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What you Need to Know About Sexual Assault


Many of us have the image of a sexual assault occurring in a dark alley by a stranger. Sexual assault can happen in crowded rooms, cars, public places or your own bed. More than half of all reported rape/sexual assault incidents occurred within one mile of the victim’s home or at their home. Rapists are not usually strangers either; sixty percent are committed by an acquaintance, friend, lover or spouse of the victim. Every two minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.

What is Sexual Assault?

One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. However, these figures are only of reported sexual assaults. Seventy-two percent of rapes/sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

Legal Definition Criminal Sexual Misconduct in Michigan

Rape, incest and sexual assault are all grouped under this title. There are four degrees of CSC and it covers marital partners, children and same sex assault. The degree of the charge depends on a number of factors, including the victim’s age, mental capacity, use of weapons, or family relationship to the assailant. People who are drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or under the age of 16 are deemed by the law to be unable to give consent.

  • First and Third Degree  
    Forced or coerced (without consent) penetration. This can be vaginal, anal or oral intercourse; putting a finger or object into another person’s anal or vaginal opening.
  • Second and Fourth Degree  
    Forced or coerced sexual contact. These include touching the groin, genital area, inner thigh, buttocks or breasts, or the clothing covering these parts.

Myth vs Fact

Several myths exist about sexual assault. These myths often shift responsibility and blame from the assailant to the victim. Understanding the myths surrounding sexual assault may help you in your recovery. If you have been assaulted, what happened to you was a crime. You are not to blame for the assailant’s behavior.

  • MYTH: Rape is caused by the rapist’s uncontrollable sexual urge
    FACT: Most rapes are planned. Rape is an act of power and control, not of sexual desire.
  • MYTH: Rapists are mentally ill or psychotic, and cannot help themselves
    FACT: Very few people who commit sexual assault are mentally incompetent and/or out of touch with reality
  • MYTH: The victim must have “asked for it” by being seductive, careless, drunk, high, etc
    FACT: No one asks to be abused, injured, or humiliated. This line of thought blames the victim for the assault instead of the assailant, who chose to commit the crime. People of all ages, from all walks of life, have been the targets of sexual assault. Not one of them “caused” their assailant to commit a crime against them.
  • MYTH: If women would just stop drinking so much, they wouldn’t be sexually assaulted
    FACT: Alcohol is a weapon that some assailants use to control their victim and render them helpless. As part of their plan, an assailant will encourage the victim to use alcohol, or identify an individual who is already drunk. Alcohol is not a cause of sexual assault; it is only one of many tools that assailants use. Sexual assault still happens in the absence of alcohol.

Medical Concerns

Receiving immediate and follow-up medical attention is one of the most important things that you can do for yourself if you have been sexually assaulted. You may have injuries that need to be treated, and you may want to be tested for pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). A friend, relative, or advocate from the Assault Crisis Center in Washtenaw County can accompany you to the hospital. You do not have to do this alone!

If You Were Assaulted Recently

  • Go to an Emergency Room: The most important reason to do this is to check for injuries. It may be hard to tell general aches and pains from the assault from serious injuries related to the assault. Although it will not be easy, an exam may help set your mind at ease. You will also be given important information about STIs and pregnancy.
  • Pregnancy and STI Concerns: You may want to ask your doctor or nurse about the “morning after pill.” This treatment is a high dose of estrogen that is effective at preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of the assault. The hospital may also give you antibiotics for STIs. Base-line tests for pregnancy and some STIs may be completed. These tests will only tell you if you were infected or pregnant before the assault.
  • Preserving Evidence: Another important reason to receive immediate medical attention is to collect physical evidence for a criminal investigation. A hospital emergency room is the best place to do this. Emergency room staff can perform a rape kit exam. This is a standardized exam and a series of lab tests that are designed to collect physical evidence for use in the prosecution of rape cases. Every emergency room is required to offer the rape kit exam if the assault happened within the previous 72 hours. Evidence is best collected within 6 hours of the assault. You are not required to have the kit completed.
  • Legal: The hospital is required by law to notify the police of the rape. Having a rape kit completed does not mean that you have to talk to the police. You can refuse to speak to the officers. If you are currently unsure about participating in criminal prosecution, having the rape kit completed will help keep your options open. You may feel differently in a few months than you do immediately after the sexual assault.
  • Paying for the Hospital Visit: Your private insurance plan should pay for the cost of the rape kit and medical treatment. If you are uninsured (or do not want to use your parent’s insurance), you should be able to work out a payment plan with the hospital. Most emergency rooms have a policy to not turn anyone away because they cannot pay. The police or the Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (734.222.6620) can put you in touch with the Crime Victims’ Services Commission, where you can apply to be reimbursed for your ER visit and rape kit. You must report the assault to the police to be eligible for compensation for the crime through this program. For more information, go to  http://www.michiganprosecutor.org/VictComp.htm
  • “Rape Drugs”: Some assailants may use drugs (Roofies, GHB, Special K) to physically control their victim and render them defenseless. If you believe that you were drugged, inform your doctor. Blood or urine tests may detect the drug in your system. Testing should be done as soon as possible, because some drugs can only be detected within twelve hours of ingestion.

If You Were Assaulted in the Past

It is still very important to receive medical attention. You may want to have pregnancy and STI tests taken. Although a rape kit can be performed at any time, the chances of collecting evidence decrease significantly when more then a few days have gone by. However, you can still report the crime to the police and prosecution may still be possible.

