What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence is a crime and can refer to any type of sexual activity where consent is not obtained or freely given. The person responsible for the violence is often someone known to the victim, and can be, but is not limited to, a friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor. Sexual violence is never the fault of the victim.
Different Types of Sexual Violence
There are a lot of different ways that people can become victims to sexual violence, and it can happen to anyone, regardless of age or gender. These acts might include those that:
Do not include physical contact:
- Sexual harassment
- Taking nude photos or videos
Do include touching:
- Unwanted touching
- Sexual assault
”Sexual assault” in everyday language is a general term that includes rape and other offenses like assault/battery and sexual groping. The definitions and labels for sexual offenses can differ slightly from state to state. In some states, sex without consent is called “rape,” while in others, it is called ”sexual assault,” ”sexual intercourse without consent,” or “sexual penetration without consent.”
Though the term “assault” may bring physical attack to mind, it isn’t just about hitting. Sexual violence can also include using force or fear to make you do things that you don’t want to do.
Why are people sexually violent toward others?
Sexual violence is not about offenders getting pleasure from sex or any other form of harassment, but rather about them asserting power and control over someone else. Some offenders have been abused themselves, but this is not always the case, and there’s no evidence that a victim or survivor of sexual assault will become a perpetrator. To learn more about the theories behind sexual aggression, check out the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
How Experiencing Sexual Violence Might Affect You
Everyone reacts to the types of sexual violence differently. Individuals can experience a variety of immediate, short-term and long-term effects on their physical and emotional well being. These can include:
Shock and denial. Someone who has been a victim of sexual violence might not accept that it has really occurred. “Has this really happened to me?” and “Why me?” might be common questions that someone asks themselves.
Fear. After any form of sexual violence occurs, a person might be afraid of the offender, other people, or of being alone. A person might also be afraid to deal with the medical, legal or social consequences of the crime, and of being rejected by loved ones because of the sexual violence.
Silence. A sexual violence survivor might be unable to talk about the experience or describe what it means and feels like. There are also social pressures that might keep you from speaking, too.
Anxiety. A survivor might always be on edge. He or she might be unable to relax or feel safe.
Depression. Survivors might be at a greater risk of depression after the incident.
Guilt and blame. A survivor might continually question the events leading up to the violent event, and find fault with themselves or others for the assault. Questions they might ask themselves include, “Why did I go there?”, “Why did I let it happen?” and “Why did I not fight back?”
Low self-esteem. A survivor might feel ashamed or dirty after the assault.
Isolation. A survivor might want to be alone, and have a tendency to close him or herself off from friends and family members. A survivor might also have a hard time getting emotionally close to others after experiencing sexual violence.
Nightmares and flashbacks. Images and memories of the violence might continue in a survivor’s daily life and sleep.
Mood swings. Survivors might quickly change moods from anger and rage to tears and despair.
Loss of confidence. Survivors might become apathetic or self-conscious when working, studying or socializing with friends.
Loss of trust. After an assault, a victim might have a hard time trusting people who weren’t even connected with the incident, including friends and family members.
Lack of intimacy. Survivors might be afraid of, or uncomfortable in, sexual relationships after an assault.
To Stay Safe, Play It Safe
Most sexual violence occurs within a relationship (intimate partners, family members, or acquaintances). On average, 74% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger, and 30% are by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual violence can also happen outside of relationships. Check out the CDC’s fact sheet on sexual violence or the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network website for statistical or crisis helpline information.
Here are some tips or things you can do to keep safe:
- Plan to go out and hang out in a group
- Go out with people you feel safe with and who you know have your best interests at heart. Good friends make sure that their friends are safe and make safe choices.
- Have transportation plans to make sure you can get to where you’re going and back safely. Carry money for a taxi-cab just in case.
- Let someone—like your parents, siblings or roommates—know where you’re going and when you’ll be home. If your plans change, let these people know.
- Alcohol and sex can be a dangerous mix. Remember: if you aren’t in control of yourself, you won’t be able to control your situation.
- Avoid being alone and isolated with someone you don’t know well. If you start to feel uncomfortable, go with your feelings, and get to a safe place as fast as you can.
- Take a self-defense class at your local high school, college or recreation center. It might also be a good idea to have pepper spray, wasp spray, a whistle, or a self-defense keychain handy.
Agreeing to one type of activity such as kissing doesn’t mean that it’s a ”green light” for other sexual contact. Remember: it’s OK to change your mind and say no at any stage. Also keep in mind that you shouldn’t stop being careful just because you know the person you’re with. You might not know the person as well as you think.
Sexual Violence and the Law
In the United States, laws relating to sex and sexual violence can differ between states. Crimes such as statutory rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse can just mean people having sex under a certain age (the age of consent), and do not necessarily include force. The age of consent varies between the states, ranging from 14 to 18, with most states setting it at 16. This means that having sex with someone under that age, even if it is consensual, is a crime. Some states base the penalty for these violations on the age of the offender, with older offenders receiving harsher punishments. For example, in certain states, a minor might receive as little as six months or one year in prison, and an older offender might receive life imprisonment. Most penalties range from 10 to 30 years, depending on age and state, according to the Connecticut General Assembly Report.
The federal government has certain laws to ensure that all victims of violence have their rights. Since 2003, every state has some sort of crime compensation program and victims’ rights legislation. The Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a component of the Justice for All Act of 2004, specifies the roles of various criminal justice officials in supplying the information the victim is to receive, as well as in implementing victims’ rights. A second act, the Violence Against Women Act of 1998, enhances the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and increases the jail time of the accused perpetrator before the trial. These laws, along with other state and federal laws are continuously updated and reauthorized.
Sexual violence is a crime. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or was a victim of another type of sexual violence —either recently or in the distant past—you have the right to report it to the police. If you decide to report an assault, an officer will take your statement. If the assault was recent, he or she might also ask you to have a medical examination, during which a health care professional will make sure you’re physically OK and possibly take evidence. Check out the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network for more about what happens during an examination and who might conduct it.
Where To Get Help
Finding the courage to talk about sexual violence is important.
If you need help, you can call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Center for Victims of Crime hotline at 1-800-FYI-CALL. You can also call The Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 to find help in your area. You could also check out our Crisis Support Resources to find additional resources. Remember: do not hesitate to call your doctor, nurse, or local health professional if you feel comfortable doing so.
Each state has a sexual assault coalition that can provide with state-specific information and resources. You can access each state’s coalition through the Office of Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice.
For emergency situations that require immediate and urgent assistance, call 911.