Trigger Warning: This post contains detailed information about sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing.
This piece is part of Not Your Fault, a Teen Vogue campaign that aims to educate people about the epidemic of sexual assault. For more on this series, click here.
Look around. Notice the people passing you on the street. The tall guy in the jean jacket standing next to you at Starbucks. The pixie-haired girl in front of you in line at the student bookstore. See your classmates, scattered all over campus, heading to class. You probably don’t think of these people as survivors, but many of them are.
Statistics show that in America, a staggering one in six women and one in 33 men is a survivor of rape or attempted rape. And every 107 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. With high-profile rape cases at major universities making headlines, like this 2013 incident at Vanderbilt, it’s clear that teenagers and college students seem to be especially impacted by sexual violence. Of the estimated 293,000 people who will be sexually assaulted this year alone, 44% will be under the age of 18 and 80% will be under the age of 30.
In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, it can be hard know what to do or what to think. Before you do anything else, it’s important to make sure that you’re safe: “If you are still in immediate danger, call 911,” Katherine Hull Fliflet, vice president of communications at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, tells Teen Vogue. If your attacker is still nearby, it’s important to get yourself to a safe place, preferably with a close friend or relative.
It’s also important to get one thing straight about what just happened: “Know that it was not your fault,” Fiflet says. Whatever you do next is up to you — it’s your body, your life, your mental health and well-being, and only you know what’s best for you. But if you do choose to seek assistance after sexual assault, there are many people who want to help you. Here’s what to expect, step by step, if you do choose to seek help.
If you want to reach out for help immediately after an assault, a good first action is to call the National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where you can talk to a trained professional from a local sexual assault service provider. The hotline provides “24/7, judgment-free, and confidential help that can direct you to the nearest health center that cares for rape victims, or that handles sexual assault forensic exams,” Fliflet explains. Not comfortable speaking over the phone? You can also access trained professionals online, which mirrors the help you’d receive via telephone.
The hotline platforms used by RAINN do not transcribe conversations or capture the IP address of those seeking help, so you can be sure your chat is 100% anonymous.
If you want to seek medical help after an assault, a local sexual assault service provider can assist you in finding the right kind of care, tell you what local hospitals treat rape survivors, and even accompany you to a medical center if you wish. (To find a service provider near you, click here.) All ERs can provide medical assistance for survivors of sexual violence, but some — like Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) — are specially trained to perform exams with care.
According to Gail Abarbanel, LCSW, director of the Rape Treatment Center at UCLA Medical Center – Santa Monica, many survivors of sexual assault are in shock after the incident, and may have injuries. “The first thing we’ll do is figure out what [has happened] and explain what we do,” Abarbanel says, as “different victims want different kinds of treatment.”
Typically, a medical professional will walk you through what sorts of procedures the clinic provides, and ask you questions about what happened. Doctors won’t force you to submit to any part of an exam you don’t want to, but based on the information you give, they will look to treat visible injuries, examine tenderness, and perhaps do a pelvic exam.
Abarbanel says that a doc will also ask about your menstrual and contraceptive history, and determine risk of sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy. “If pregnancy is a risk, the patient will have the option to take the morning-after pill,” she explains.
Clinics do encourage the collection of forensic evidence — even if you don’t want to report the crime. “We have people who do not want to report,” Abarbanel says. “We don’t care about that. It is totally up to you. But the great thing about having forensic evidence is that you can change your mind.” Abarbanel says that she once had a survivor change her mind years later after hearing other women had run into trouble with her attacker, a prominent local figure, as well. “We had her rape kit,” she says. “We can freeze it.”
But you may choose not to have a rape kit, and that’s okay. It does help if you want to prosecute, or change your mind about prosecution in the future, but your health and mental well-being are the most important. It is your choice to have a forensic exam, or skip it.
If you decide you do want to move forward with a rape kit, here’s what to expect. A “rape kit” is the collection of forensic evidence after a sexual assault, which is then packaged and stored. You can think of it as an exam. “It is not painful,” says Abarbanel. “It’s really having people take care of you after an assault happens.”
This is what it entails: After you’re interviewed about what happened and anywhere you might feel pain, medical personnel will guide you through the exam, explaining what’s happening along the way. You’ll undress over a sheet to collect any evidence or debris that might still be on the body. A purple light is passed over the skin to look for bodily fluids, which will fluoresce under the light. “If they’re there, saliva or semen, we’ll swab them,” says Abarbanel.
Any physical injuries are photographed in a way that preserves privacy. A doctor will conduct a pelvic exam, and look at the mouth or anus if there was any penetration. “We also look for any suction or bite marks on the skin,” says Abarbanel. “We get a lot of DNA from saliva dried on the skin.” (Getting that DNA is crucial in identifying the perpetrator, so you have the option of holding them accountable for the assault.)
It’s best if you head in for medical care as soon as you can. Although it’s natural to want to clean up after an assault, Abarbanel notes that doing so may destroy forensic evidence, which can usually be taken up to 72 hours after the incident. You may also be given new clothes to wear home; at the Rape Treatment Center at UCLA, after you’re examined, you’re given new sweats to wear, Abarbanel says.
And care doesn’t end when you leave. “For injuries, we provide follow-up care so you don’t have to re-explain what happened,” says Abarbanel. “Counseling and dealing with the aftermath is also part of the medical process.”
If the hospital does not refer you for a follow-up, you can contact your local sexual assault service provider again. (See the RAINN database for locations in your state.) Personnel will have all the resources for follow-up care and counseling for as long as you need it.
If you are raped, remember this: You are not alone, nor do you have to be alone. There are many resources you can turn to for help. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, Fliflet and Abarbanel both encourage you to call a close friend or family member to stay with you through the process of seeking help.
Remember that you can get a forensic exam or rape kit without reporting the crime, should you wish, and you can always change your mind to prosecute down the line if the evidence is collected. And the incident can stay totally confidential, unless you’re a minor, in which case medical providers may be obligated to report to law enforcement. (Check out the laws in your state for more details.) Abarbanel says that many college students do not want to file a police report, but do want justice. “They’ll want the perpetrator kicked out of school,” she says. “There are typically judicial procedures on campus for this.” If you report sexual assault to your university, actions can be taken such as changing housing or having action taken to see if the perpetrator can be expelled.
Under 2013’s Campus SaVE Act, schools have been mandated to do more to assist survivors of sexual violence. Although every college has its own policies, each institution is required to have information on protection and no-contact orders, available services for survivors, how the college will protect a survivor’s privacy, and how to make living, academic, transportation or work changes even if you do not formally report the event to police. This usually involves prompt disciplinary proceedings after an event, in which the accuser and accused have an adviser present and results are clearly issued for both parties. (For more information on campus violence resources, click here.)
Maybe you’ve been raped or assaulted in the past, and decided not to speak up about it until months or years later. Know this: It’s never too late to reach out for help. “There is no timeline for healing,” says Fliflet. “Individuals reach out to us at all points. Roughly 50% have experienced sexual violence within the past six months, but around 30% experienced an event more than five years ago.”
Since sexual violence and rape can result in long-term physical and mental effects, like depression, Fliflet says it’s never something you should hold in. “You do not need to go through this alone,” she insists. “There are people who want to help and know what to do for you.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.