What You May Be Feeling

Survivors of sexual assault experience a wide range of reactions. Some have said that after an assault their emotions go up and down or from one extreme to another. If you have been assaulted, your reactions are your own way of coping with the crime that has been committed against you. There is no standard response to sexual assault. You may experience a few, none, or all of the following:

  • Shock and numbness
  • Loss of control
  • Fear
  • Guilt and self-blame
  • Isolation
  • Vulnerability
  • Distrust
  • Sexual fear
  • Anger
  • Disruption of daily activities

Deciding to Seek Help

Many who have experienced sexual assault find that a counselor offers compassion and help. A counselor is trained to address your emotional needs. Some find that they can more easily discuss their assault with a professional who has worked with other survivors.

Support groups are helpful recovery tools for many survivors. You may develop a supportive network with others who have had experiences similar to your own. Many survivors find support groups a valuable part of their healing process. A support group may be an alternative or addition to one-on-one counseling.

Enrolled students at EMU can receive free counseling at Counseling and Psychological Services. The Assault Crisis Center in Washtenaw County and rape crisis centers in other communities also offer free counseling.

Common Reactions to Traumatic Events

Those who work with sexual assault survivors often use a response model to outline how people commonly react to traumatic events.

  • Shock: For the first few days or weeks, the assault may seem unreal. The survivor may react in a numb or unfeeling way. She or he might even have physical symptoms of shock: feeling weak, nauseated, moving slowly, appearing pale.
  • Adjustment: This is a period when the survivor may feel the need to deny or underplay the assault. Pressure to "get on with your life" might come from within or from other people. She or he may find it easier to go through the motions of her/his previous routine than to address intense and uncomfortable issues associated with the assault.
  • Secondary Crisis: For many people, something happens in their life (a trigger), which may make their previous coping mechanisms ineffective, causing them to face the previous sexual assault. Acknowledging the assault may be quite painful. What formerly seemed unreal or was denied may become very real. Survivors of sexual assault describe feeling depressed and/or having flashbacks or obsessive thoughts about the assault. They may replay the assault in their mind many times and/or experience intense anger.
  • Integration: The survivor has been changed by the assault, but has integrated the experience and can move forward with her or his life. She or he may feel as though they have survived the assault and have dealt with the thoughts and emotions of the trauma. The memories will remain, but can be faced. Healing is possible; however it will take work.


Experiencing so many different emotions is a part of working through what has happened. Right now, if you have been assaulted, you may wonder when you will "get your life back." Or, perhaps you are not feeling much at all. There is no right or wrong way to react to sexual assault.

Many survivors have found that self-acceptance, patience, time, and support from others have helped them recover. A good counselor will understand and help you work through the emotional roller coaster that you may be on.

What you can do if you have been sexually assaulted:

  • Be aware that anger, sadness, shock, guilt, etc. are normal reactions to trauma. Each person handles crisis differently, so think of things that helped you get through a crisis in the past.
  • Get help to sort out what you would like to do and how you may want to organize your thoughts, time, and decisions. Be compassionate toward yourself; give yourself time to heal.
  • Try to get as much control over your life as you possibly can, even over small things. Use outside resources, such as counselors and legal professionals. Ask how other people have handled similar situations. Try to make as many of your own decisions as possible. This may gradually help you regain a sense of control over your own life.
  • If you want company, do not hesitate to ask familiar people to be with you day and night. You may want to make your physical environment feel safer (moving, making your home more secure, getting to know your neighbors better).
  • No matter what the situation was, you did not ask to be hurt or violated. Blaming yourself is sometimes another way to feel control over the situation.
  • Recovering from an assault can be a very lonely experience. However, you are not alone in what you are feeling. You may find it reassuring to talk to others who have been assaulted, or to a counselor who has worked with survivors of sexual assault.
  • Trust your instincts about whom you want to talk with about what has happened to you. Try to talk with people who you have found to be the most dependable in the past; select those who have been good listeners and non-judgmental.
  • If sexual activity is troublesome, try to tell your sexual partner what your limits are. Let your partner know if the situation reminds you of the assault and may bring up painful memories. Tell your partner that it is the situation, not him/her, that is bringing up the painful memories. You may feel more comfortable with gentle physical affection. Let him or her know what level of intimacy feels comfortable for you.
  • Be accepting of your anger. Thoughts of committing violence toward the attacker do not mean that you are a violent or bad person. You have the right to feel angry about the violation you have experienced. You may want to talk to people who understand this.
  • Take things very slowly. Some people find it helpful to keep a notebook at hand to write down feelings, thoughts, ideas, or details of the assault; keeping the thoughts and feelings in one place may make them feel more manageable.

What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Sexual Assault?

Remember, sexual assault is NEVER the victim's fault.

Unfortunately, sexual assault can still happen even when you take all the necessary precautions. Following these guidelines can only decrease your risk of assault. It is important to realize that if you were sexually assaulted and you did not follow these guidelines, the assault is still not your fault.

  • Don't leave your beverage unattended or accept a drink from an open container
  • When you go to a party, go with a group of friends. Arrive together, watch out for each other, and leave together.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times
  • Don't allow yourself to be isolated with someone you don't know or trust
  • Think about the level of intimacy you want in a relationship, and clearly state your limits
  • Counseling and Psychological Services publications
  • Handbook for Survivors of Sexual Assault (Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence)
  • http://www.rainn.org/
  • All statistics are from the 2000 National Crime Victimization Survey (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice)

Women's Resource Center is part of Diversity & Community Involvement