If you are in immediate danger, try to find a safe place and call 911. Or get someone to call for you. If you are looking for support, please contact the 24-hour national hotline operated by RAINN, either via telephone at 1 (800) 656-HOPE or online at


After a sexual assault, most people tell someone what happened, whether it is a friend, family member, or someone else they love or respect. However, some people never tell anyone. The decision to tell someone is yours and yours alone. For many people, it can be very helpful to talk to a loved one after they have been sexually assaulted. That person may be able to provide comfort and support, and even help you access other forms of assistance.

How Will Others Respond?

For some survivors, it can be hurtful when their loved one doesn’t respond in the way they hoped. Most people don’t understand sexual assault very well, so even if the person loves you very much, they may have an immediate reaction of disbelief, anger, or even blame.

Sometimes it can be helpful to prepare the person how you would like them to respond. For example, you may say something like this:

I’m about to tell you something very difficult, but I’m worried about how you will respond – so I’m asking you to please just listen to me, and not react right away.

Seek Then Speak

Seek Then Speak is a digital aid that helps you gather information, make decisions, and take action. It’s available on your desktop, mobile phone, even a landline. By guiding you through a series of questions, you can figure out what options are right for you. You can get in touch with victim services, who can help you through this process, and you can even start reporting to authorities, if you choose to.

Meanwhile, you can remain anonymous as long as you’d like. You are in control of the information you share, who you share it with, and what you want to happen with it.

Contact victim services

Many communities have agencies providing services for survivors of physical abuse or sexual assault. Sometimes this is called a rape crisis center, but it may have another name. These agencies have advocates and counselors who can provide you – and your loved ones – with assistance. They can also help you to learn more about your options, make decisions, and take action.

Victim services will help you

Many centers offer a 24-hour hotline and around-the-clock response, so victim services staff can meet you at the hospital or police department. That means you don’t have to be alone. These services are free and confidential, so victim services staff won’t share information with anyone else.

Most centers also provide counseling services, which may be free, or you may be asked to pay for them on a sliding scale based on your income level. Counseling services can help you to explore your feelings as a result of the sexual assault, and help you on the path toward healing.


We can offer definitions for sexual assault and rape, but legal definitions aren’t critical right now. You are here because of something that happened that concerns you. Therefore, your best strategy is to learn more about your options. Then if you decide to contact authorities, they will make any legal decisions. You need to make whatever decisions help you to move forward.

What is Sexual Abuse?

“Sexual abuse” is a term that people use in different ways. Some use it to refer to sexual crimes committed against children. Others use it to describe unwanted sexual contact that does not rise to the level of a sexual assault. For example, some states have a legal definition of sexual abuse that includes misdemeanor offenses, while sexual assault is a felony level offense.

What is Sexual Assault?

“Sexual assault” refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without consent of the victim. This can include sexual acts committed using force or threats – or against someone who is unable to legally consent. For example, the person may be too young, unconscious, or incapacitated for any reason (including drugs or alcohol, as well as severe disabilities).

Some forms of sexual assault include:

  • Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape
  • Attempted rape
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as penetrating the perpetrator’s body
  • Unwanted sexual touching

Legal definitions of sexual assault vary across states, territories, and tribes. People also use the term in different ways, which don’t always match with the legal definitions.

Crimes involving sexual penetration are typically felonies, meaning a person could be sentenced to prison if convicted. Unwanted sexual touching is typically a misdemeanor, but in some circumstances, it might be a felony. Defendants convicted of a misdemeanor will typically be sentenced to local jail time or probation.

What is Rape?

People use the term “rape” to mean different things. Often, it is used to refer to sexual penetration without consent. Again, this can be committed using force or threats, or against someone who is legally unable to consent. Penetration is often defined as “penetration, no matter how slight,” of the vagina or anus of one person, with an object or the body part of another person. It also includes oral sex, if it is nonconsensual. However, legal definitions vary across jurisdictions, and people use terminology in ways that don’t necessary match these legal definitions.

The important thing isn’t whether or not what happened to you meets the legal definition of rape. That’s a legal issue. What matters now is that something happened that concerned you enough to find this information.

Sexual Harassment

Some people use the term “sexual harassment” to generally refer to sexual abuse or assault, but it specifically describes behaviors that are related to school or work. This can include crude sexual comments or jokes, propositions for sex, unwanted sexual acts, and other behaviors. It can happen at school or work or just involve a teacher, supervisor, or co-worker. Because it happens in the context of school or work, this type of behavior is a form of sex discrimination covered by federal civil rights.

Sexual harassment can include criminal offenses such as rape or sexual assault, but more typically it involves behaviors that are not crimes. For example, if you are sexually abused or assaulted by a teacher, supervisor, or co-worker – and the incident meets the legal definition above – then it is a criminal act, which can be reported to law enforcement, investigated, and possibly prosecuted. Of course, you can also report it at school or work.

