Understanding Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault (SA) is a huge problem in the United States, and throughout the world. Here in the US, sexual assault impacts roughly 1 in 5 women,¹ and 1 in 71 men across their lifespans, with nearly 20-33% of those survivors experiencing this abuse before age 18. This crime impacts people of every race, culture, gender and sexual identity, and socio-economic status.  Despite this widespread impact, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the US.²  Although the statistics will vary depending on the source, it’s generally understood that 60-90% of sexual assaults go unreported each year. For my current home state of Texas, law enforcement experts estimated the number of unreported cases was somewhere around 82% (SAFVIC). The take away: if you are not a survivor of this crime, there is an extremely high probability that you know someone who is — whether you’re aware of it or not.

 Rape vs. Sexual Assault

Much like domestic violence, the legal definitions of sexual assault vary state to state. And much like our discussion of domestic violence, there are acts and behaviors that absolutely fall into what mental health experts and advocates understand to be sexual assault, but may fall short of the legal definitions necessary for prosecution. With other social issues, we seem to be able to understand that something can be wrong without necessarily being punishable by law.

And then we get to sexual assault and all of a sudden people lose their minds cling to the argument something can’t possibly be wrong, immoral or unforgivable unless it satisfies legal definitions. I promise to expand more on this at some point because it is such source of frustration.  For now, let me define the terms that we use here at Sassy Advocate™. 

Defining Our Terms

Often the terms rape and sexual assault are used interchangeably. They are in fact, however, different. Sexual assault is an umbrella term. That is to say there are many behaviors that can fall under sexual assault — including rape — that are not in fact synonymous with rape.

Rape is defined as “The 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.”¹

Sexual Assault is the broader term that captures any type of unwanted sexual contact/exposure/behavior that occurs without consent, including and in addition to rape.

Stats on Sexual Assault


1:5 Women

According to recent studies, 1 in 5 women report having been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes. (1)  Sexual assaults can include completed and attempted rape, molestation, forced oral sex, groping and other non-consensual acts.



Prevalence of PTSD in Survivors

A Johns Hopkins study stated that the chances a survivor of rape would develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was between 50-90%.


Percentage of Perpetrators Known to Victim

Our media culture does a heck of a job painting the picture of the typical rapist -- a creepy stranger lurking in the shadows.  However stranger rape only accounts for about 22% of all rapes, meaning the vast majority of perpetrators are known to their victims.  This number increases to 90% for child sexual abuse.

[bctt tweet="78% of sexual assault victims know their perpetrator. #StopRape #ItsOnUs"]


The key to defining whether or not something falls under the definition of sexual assault is consentConsent is when someone freely and enthusiastically agrees to participate in an activity. Consent is a YES! (And for those of you keeping score, a lack of a “No” is not a yes.)

Consent is something that occurs as part of an ongoing conversation. And it is the responsibility of both parties to make sure that conversation occurs.

Just because someone consented to something in the past, does not mean they are under any obligation to consent to that same act or something else in the future. Things like prior consensual sexual contact, being in a dating or marital relationship, do not automatically mean future sexual contact is guaranteed, promised or obligated.


Consent & Social Media (Video)

In the age of social media, consent has become one of my favorite things to discuss because so many people are producing awesome content to illustrate that consent isn’t some weird, complex, abstract construct.  It’s communication, not theoretical quantum physics. Here are a few of my more recent favorites.  Be forewarned, in the typical office setting, these might be NSFW.

Consent 101

Laci Green, host of Sex + gives her take on consent in a direct, no holds barred kind of way.

Watch on YouTube

Consent = Cup of Tea

Understanding consent is compared to asking someone if they would like a cup of tea.

Copyright ©2015 Emmeline May and Blue Seat Studios
Watch on YouTube

Consent Explained By a Porn Star

Buzzfeed presents a video on consent featuring adult film star Nina Hartley.

Watch on YouTube

Those videos provide an awful lot of straight talk for a topic that doesn’t get much attention in polite conversation.

The truth of the matter is that our embarrassment around the subject of sex in general helps perpetuate a culture that keep people silent in cases of sexual assault, rape and child molestation.  Think about it. If we are ashamed and embarrassed to talk about sexual things that we agree to do and participate in, how the hell can we expect people to talk about living through their worst nightmares?

