What is Sexual Assault and Sexual Abuse

Sexual assault is any form of sexual penetration, oral, anal, or vaginal, where the victim does not–or is unable to–give knowing consent. Sexual assault is also called rape. Acquaintance rape is sexual assault when the victim knows the attacker. Date rape is sexual assault when the victim is attacked by an assailant while on a date.

Sexual abuse is sexual contact, not involving penetration, in which the victim does not–or is unable to–give knowing consent. Sexual contact, not involving penetration, may include intentional fondling by the assailant (directly or through clothing) of the sex organs, buttocks, or breasts for the purpose of sexual gratification of the assailant. The definition also includes the victim being coerced into fondling the assailant.

It is important to note that both definitions are gender neutral. Sexual assault and sexual abuse can be emotionally devastating to victims of either sex. However, as the victims are more often females, the information presented in this pamphlet primarily addresses female survivors and their loved ones.

Pertinent Statistics Regarding Sexual Assault/Abuse

  • As many as one in four college women become victims of attempted or completed rape during their college years.
  • In 60-80 percent of rapes, the assailant and the victim know each other and, of these, over half of the rapes happen on a date.
  • It is estimated that only 10 percent of rapes are reported to the police.
  • 75 percent of the male perpetrators and 55 percent of the female victims report that alcohol was involved at the time of the incident.
  • Only 27 percent of women who were sexually assaulted, according to the legal definition of rape, perceive themselves as being rape victims.

Common Responses to Recent Sexual Assault/Abuse

Survivors differ in their responses to assault/abuse. The long-term effects may be influenced by the severity of the assault, the survivor’s existing coping skills, and the support the person has afterwards. Nevertheless, the following responses are experienced by many survivors:

  • A survivor’s self-esteem often diminishes after an assault or abuse. Frequently she feels shamed, humiliated, guilty, angry, and powerless.
  • A survivor’s attitude toward her body may be negatively affected. This change may lead to self-abuse (e.g., alcohol abuse, overeating, self-mutilation, etc.).
  • A survivor may find it difficult to trust and to be intimate with others.
  • A survivor may not want sexual intimacy for some time or may engage in risky sexual behaviors.
  • A survivor may experience flashbacks of the incident.
  • A survivor may experience fear of being alone and fear of a future attack.
  • A survivor may experience nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
  • A survivor may not be able to concentrate and focus. This can affect academic and/or job performance.

Common Phases

Survivors often go through three general phases. (The phases do not always occur in the order listed below.)

  • Phase One: This phase may last a few days to several weeks. The survivor may experience shock and severe distress, confusion, disorientation, anger, and rage.
  • Phase Two: The survivor often wishes to forget the incident and return to &quotnormal.” It is common to want to suppress feelings in order to forget about the incident and regain control. However, the crisis is not resolved.
  • Phase Three: The survivor is ready to begin to deal with the feelings associated with the assault/abuse. This phase usually involves re-experiencing feelings, thoughts, and memories of the assault/abuse. This healing process may vary in duration.

Throughout all three phases, survivors need supportive people (friends, family, loved ones). A survivor support group and/or a counselor can also be of help.

How to Help a Survivor of Recent Sexual Assault/Abuse

  • Talk, listen, respect and be emotionally available to the survivor.
  • Accept what the survivor tells you.
  • Accept the fact that the assault/abuse happened.
  • Understand that it is not the survivor’s fault.
  • Listen nonjudgementally. Suggest options and actions (medical, psychological and other assistance), but let the survivor decide what action to take.
  • Let the survivor talk about the incident, but don’t force a discussion.
  • Respect and understand that temporarily the survivor may become distant from loved ones.
  • Assure the survivor that you will be available to provide support throughout the process of recovery.
  • Give the survivor time to heal. Be patient and understand that the healing process takes time.
  • Take the initiative to maintain communications with the survivor.
  • Moderate your natural tendencies to become overprotective.
  • The survivor may need to seek medical attention immediately. You can help by encouraging and accompanying the survivor to obtain medical attention. If the survivor wishes to seek criminal action, this should be done as soon as possible after the incident.

Additional Suggestions for the Romantic Partner of the Survivor

  • Ask for permission before touching or holding the survivor.
  • Do not rush sexual contact. The survivor needs to decide when it is right to have sexual contact, and to pace the intensity of involvement.
  • Accept the fact that the survivor’s renewal of sexual interest may occur at a slow pace.
  • Discuss the subject of sex in a non-sexual environment (i.e., not in bed).

In Helping the Survivor, Here are Some Feelings You May Experience


  • The survivor’s dependence on you may feel overwhelming.
  • Recovery can be a long, slow process that may take years. You may fear that the survivor will never be the same again.


  • You may feel guilty that you did not prevent the assault/abuse. It is neither your fault, nor the survivor/s fault. The perpetrator committed the crime–not you.


  • Your closeness to the survivor’s experience may underline the vulnerability to violence that we are all subject to. You may feel vulnerable because you realize that it could happen to you.
  • If you are a man, you may be afraid you will be associated with the perpetrator.
  • If you are a sexual partner, you may be afraid to have sex with the survivor.
  • It is important to realize that your feelings are natural. Accept your feelings and try to understand and to get help for yourself.

How to Help Yourself

  • Talk with people you can trust. You too need support from others.
  • If you are male and the survivor is female, do not take personally any hatred she feels towards men. Her anger with the perpetrator and may generalize into a temporary anger toward all men.
  • Talk to a counselor or call a rape crisis hotline. It is hard to witness someone in emotional pain. Take care of yourself as you help the survivor.
  • Educate yourself about rape and rape prevention.
  • Moderate your stress levels through activities with other friends and/or through &quotalone time.”
  • Do not expect to be able to make the survivor feel better all of the time.
  • Do not blame the survivor. Even when you feel poor judgments were made by the survivor, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted or abused.
  • Do not blame yourself. The only person who is at fault is the person who committed the crime.

Surviving sexual abuse or assault is only half the battle, dealing with the visible or emotional damage requires a good supportive therapist experienced in sexual trauma.

Short- and long-term therapy services are available to adult victims of sexual assault/abuse and their significant others. These include individual, group and family sessions.  The goal of therapy is to work with victims through a client-centered approach to reduce the effects of trauma, learn healthy survival skills and reduce the potential for re-victimization. 

Who can get help?
Any female and female - identified adult, who is a victim of sexual assault or abuse. 

Why is counseling important?
Sexual abuse/assault is a traumatic event and sometimes it can take years to heal. Our body/mind temporarily allows us to suppress or feel numb as it copes with the traumatic event. Often the trauma is so painful that we are not equipped to resolve it soon after the event. This is especially true for the child who has been sexually abused and often times still lives in the same dangerous environment. Painful feelings, nightmares, flashbacks and various other effects often surface years after the actual trauma. 


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