When you don't want to: Dealing with sexual assault

If someone ever makes you do something sexual that you don’t want to do, that’s sexual assault.

Sultry lighting, candles, smooth jazz… above all, nothing is more important to setting the mood than everyone involved wanting to be there doing what they’re doing. Consent is the voluntary agreement to engage in any sexual act—from kissing to touching to intercourse or anything in between. Consent (or, even better, enthusiastic consent!) needs to be present from each sexual partner for every sexual act, each and every time you have sex. Someone can communicate their consent verbally or non-verbally. It’s important to remember that the absence of “no” does not necessarily mean consent. If you’re unsure, just ask!

How do I know if it was sexual assault?

When any sex act happens without someone’s consent, it’s considered sexual assault. Sexual assault can include touching, kissing, or harassment—it’s not only about vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It can also include ignoring a partner’s desire to protect against pregnancy or STIs, or even sabotaging a partner’s efforts to protect against pregnancy or STIs (like taking off a condom in the middle of sex without permission, or committing other kinds of reproductive coercion).

Rape is one of the most common forms of sexual assault. The website of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has information about different definitions of the term, including the FBI’s definition of: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.“

Chances are that someone you know has experienced sexual assault—and some people may be at a higher risk than others. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, nearly one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape at some point in her lifetime. Most of the women in the survey who experienced rape or attempted rape were assaulted by someone they knew. It’s also important to keep in mind that sexual assault doesn’t necessarily need to be violent—anything sexual that someone forces you to do when you don’t want to counts.

What to do if you’ve been raped or sexually assaulted

Get to a safe place. Whether it’s your own home, the home of a trusted friend or family member, or a safe public space like the Y or a community center, your immediate well-being is the priority. RAINN also has a great search tool where you can locate a rape crisis center in your area. If you’re in danger and you don’t have a way to get somewhere safe, call 911.

Go to an emergency room (ER) or health center. Even if you don’t seem to be physically hurt, it’s a good idea to go to an ER or health center. (Note: You don’t need to disclose your immigration status or have health insurance to get care at the ER.) Seeking health care immediately will allow you to make sure any medical needs are covered—like emergency contraception, medication for STI prevention, or treatment of any injuries. Getting medical care does not mean you have to file a police report, but it can be an important step if you do choose to report the assault.

Get support. Survivors of sexual assault often have intense and complicated feelings, including fear, shame, self-blame, and sadness. First and foremost, if you have experienced sexual assault, know that what happened to you was not your fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, whether you were drinking, whether you’re male or female, or whether you invited the person over—if something happened without your consent, it’s assault. Having someone to share your feelings with, such as a counselor or support group, can be immensely helpful in the healing process. Here are some valuable resources for support and information. Each offers a free and confidential hotline and/or a live chat option in English and Spanish that you can use 24/7.

A note for college students

Title IX is a federal law to prevent sex-based discrimination on college campuses, including rape and sexual assault. This means that institutions of higher education are required to make an effort to prevent sexual assault and address any sex discrimination, sexual harassment, or sexual violence happening on campus.

Students can choose to report a rape to their school separate from filing a criminal complaint. (You don’t have to choose one or the other—you can also do both.) Under Title IX, colleges and universities are not allowed to retaliate against any student filing a claim against another student for sexual violence. In fact, schools are required to take steps to keep a survivor safe, like issuing a no-contact order, providing alternate housing, and/or changing the student’s class schedule.

There’s more: The federal Clery Act requires colleges and universities to have specific policies and procedures around sexual assault. The act was expanded in 2013 when President Obama signed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act. This policy increases transparency about sexual violence on campus, guarantees victims’ rights, sets standards for disciplinary proceedings, and requires campus-wide prevention and education programs.

You can learn more about Title IX on knowyourIX.org. For more information on your campus’s resources or to file a Title IX complaint, contact your school’s Title IX coordinator. (They have to have one—it’s required by Title IX!)

Lauren Salmo is a Health Promotion Specialist working with college students in Boston. She received her Masters of Public Health at Columbia University, where she spent two years writing for Go Ask Alice! When she’s not talking about birth control, she enjoys reading, yoga, and working on her photography skills.