More Sexual Assault Stats

Avg. Number of Americans Sexually Assaulted Each Day

According RAINN, an average of 293,066 Americans experience sexual assault each year. That’s breaks down to1 American is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. (4)


Percentage of Males Raped before Age 10.

According to the CDC, nearly 28% of male survivors report being raped before age 10; more than double the rate of female survivors (12.3%) a victim of domestic violence will leave the abusive relationship seven times before severing ties for good.(5)


Percentage of False Reporting of Sexual Assault

Despite popular belief, false reporting of sexual assault is between 2-8%; the same percentage of false reporting for other felony crimes.(6)

Following a Sexual Assault


Getting Help | Sexual Assault Advocates

Getting Help

After experiencing a horrific event, like sexual assault, it’s often difficult to know how to feel or what to do. The most important consideration is getting to someplace safe. If you don’t feel safe by yourself, consider reaching out to someone you trust for help. If you don’t want to tell them what happened — try telling them that you need them to come get you, but don’t want to go into a lot of details. Remember that every survivor of a traumatic experience will respond differently.

Your thoughts may be racing a million miles a minute, or you may feel like you hardly have any thoughts at all. The same is true for emotions. Some survivors may be extremely emotional, while others report feeling numb or detached. Many survivors report physical symptoms like stomach upset, nausea, or even feelings of extreme cold.  Some people cycle through a wide variety of emotions and reactions.  At this stage, whatever you’re feeling or thinking is probably very normal. And it’s important to be kind to yourself.

No matter what your reaction, please try to remember that sexual assault is never okay, and it’s not your fault.


Support for Survivors

Whether you are a survivor, or a concerned friend or family member trying to help — you do not have to go through this experience by yourself. If you are in the US, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) has a hotline 800.656.4673 and Online Center Locator to put you in touch with trained sexual assault advocates in your area.


Advocates are especially trained not only to provide non-judgemental support, but also to be able to talk to you about options for seeking medical attention, reporting your assault (if you choose to), and other resources available for survivors (i.e. counseling, support groups, crime victims compensations, etc…).  Some centers can even provide advocates to accompany you to the hospital and other appointment. As of 2014, 13 States (California, D.C., Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington) legally protect a survivor’s right to have an advocate present during a medical forensic exam. Of course, you have the right not to have the advocate present, but many survivors find it helpful to have someone supportive and knowledgeable to walk them through the process.(3)

If you’re interested in learning more about the role of sexual assault advocates, check out the September/October 2014 Issue of American University’s Sexual Assault Report


Supporting Survivors

Talking about sexual assault — or any traumatic experience for that matter — isn’t something most people do regularly. So it’s understandable that when people reveal something terrible has happened them, we might not know exactly how to react.

Here’s a quick overview to help you support survivors in your life.Help. Listen. Believe. Offer. Accept.

1. Listen

When we think about helping, we usually think about doing something. In this case, the best thing one can do is actively listen. Active listening means turning your attention towards the survivor and concentrating on receiving what the person is telling you.  It does not require an immediate response, or offering solutions.  In fact, it’s arguable that if you are thinking of how to help the person “fix” the problem — you’re not listening! 

2. Believe

The most helpful thing you can do for a survivor of a traumatic event such as rape, is to believe that person. It’s important to remember to manage our expectations about what a victim looks like. People respond/react to trauma in a wide variety of ways. Just because someone is acting differently than you would expect, doesn’t mean what happened wasn’t traumatic. We’ve already mentioned how rare it is for people to falsely report sexual assault, so start by believing.

3. Offer

Related to belief, sometimes the best thing we can offer a survivor is a simple statement such as, “I believe you.” Simple gestures can be so healing. In order to help survivors begin to reclaim their sense of power and control, try to avoid making decisions on behalf of that person. You can offer options, such as “Do you want to call the hotline, or go to the hospital?” “Would you like to me to stay with you while you call, or would you prefer some privacy?

4. Accept

In order to truly believe a survivor’s story, one must be willing to recognize and accept on some level that rape and sexual assault are problems in our communities. Additionally, remember those things you offered? Accept and respect whatever decision that survivor makes — to report or not; to get a SANE exam or not; to tell others or not — even if you disagree with their decision. 

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