About Abuse

Sexual Assault / Rape

Updated: 
February 17, 2017

What are my options for filing a complaint?

The path to seeking “justice” after a sexual assault can look different for every victim. Some people may choose to pursue criminal charges, file civil lawsuits for money damages, file for civil protection orders, and/or file complaints with their universities or other educational institution. Other victims may choose not to pursue any of these options. In addition to finding a sense of justice, victims of sexual assault may also want information about caring for their own emotional well-being and working towards recovering from the trauma they have experienced. Any of the below options can be pursued independently or possibly at the same time.

Criminal charges:

Some victims of sexual violence may wish to have the prosecutor press criminal charges against the person(s) who victimized them. The criminal process usually begins with a victim reporting the incident to police and the prosecutor will determine whether or not there is enough evidence to start a criminal case. Each state defines crimes of sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, differently and has different statutes of limitation. You can look up the crimes in your specific state on our Crimes page.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides information on how to report to law enforcement and what to expect from a criminal trial, which may help you decide whether or not to file a report. If you need legal assistance, you can find legal resources for your specific state on our Finding a Lawyer page. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.

Civil lawsuit for money damages:

Some survivors of sexual violence may choose to file a civil lawsuit for money damages against perpetrator(s) of sexual violence. Unlike a criminal investigation, a civil suit is a private legal action that you initiate. Civil actions generally require a lower standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence) than criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt). You may wish to initiate a civil suit to seek compensatory damages (money for the damages or injuries you sustained as a result of the sexual assault) and possibly punitive damages, which are aimed at punishing the defendant.

Civil suits may take years to resolve, and there is no guarantee you will win. However, some survivors may prefer civil suits over a criminal trial. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs has compiled a survivor’s guide to filing a civil lawsuit, which provides more information on civil lawsuits and their pros and cons. If you need legal assistance in filing a civil lawsuit, you can look for your state bar association’s legal referral service for private attorneys on our Finding a Lawyer page. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.

Civil protection order:

Sexual assault victims may choose to file for a civil protection order as one measure of protection to try to keep the perpetrator away and to prohibit any contact. Usually, an applicant for a protection order can get an immediate, temporary order issued (ex parte) and then there will be a hearing at which the perpetrator has the right to be present to defend against the order being issued. To read about the protection order options in your state, go to our Restraining Orders page.

Complaints at educational institutions:

Numerous federal laws require that educational institutions, including local school districts, post-secondary institutions, charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums take steps to both prevent sexual violence as well as address complaints of sexual violence. If you are enrolled in school and you report an allegation of sexual assault to the school, federal law requires that your school have stated policies and procedures of handling allegations of sexual violence, including a process to investigate and discipline reported perpetrators of sexual violence. An educational institution that you are attending and to which you have reported a sexual assault is also required to provide you with emotional, medical, and academic assistance and accommodations in the wake of a reported instance of sexual violence.

Survivors may choose to file complaints with their educational institutions when they want a relatively fast resolution (compared to a civil or criminal case) or if they do not want to go through the criminal justice system. Educational institutions are required to resolve complaints of sexual violence within months and are required to provide intermediary measures like no-contact orders between the victim and the perpetrator. However, the level of skill and compassion with which the institution handles the allegation of sexual assault, the training provided to those in charge, and the seriousness of the punishment for the perpetrator can vary greatly between schools. The organization Know Your IX may be a helpful resource to help you decide whether to file a complaint with your educational institution. You may also consider talking to an advocate, lawyer or counselor to help you decide whether to file a complaint with your school.

For more information on Title IX and sexual assaults on campus, see our What if I am sexually assaulted at school? page.