What is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is any forced, coerced, unwanted sexual contact.*
While there are specific legal definitions of rape and sexual assault in the Texas Penal Code, sexual violence is best understood as a broader continuum of unwanted non-mutual sexual activities that range from subtle to extremely violent. Sexual assault can include, but is not limited to, rape, sexual threats and intimidation, incest, sexual assault by intimate partners, child sexual abuse, human sexual trafficking, sexual harassment, street harassment and other forms of unwelcome, coerced or non-consensual activity. The terms sexual abuse are also often used to describe the wide range of activities that constitute sexual assault.1
What is rape culture?
It is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It occurs in a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm. In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.2
What is rape?
- Rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape. The term rape is often used as a legal definition to specifically include sexual penetration without consent. For its Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Texas legally defines rape as
- Intentionally or knowingly causing any of the following:
- Penetration of the anus or sexual organ of another by any means without that person’s consent;
- Penetration of the mouth of another person by the sexual organ of the actor without that person’s consent; or
- The sexual organ of another person, without that person’s consent, to contact or penetrate the mouth, anus, or sexual organ of another person including the actor.
What is force?
Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.
How do I Know if I Have Consent?
Consent must be informed (the person being acted upon knows what is happening) and mutual (both parties have input and both want to participate in a given sexual act.) Communication is important. Consent is not implied; talk to your partner about what is comfortable for him or her every step of the way. Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal communication – the absence of a “no” does not imply consent, nor does a prior sexual relationship. A person who is mentally or physically incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent.
Reporting to Law Enforcement
The decision to report to law enforcement is entirely yours. Some survivors say that reporting and seeking justice helped them recover and regain a sense of control over their lives. Understanding how to report and learning more about the experience can take away some of the unknowns and help you feel more prepared.
How do I report sexual assault?
You have several options for reporting sexual assault:
- Call 911. If you are in immediate danger, dial 911. Help will come to you, wherever you are.
- Contact local the local police department. Call the direct line of your local police station or visit the station in person. If you are on a college campus you may also be able to contact campus-based law enforcement.
- Visit a medical center. If you are being treated for injuries resulting from sexual assault, tell a medical professional that you wish to report the crime. You can also choose to have a sexual assault forensic exam. To find an appropriate local health facility that is prepared to care for survivors, call our 24 Hour Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline (936) 441-7273.
What are some common concerns about reporting?
If you have questions or concerns about reporting, you’re not alone. The list below may have answers to some common questions that are on your mind.
- The perpetrator got scared away or stopped before finishing the assault.
Attempted rape is a serious crime and can be reported. Reports of attempted rape and other assault are taken seriously.
- I know the person who hurt me.
About 2/3 of victims know the perpetrator. It can be unnerving to be violated by someone you know. Regardless of who the perpetrator is, sexual assault is against the law.
- I’ve been intimate with the perpetrator in the past, or am currently in a relationship with the perpetrator.
Sexual assault can occur within a relationship. Giving someone consent in the past does not give them consent for any act in the future. If you did not consent, they acted against the law—and you can report it.
- I have no physical injuries, and I’m worried there’s not enough proof.
Most sexual assaults do not result in external physical injuries. It’s important to receive medical attention to check for internal injuries. You can also choose to have a sexual assault forensic exam to check for DNA evidence that may not be visible on the surface.
- I’m worried law enforcement won’t believe me.
There has been great investment in police training on this topic. While there are occasional exceptions, most law enforcement officers are understanding and on your side. If you do encounter someone who isn’t taking your case seriously, ask for their supervisor and let your local sexual assault service provider know.
- I don’t want to get in trouble.
Sometimes minors are afraid of being disciplined, either by the law or by their parents, because they were doing something they shouldn’t have when the abuse occurred. For example, a teen might have been consuming alcohol, or a child might have been breaking a house rule. It’s important to remember that sexual assault is a crime—no matter the circumstances. Nothing you did caused this to happen.