However, if the behavior does not meet any of those definitions – for example, if it involves sexual comments or jokes, but no physical contact – then it is not a criminal matter. You can use the reporting process at school or work, to initiate an internal investigation. This might lead to sanctions for the person who did it. You may also be able to file a civil lawsuit. This requires hiring a lawyer, who can explain the process to you.


There are many actions you can take following a sexual assault. Just remember, it wasn’t your fault. You have the right to be heard, to get help, and to be treated with respect.

Obtain Medical Care

It is important for you to have a nurse or doctor check your physical well-being. This is critical because you may have injuries you are not aware of. They can also help to get you in touch with victim services staff who can offer you information, support and assistance.

Health care providers can also provide testing or treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy, if you are female.

Medical Care Alternatives

To obtain medical care, you can go to a health care facility or provider of your choice (e.g., your personal doctor). Just keep in mind that your own doctor is probably not trained to collect or document evidence in case you decide to report to police at a later time. For more information about your options, including health care facilities that may offer services for free or allow you to pay on a sliding scale based on your income, you can talk with victim services.

There are some situations where health care providers might be required to report your sexual assault to law enforcement. For example, in some states, any abuse of someone under 18 must be reported. Some also require a report if a weapon is used or you are seriously injured. In a few states, all sexual assaults have to be reported. Even if your assault is reported, you do not have to talk with the officer or participate in the investigation. However, if you don’t want a report made, you can say you had unprotected sex and not say anything else at the time of the medical examination. Omission is not lying, you do not have to disclose that you were sexually assaulted. You can discuss these options with victim services staff.

Get a Medical Forensic Exam

You have the right to a free special examination – called a medical forensic exam – where a nurse or doctor will check your physical well-being and conduct evidence procedures that could be useful if you decide to report to authorities. You have a right to have this exam conducted without deciding whether or not to talk with police. You can make that decision later.

Usually, these exams are conducted within 3-5 days of the sexual assault, but there are exceptions. You can get an exam by going to a hospital Emergency Room, calling a rape crisis center, or contacting police.

Forensic Exam Details

The exam is available for free, and it often includes testing and treatment for any sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and possible pregnancy. If you have injuries beyond the sexual assault, that testing and treatment is usually billed separately. However, if you report your sexual assault to police and participate in the investigation, these costs can be reimbursed by Crime Victim Compensation. Victim services staff can help you apply for that. You can also bring someone with you to the exam, whether it is a friend, family member, or victim services staff.

The whole process of the exam can take several hours. However, the most important thing is this: Nothing will happen during the exam without your consent. Only if you say it’s okay. You can consent to any or all parts of the exam, and you can withdraw your consent at any time.

What does the exam look like? First, the nurse or doctor will ask you questions about what happened. Your responses will be carefully documented in a written report. Then the physical exam will begin, which will include a vaginal and/or anal exam. A variety of samples will be taken (e.g., blood, urine, and swabs from your body), as well as photographs. Some items of your clothing may be collected.

Preparing for an Exam

If you plan to have an exam, it is best not to shower, bathe, or douche before you go. However, don’t worry if you already did any of these things. The nurse or doctor will still take samples during the exam, and it’s impossible to know what evidence might still be recovered. Also, the exam is still important, because it involves much more than just collecting evidence.

If you can, you should bring the clothes you wore during or immediately after the assault, or put on immediately afterward if you changed clothes. But again, don’t worry if that’s not possible. If you decide to report to police, they can often identify other types of evidence, and the exam is still important because it involves more than just collecting evidence.

If you’re not sure what you want to do, you can keep the clothing you wore during the assault or put on immediately afterward, in case you decide to report to police later. If you have not washed your clothes, carefully place each item in a separate paper bag (not plastic). You can discuss any of these issues with victim services staff, if you choose to connect with a rape crisis center.

Report to police

You have the option of reporting what happened to police. This is the only way to hold someone responsible in the criminal justice system. If you plan to report, it is best to do it as soon as possible. That way, police have a better chance at gathering information and evidence. During the reporting process, you have the right to ask questions, and you can bring someone with you, whether it is a friend, family member, or victim services staff.

If you are under 18, there are certain people who might have to tell the police if they believe you were sexually assaulted. This includes teachers, coaches, doctors, nurses, and others. If a report is made, you may be contacted by a police officer but you can choose whether you want to participate in an investigation. An investigation can take place without your participation, but it usually doesn’t happen this way. If you want to talk with someone without a report being made, you can talk with victim services staff and not tell them your name or how old you are.

Other ways to connect with police

You can contact police by calling 911, or you can go to the police department.

This could be:

  • a city police department
  • a county sheriff’s office
  • school campus police
  • military police

The local police department can assist you even if you were assaulted in another city or state.

