Sexual violence happens in every community and affects people of all genders and ages. Sexual violence is any type of unwanted sexual contact. This includes words and actions of a sexual nature against a person’s will and without their consent. A person may use force, threats, manipulation, or coercion to commit sexual violence.
Forms of sexual violence include:
Rape or sexual assault
Child sexual assault and incest
Sexual assault by a person’s spouse or partner
Unwanted sexual contact/touching
Sexual exploitation and trafficking
Exposing one’s genitals or a naked body to other(s) without consent
Masturbating in public
Watching someone engage in private acts without their knowledge or permission
Nonconsensual image sharing
There is a social context that surrounds sexual violence. Social norms that condone violence, use power over others, traditional constructs of masculinity, the subjugation of women, and silence about violence and abuse contribute to the occurrence of sexual violence. Oppression in all of its forms is among the root causes of sexual violence. Sexual violence is preventable through collaborations of community members at multiple levels of society—in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, faith settings, workplaces, and other settings. We all play a role in preventing sexual violence and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality, and helping others.
What is consent?
Consent must be freely given and informed, and a person can change their mind at any time.
Consent is more than yes or no. It is a dialogue about desires, needs, and levels of comfort with different sexual interactions.
Who does sexual violence impact?
Victims of sexual violence include people of all ages, races, genders, and religions — with and without disabilities.
Nearly one in five women in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape some time in their lives (Black et al., 2011).
In the United States, one in 71 men has experienced rape or attempted rape (Black et al., 2011).
An estimated 32.3% of multiracial women, 27.5% of American Indian/Alaska Native women, 21.2% of non-Hispanic black women, 20.5% of non-Hispanic white women, and 13.6% of Hispanic women were raped during their lifetimes (Black et al., 2011).
Victims often know the person who sexually assaulted them.
People who sexually abuse usually target someone they know.
Nearly three out of four adolescents (74%) who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well (Kilpatrick, Saunders, & Smith, 2003).
One-fifth (21.1%) were committed by a family member (Kilpatrick, Saunders, & Smith, 2003).
Victims are never at fault.
Choosing to violate another person is not about “drinking too much,” “trying to have a good time,” or ”getting carried away,” nor is it about the clothes someone was wearing, how they were acting, or what type of relationship they have with the person who abused them. Violating another person is a choice.
Rape is often not reported or convicted.
A person may choose not to report to law enforcement or tell anyone about victimization they experienced for many reasons. Some of the most common include:
fear of not being believed
being afraid of retaliation
shame or fear of being blamed
pressure from others
distrust towards law enforcement
a desire to protect the attacker for other reasons
The Impact of Sexual Violence
The impact of sexual violence extends beyond the individual survivor and reaches all of society.
Impact on survivors
An assault may impact a survivor’s daily life no matter when it happened. Each survivor reacts to sexual violence in their own way. Common emotional reactions include guilt, shame, fear, numbness, shock, and feelings of isolation.
Physical impacts may include personal injuries, concerns about pregnancy, or risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. The economic impact of sexual violence includes medical and other expenses in addition to things like time off work. The long-term psychological effects survivors may face if their trauma is left untreated include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, isolation, and others.
Impact on loved ones
Sexual violence can affect parents, friends, partners, children, spouses, and/or coworkers of the survivor. As they try to make sense of what happened, loved ones may experience similar reactions and feelings to those of the survivor such as fear, guilt, self-blame, and anger. To help someone you are about after trauma, click here.
When In Doubt...say "I Believe You"
It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, especially if they are a friend or family member. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, so we encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible.
Sometimes support means providing resources, such as how to reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, seek medical attention, or report the crime to the police. But often listening is the best way to support a survivor.
Here are some specific phrases RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline staff recommends to be supportive through a survivor’s healing process.
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.