How To Begin Healing If You Have Been Raped

What To Do After a Sexual Assault

Thinking in Bed

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 876,000 rapes occur each year in the United States. The American Medical Association (AMA) reports more than 700,000 sexual assaults annually, and the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted a survey that puts the number at 433,000. Accurate sexual assault statistics are hard to come by but, no matter which report you're reading, the number is too high.

If you have been assaulted, it can feel as if there's no coming back from the experience. And in truth, for many, it can color the rest of their lives. But there are steps you can take immediately following a sexual assault in order to get the care you need, find justice, and continue living your life as a whole human being.

What To Do If You Have Been Raped

Starting from the very beginning, your first instinct might be to take a shower or bath to wash away what has happened to you. This urge is understandable. However, doing this may wash away physical evidence that could be used for prosecution. It is extremely important that before washing yourself or changing, you see a medical professional as soon as possible. Call a friend, family member, or rape crisis counselor to accompany you to the hospital if you don't feel comfortable going alone. It's always okay to ask for help.

What Happens During the Hospital Exam?

When you arrive at the hospital, a doctor will look for signs of trauma and collect evidence in the event you decide to file criminal or civil charges.

While you can refuse to be examined for evidence, many hospitals have special programs to assure that rape victims receive the support and information necessary to make the best decisions regarding the health services they accept.

The examination also includes a verbal history of the rape or sexual assault.

You may find it difficult to recount the event, but these details can provide important information about physical injuries that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. 

A pelvic exam will also be done to detect the presence of semen, as well as any injury, though it is possible for no semen to be present after a rape. Your pubic hair will be combed to look for the presence of your assailant's pubic hair. The physical evidence collected during this exam will be made available to the police only with your written permission. Pictures of your injuries will also be taken for use as evidence. 

It's a good idea for you and a friend or counselor to examine the record of your rape exam within 24 hours to ensure its accuracy.

What Health Care Services Will Be Provided To Me?

Emergency contraception is available if you feel that pregnancy is possible as a result of your rape. A shot of an antibiotic can also be given in the buttocks to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs); this will be followed by a dose of oral antibiotics.

You do not have to accept the shot but, if you're relying on symptoms to help you make your decision, be aware that some STIs may not show up for several weeks. The CDC recommends that victims of sexual assault be reevaluated for STIs and HIV two, six, 12, and 24 weeks after a rape.

How Can You Help When Someone You Know Has Been Raped?

If you know someone who has been raped, understand that victims experience a broad range of powerful emotions as a result of this experience. There are a number of things you can do to support a friend or family member who has been raped:

  • simply allow her to express her feelings; listen to her and validate what she is saying 
  • help her make changes to her environment that make her feel safer
  • remind her that the rape was not her fault 
  • advocate for her when she needs your help facing the medical and legal systems
  • let her know you believe in her, and that you know that she has the strength and courage to heal and survive

The Key to Being a Rape Survivor—Not a Rape Victim

Survivors of rape often experience changes in their overall health. Sleep disorders such as insomnia or eating disorders often occur following rape or sexual assault. Some women experience nightmares and flashbacks. Others encounter body aches, headaches, and fatigue.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most common disorder seen in victims of rape or sexual assault. Rape victims sometimes experience anxiety, depression, self-injury, and/or suicide attempts, as well as other emotional disorders. They sometimes try to cope with their feelings by indulging in alcohol or drugs.

Women who have been raped often face an enormous uphill emotional battle to reregain self-respect, self-esteem, self-assurance, and self-control.

It is a battle that can be won with the help of caring and supportive friends, family, counselors, and physicians.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a toll-free 24-hour hotline for victims of sexual assault at 1-800-656-HOPE. RAINN also maintains a searchable database of rape crisis centers designed to help you find counseling in your area.

There is hope—but you must take the first step and ask for it.


Sexual Assault. Accesed 08/20/2009

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