Experiencing a rape or sexual assault can create a host of emotions. You may feel like withdrawing, be wracked with anxiety, or filled with rage.
There’s no blueprint or timeline: the aftereffects of trauma can rear up in the immediate aftermath or years later, especially if something triggers a memory or realization.
When Chanel Miller read her victim-impact statement during the sentencing hearing for perpetrator Brock Tuner, (now convicted on three charges of felony sexual assault) many recognized an unsettling familiarity in her words: “I tried to push it out of my mind, but it was so heavy I didn’t talk, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t interact with anyone.”
When the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017 (the movement was actually founded in 2006 by survivor and activist Tarana Burke), it unleashed a deluge of conversations about rape, sexual assault, consent — and what consent really means.
Finally, what many have always known is common knowledge: these forms of abuse are rampant.
If you’re grappling with trauma from sexual assault, know you don’t have to go through this alone. This guide is full of resources specifically created to support survivors, including information on what rape is and what to do next.
What to do in an emergency
If you’ve just been raped or sexually assaulted, or if you are unsure, get to a safe location and call or message a helpline. A helpline can put you in touch with the resources you need and walk you through steps based on your unique situation.
Rape is a form of sexual assault, which “refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim,” according to (RAINN).
For it be “rape,” it must involve penetration. Or as the FBI puts it: “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. Attempts or assaults to commit rape are also included.”
Depending on where you live, states have varying definitions of these terms. So check your state’s laws if you need to know local legal specifics.
Laws, however, do not rule over your feelings. Even if a perpetrator can’t be prosecuted, that doesn’t negate the trauma’s impact on you.
Sexual assault vs. rape
A rape, by definition, is a sexual assault. But not all sexual assaults are defined as rape.
- Rape specifically refers to penetration without consent.
- Sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.
There’s a common misconception that goes something like this: “Well, if [they] didn’t actually say the words, no, then it was okay,” says Shari Botwin, a trauma therapist and author of Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing.
But consent is not the absence of the word “no” and neither is it simply the uttering of the word “yes” (although, saying yes can be an important part of giving consent).
From a legal standpoint, consent is defined differently in each state (find your state’s definition here). But broadly speaking, consent should look like the following:
Given consent is enthusiastic
It can still be rape even if you don’t resist. In fact according to research, it’s common for survivors to freeze up — also called tonic immobility — during an assault. (The study found 70 percent of the 298 survivors surveyed experienced tonic immobility.)
Consent is both verbally and non-verbally agreement, says Botwin. This means both people are actively participating and interested in the activity.
She also identifies being “present” as critical to giving consent. For example, when a person dissociates — especially if they have a history of trauma — they might feel detached from what is happening to them and therefore unable to give consent.
Consent needs to be freely given
If someone threatens you or your physical safety into consenting or complying, that’s not consent.
Or, in the case of a romantic partner, maybe the person threatens to break up with you if you don’t give in to a sex act. “Going along with something is not consent. It’s more about survival,” Botwin explains.
Similarly, if someone tells you that you don’t love them if you won’t have sex, they have not received your consent. That’s a form of manipulation.
Consent is continuously given
If you’ve consented to kissing, you don’t have to consent to taking your clothes off. And if you’ve consented to clothes off, you don’t have to consent to penetration. And if you’ve consented to penetration, you don’t have to consent to keep going or to switch to a different kind of penetration. And if you’ve consented to a certain type of role play but you start to feel uncomfortable, you have the right to stop.
“We can change our minds at any point,” says Lori Jump director of StrongHearts Native Helpline, a safe domestic, dating, and sexual violence helpline for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Common scenarios and questions
Often, people are led to believe an experience isn’t sexual assault because of a certain situation or relationship to the person. Without freely given, enthusiastic, continual consent, it’s still sexual assault even if:
- You didn’t resist.
- You didn’t say no.
- You revoked consent, but the person continued.
- You were in a relationship.
- You were threatened.
- You were manipulated or coerced.
Sometimes consent is impossible, even if the perpetrator (looking at you Brock Turner) claims you gave consent. The following scenarios take away your capacity to give consent.
You weren’t old enough to give it
You cannot give consent if you are a minor. End of story. Sadly, this fact is often obscured by the use of the phrase “underage woman” to refer to child rape cases, such as with Jeffrey Epstein and Larry Nassar.
But there’s no such thing as an underage woman. Anyone who isn’t an adult is a child and children do not have the capacity to consent. It’s not a romantic affair (as Woody Allen would have you believe) or a trivial slip in judgment — it’s a heinous offense.
Note: The age of consent varies by state. Check your state’s laws here.
You were too drunk or high
If you were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, you’re not able to consent. From a legality standpoint, states vary in their definition of incapacitation from an intoxicating substance.
But remember, laws don’t determine trauma. If you feel violated, you feel violated. And you should seek help.