The investigation process

You have the right to ask any questions about what is happening during an investigation, and to bring someone with you, whether it is victim services staff or loved one.

What does an investigation look like? It will probably include talking with you, any witnesses, anyone you told about the assault, and the person who did this to you. The investigation may also include collecting other items, such as physical objects (clothing, bedding, etc.) and digital information (cell phone records, text messages, etc.). Your cell phone might be needed temporarily, to gather information before returning the phone to you. You don’t have to hand over these items, but they might be important evidence. Victim services staff can help you make decisions that are best for you.

Options for students

Additional options exist if you are a student at a college or university, or the person who did this to you is a student, or if the incident happened on campus. Title IX civil rights law prohibits sexual discrimination in education and requires schools to be proactive in prevention and responsive to sexual assault survivors.

There may be a range of services available to you on campus, including health care, counseling, a campus ombudsperson, and a student judicial system. You may choose to utilize the services that are available on campus, in the community, or both.

If the person who did this to you is a student, you have the option of reporting the incident to the judicial system at that college or university. If the incident took place on campus, it may fall under the jurisdiction of the university police department.

Military options

If you are in the military, or you are a dependent of a military service member, there are services available to you, including health care, counseling, and victim services. You may utilize services inside the military system, outside the system, or both.

Defense Department policy gives service members two reporting options: a Restricted Report or an Unrestricted Report. The military also offers the Safe Help Line, as an anonymous and confidential resource. This can be used by service members as well as their dependents.

A Restricted Report allows you to obtain services within the military, without triggering an investigation. You can get medical care, a forensic medical exam, victim services, and counseling. However, there are some things you cannot get, like a military protective order.

An Unrestricted Report starts the investigative process, which is the only way to potentially prosecute an offender. It is also the only way for a victim to obtain a military protective order. You can make an Unrestricted Report through any standard reporting channel, including: a Commander, SAPR Victim Advocate (VA), Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), Health Care Provider, Law Enforcement / Military Criminal Investigation Organization (MCIO).

A Restricted Report can only be made to certain personnel: SAPR Victim Advocate (VA), Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), Health Care Provider, or Chaplain. If you tell anyone else about your sexual assault, it may result in a Unrestricted Report and an investigation.

Even with a Restricted Report, some information will be provided to the Commander of your unit. This includes your age, gender, grade, component, status, location, and the type of assault. It does not include your name. The purpose is to provide your Commander with information about what is happening in the unit, to help create a safer environment for everyone.

You can change a Restricted Report to an Unrestricted Report at any time, and an investigation will begin. However, once a report is Unrestricted, it can never go back to being Restricted.

If the assault occurred off base, you can report it to a civilian law enforcement agency. However, the military might still find out about the investigation. For example, in some states, health care providers must report to law enforcement if they believe one of their patients was sexually assaulted. This report could be made to military police, which will then be Unrestricted. You can discuss these options confidentially with victim services staff in a civilian rape crisis center.


When someone tells you that they were sexually assaulted, the best way to respond is simply to Start by Believing. Survivors are often afraid that others won’t believe them, or that they will blame them for what happened, so it is important to simply listen and offer support and whatever types of assistance they want. Let them take the lead on what they need from you.

Knowing what to say

People often wonder what they should say when someone tells them they were sexually assaulted. They worry about saying the “wrong thing,” or somehow making the situation worse.

Don’t worry! The best messages are the simplest ones:

I believe you. I’m sorry this happened. How can I help?

Allow the survivor to speak openly and freely. Let them decide what they want to tell you about the assault – don’t force them to talk about it if they aren’t ready.

Try not to ask “why” questions, like “Why didn’t you call me for a ride?” Even if you are asking this type of question with the best intentions, it can sound accusatory and may cause further self-blame for the survivor.

Learn about sexual assault

You can also let the survivor know about Seek Then Speak, a digital aid that can help them gather information, make decisions, and take action. It’s available on a desktop, mobile phone, and even a landline. By guiding the survivor through a series of questions, they can figure out what options are right for them. They can get in touch with victim services, who can help them through this process, and they can even start reporting to authorities, if they choose to.

Be patient with intimate partners

If it is your partner who was sexually assaulted (e.g., boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse), be patient with them regarding physical intimacy. Ask your partner if you can touch or hug them.

Healing takes time and a lack of desire for physical intimacy is not necessarily a reflection of their feelings towards you, but rather is the result of trauma from the sexual assault.

Help them move forward

Sexual assault is a serious crime, and the decision to report can be a difficult one. Survivors have the right to take their time when making this decision.

When in doubt, just ask the survivor how you can help. For example, ask if they want you to stay with them or go to the health care facility or victim services center with them. Let the survivor know you are there for them, but always let them make the choice to accept your help or not.