWhat can I do if I have been sexually assaulted recently?

Many people do not understand the extent of trauma endured by rape and sexual assault victims.  If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault, friends and family may think you are okay.  However, there may be physical and psychological injuries that you (and others) can’t see.

These are some suggestions you may want to consider to get the practical and emotional support you may need.  Depending on what you think is best in your situation, you may do any or all of the following:

  • Get to a safe place (for example, the nearest hospital, police precinct, or someone’s home).
  • You can call 911 or go to your local police precinct to report the assault and to ask for a criminal investigation to begin. The police should investigate and may arrest the offender.  (If the offender is arrested, you may be issued a criminal court order of protection automatically.)
  • You may be able to file for a civil protection order and receive an immediate, ex parte temporary protection order to keep the offender away from you.  There are specific requirements that must be met to file for a civil protection order – you can read about the orders available in your state on our Restraining Orders page.
  • Call the nearest rape crisis program for crisis intervention, hospital accompaniment, counseling, courtroom advocacy, support groups for you or your partner, information and referral.  There are also 24-hour hotlines that you can call at any time for support and to discuss your options for reporting the assault.
  • Go to your local hospital emergency room for immediate medical care to check for injury, prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, get counseling and collect evidence. Evidence collection does not require you to place a report with the police or press charges; it just preserves these options for the future. For the purposes of evidence collection, you might want to avoid showering, combing your hair or changing your clothes before going to the hospital. Many states have a crime victim compensation program that can assist you with ongoing medical and counseling expenses and other expenses related to the assault. Your local rape crisis program can provide more information about this process and your rights as a crime victim. You will find sexual assault organizations listed here on the RAINN website.
  • Tell someone you trust who can support and assist you.*

 * See NYC Alliance against Sexual Assault

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back to topWhat can I do if I was sexually assaulted in the past?

Even if the sexual assault happened in the past, you may still be able to report the abuse to law enforcement if you want the offender to be held criminally liable.  Although an investigation that takes place months or years after the assault may have its legal challenges, police still can investigate past sexual assault if the statute of limitations on the criminal act has not already expired.  A statute of limitations is a legal time period for which a person can be prosecuted for committing a crime – each state has its own statute of limitations for each crime.  After the statute of limitations has run (expired), a prosecution is no longer possible.  However, depending on how long ago the assault happened and the age of the victim at the time of the assault, the statute of limitations for sexual assault may last many years.  RAINN has a link to each state’s statute of limitations on their website if you want to check out the statute of limitations for the state in which the sexual assault took place. If you are interested in pressing charges for a sexual assault that occurred in the past, you can read more on the RAINN website and you may want to contact a lawyer from our Finding a Lawyer page for legal advice.

You can also seek support and counseling for yourself for the trauma that the assault has caused.  Sexual assault, no matter when it happens can change your life.  It can change your view of yourself and others and influence your intimate relationships.  You may experience changes in your eating and sleeping patterns.  You may have nightmares or flashbacks about the assault or rape. Certain sounds, smells, or other sensory experiences may trigger these feelings and fears. You may be afraid of being alone, or you may fear being in crowds.  You also may experience ongoing fear that the offender may have infected you with a sexually transmitted disease that may not have been detected initially after the assault.

Whether you were abused by someone you knew or were assaulted by a stranger, you may have a difficult time dealing with the assault for many years afterwards.  As time passes, you may have a variety of feelings, thoughts, and reactions to what has happened that may not have occurred right after the assault --many rape and sexual assault victims do.  Whatever the circumstances, whatever your reactions or fears may be, support and help are available for you.  Local rape crisis or sexual assault program staff may be able to assist you, regardless of whether you decide to report the assault to the police.*

If you feel like you need support, you may consider:

* See NYC Alliance against Sexual Assault

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back to topWho can I call for help?

There are several places you may call for help if you have been sexually assaulted or fear you might be sexually assaulted:

  • Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) - it is free, confidential, and open 24 hours/day.
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3244 (TTY) for support, shelter, safety planning, or referrals to other services - it is free, confidential, and open 24 hours/day.
  • If you know a child who you worry is being sexually abused, you may want to call Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline for advice and information. This is not the same as reporting the abuse - the purpose is to give you information on options. 1-800-4-A-CHILD (422-4453) - it is free, confidential, and open 24 hours/day.
  • For sexual assault related to the military, you can find resources from the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.
  • For help with legal information, contact Email Hotline at WomensLaw.org.

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Additional information

back to topWhere can I find information for male victims of sexual assault?

The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated against women, but 1 out of every 10 men is a victim of sexual assault.  People are often reluctant to view men as victims of sexual assault, so men often have a difficult time accepting their own victimization and delay seeking help and support.

All of the information on this page and other pages of this website are relevant for men as well as women.  However, because there are often particular issues that men face, you might want to view the links below which provide information specifically about male sexual assault and about the barriers male survivors often face:

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back to topWhere can I find other information about sexual assault?

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back to topWhere can I read stories from other victims who are healing from sexual assault?

There are many places that victims of sexual assault can find support, which you can find on our Chats and Message Boards page.  You can also find other organizations that support victims of sexual assault on our National Organizations - Rape/Sexual Assault page.

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