What if I can’t remember if I gave consent?
If you are questioning what happened — or feeling overwhelmed, confused, or scared — it might help to call a rape crisis helpline to talk to someone trained in these matters. They can connect you with resources for next steps.
“We spend a lot of time just in conversation, with peer-to-peer support education, and then encouraging them to think about what their options are and really what they feel they can do,” says Jump.
You were asleep, unconscious, or drugged
Remember, for an encounter to be consensual you have to be present and provide enthusiastic and continuous consent, says Botwin. So if you’re unable to speak, you’re asleep, or if you’ve been given a drug you weren’t privy to, you’re unable to give consent.
You experience cognitive impairment
Some disabilities may also take away the capacity to consent, especially in cases where an impairment prevents a person from understanding what sex is or their rights to say no.
Rules of consent still apply in relationships. If your partner forces or coerces you to do intimate things you don’t want to, or manipulates you into sex when you’re expressing you don’t want to, it’s assault, says Botwin.
Unfortunately, assault within partnerships is a common experience: 1 in 10 women have reported being raped by an intimate partner.
And even if you maintained a romantic relationship or friendship with a person who assaulted you, that still doesn’t mean you consented. Some of the victims in the Harvey Weinstein case remained in contact with him, for example.
Just because it’s not rape doesn’t mean it’s OK
Often in relationships something will happen sexually that, although not assault, still feels like a violation of boundaries.
If this has happened to you, it’s important to be honest with your partner so that it doesn’t happen again. If your partner is resistant to listening, that may indicate they aren’t prioritizing your safety.
There are tons of resources available to support survivors, from helplines to counseling to trauma-informed yoga (and more). We compiled as many of these resources as we could find here.
Additionally, you can take the following steps.
Call a helpline
People who work at sexual assault helplines are uniquely qualified to give you support. They’re literally trained for this. And, as Jump points out, healing begins with telling your story.
- RAINN: Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat
- StrongHearts Native Helpline: Call 1.844.7NATIVE (762-8483) or chat
Some helplines also offer the option to use chat, which Jump says could be safer, especially in cases where you’re quarantined with an abusive partner. But you may also just be more comfortable with chat.
A crisis helpline will help you assess your options and find the next resources you need, including trained health care providers.
Ask for a rape kit (aka sexual assault examination)
A rape kit gathers DNA and other evidence from your clothes and body to show that you were raped. (Read here for how to prepare for one.)
You only have to get a rape kit if you want to, but it’s important to know that a kit must be collected within 72 hours of an incident, and the process is different in every state.
Rape helplines can help you find a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) or 1.844.7NATIVE. You can also look up a local provider.
Do you want to file a report with the police?
You don’t have to make a decision to file charges right away. But if you think you’ll want to down the road, a rape kit could provide valuable evidence. If you have questions, you can also call your local precinct to find out how to report and what a report entails.
You may also wish to speak to a therapist
If you’re interested in talking with a therapist, Janika Joyner, LCSW recommends finding one who specializes in trauma or sexual assault. But some people aren’t ready for that step right away.
“I’m an advocate for writing in a journal,” Joyner says. “It gives an opportunity for you to vent and get your things out, where you may not be comfortable saying them yet.”
Be kind to yourself
One of the most important things to do is to be empathetic with yourself. Dealing with trauma from sexual assault can be an ongoing process that takes time and isn’t necessarily linear.
“It’s a lot like when somebody is going through the five stages of loss,” Botwin says. “You go through a period where you feel angry. You go through periods where you feel depressed, or you’re in denial, or then you can get to a period where you’re fully accepting, but then you can revert back into the anger.”
Wherever you’re at in the process, you can always come back to these important words from Jump: “Sexual assault is a choice that a perpetrator has made. It’s not something that a victim or survivor has done.”
Rape and sexual assault are hard to think about and sometimes even harder to acknowledge when they’ve happened to you. A meta-analysis of female rape survivors found that 60 percent didn’t acknowledge they had been raped.
One reason for that lack of acknowledgment has to do with rape culture, which normalizes sexual assault and often leads to minimizing or dismissing trauma.
The person at the bar who grabbed your breast without your consent assaulted you. But we see violations like that on television and in film all the time. When we’re fed storylines of rape, however, the imagery often involves a weapon, extreme force, or a masked perp.
“We tend to think of sexual assault and rape as the creepy guy peeking through the window or who attacks you in an alleyway,” says Jump “But, really, the vast majority of perpetrators are people that we know.”
If you read Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxanne Gay, you’ll find a common theme in the collection of essays from rape survivors. Many writers characterize their encounter as “not that bad” compared to other rape narratives — say, the kind where a stranger attacks you in the alley.
But it’s important not to let these dangerous cultural narratives define or influence your story. You and only you decide what’s right for your body.