Effects of Sexual Assault
Sexual violence can have psychological, emotional, and physical effects on a survivor. These effects aren’t always easy to deal with, but with the right help and support they can be managed. Learning more can help you find the best form of care to begin the healing process.
Short Term (Acute) Effects
Immediately following an incident (days to weeks), many survivors report feeling:
- Shame: Survivors thinking they are bad, wrong, dirty, or permanently flawed.
- Guilt: Survivors feeling that the abuse was their fault. It is very difficult for survivors to place the blame on the offender. Often the abuser was a person close to them that they want to protect. Or it may be that by placing the blame on the offender they then feel an utter helplessness in the abuse.
- Denial: Survivors saying, “It wasn’t that bad.” “It only happened once.” “I am fine, I don’t need anything.”
- Minimizing: Survivors thinking that their abuse was not as bad as someone else’s. Minimizing the assault is a coping strategy. Sexual assault counselors should validate the impact of the abuse and that it is appropriate that the survivor is upset, traumatized, or hurting from it.
- Boundaries: Survivors can be unfamiliar with boundaries, not knowing when or how to set them or that they have a right to do so. Many survivors need support developing and practicing boundaries.
- Trust: Sexual assault is a betrayal of trust. Most survivors find it difficult to trust other people as well as themselves and their own perceptions. On the other hand, they may place an inappropriate level of trust in everyone.
- Safety: Often survivors have an unrealistic sense of safety, assess unsafe situations as safe, and perceive safe situations as dangerous. It is important to check whether a survivor is now in a safe environment by asking specific questions: “Is anyone hurting you or asking you to do things you do not want to do?”
- Isolation: This is a big issue for adult survivors. Many feel that they do not deserve support, that they are tainted, and that others will not want to be their friends or lovers. Often, survivors from marginalized communities do not want to expose their experiences for fear of bringing further judgment and attack on their community. Many survivors have been shunned from their families and/or communities.
- Amnesia: A survivor may not remember what happened. In the long-term, if it happened before the development of language, the survivor may not have a verbal memory.
- Dissociation: A survivor may have dissociated during the sexual assault incident(s). They may describe “floating up out of their body” or “looking over their own shoulder” during the abuse. Dissociation can happen even when the survivor is not being assaulted/abused; an event or memory can bring up emotions which trigger dissociation.
- Anesthesia: The body is where the sexual abuse took place and many survivors feel betrayed by their bodies in various ways. They may have tried to numb/dissociate from their bodies in order not to experience the feelings brought on by the abuse.
- Physical: Survivors may have somatic (body) complaints, eating disturbances, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and physical symptoms related to areas on their body affected by assault.
- Emotional: Survivors may be very expressive (anger, sadness), disoriented (disbelief, denial), or controlled (distant, calm).
- Cognitive: Survivors may be unable to block out thoughts of the assault, or alternately forget entire parts of it. They may constantly think about things they should have done differently; emotion and intellect may be conflicted. Nightmares are common. Survivors may also have thoughts of being in a similar situation and “mastering” the traumatic event.
- Other related issues that may emerge are eating disorders, sexual difficulties, physical changes, substance abuse, self-harm, suicidality, anger, and mood disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress.
Long Term Effects
- Long term reactions include healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, which may be beneficial (social support) or counterproductive (self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders).
- Immediate reactions may persist and change the survivor’s lifestyle. This adjustment stage (months or years) may include:
- continuing anxiety
- poor health
- sense of helplessness
- persistent fear
- mood swings
- sleep disturbances
- panic attacks
- relationship difficulties
- localized pain
- These are normal reactions to a traumatic incident. If we look at these reactions through a “trauma lens” then the reactions make sense but are no longer useful to the healing process.
- Some survivors may be diagnosed by a mental health professional as having Acute Stress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
1. “About Sexual Violence.” California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. N.p., n.d. Web↩
2. Buchwald, E. et al (1993). Transforming a Rape Culture, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions↩