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Learning About. . . Sexual Assault.

Just saying the words “sexual assault” can open up feelings of fear and hurt for many of us. It takes courage to want to know what sexual assault is, and to experience all those thoughts and feelings. You may be wondering if you have been the victim of sexual assault. You may be worried about yourself, and wondering what support might be useful to you. You may be the friend or a family member of someone you think has been sexually assaulted. You want to be informed so that you can better understand what the victim may be going through, and how to be helpful. We hope that this information is useful to you. We are always happy to hear from you, any time. Just call our hotline at 850-681-2111, or 850-584-8808.

Refuge House offers rape crisis services, advocacy, and support with medical follow-up. We offer individual and group counseling, and individual therapy, for victims of sexual assault, including adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. We offer shelter and transitional housing options for sexual assault survivors and their children. We welcome survivors of prostitution and trafficking in all of our programs.

What is sexual assault?

You may be wondering whether you or a person you know was really sexually assaulted. You might be confused about whether the assault had to be forced, either physically or with a weapon. You might be confused whether it can be a sexual assault, if the victim didn’t say “no” or didn’t fight back physically.

And what about sexual harassment or stalking, where the abuser may never physically touch you at all, but the abuser tries to humiliate or frighten you with sexual names and threats?

At Refuge House, we think of sexual assault as any action used by one person against another that seeks to control or dominate the other person through sex. There are many ways a person can try to control or dominate you though sex:

  • Sexual bullying: The abuser tries to humiliate you by using sexually degrading words or calls you sexual names intended to make you feel inferior or bad, and to wear you down so that you do what he/she says.
  • Sexual “grooming” and punishment: The abuser gets you to have sex with him or her, sometimes starting out with giving you gifts or making you feel special, showing you pornography and touching you. The abuser then tries to make you promise not to tell anyone, or tells you that no one will believe you if you do tell. This happens very often if you are victimized as a child.
  • Drug facilitated assault: On a date or when you first meet someone, the abuser encourages you to drink a lot or take drugs, and has sex with you when you are intoxicated. The abuser usually has planned to do this before he or she meets you.
  • Acquaintance/date rape: You meet someone at a party or you are going out with them, and they push you to accept touches and sexual talk in a way that makes you uncomfortable. You can’t make her/her stop, so you start tuning it out. The abuser then gets you alone and has sex with you even though you say “no.” You feel like you are to blame because you feel you didn’t fight hard enough
  • Sexual attacks of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims by trusted adults, dates and acquaintances, strangers and partners—and also by people who target LGBT people for sexual punishment because of their sexual identities.
  • Intimate partner sexual assault:If your partner or spouse may force you to have sex, or have sex with you in a way you do not want, that is sexual assault.
  • Prostitution: Your partner or someone else may coerce you to have sex with another person, sometimes for money or drugs. You may feel you have to do this to avoid being beaten or raped. You may be subjected to humiliation, assault, and beating by these sex customers.
  • Institutional sexual assault: A staff member of a program, group home, medical facility, or prison or jail may make you have sex with them because they have power over you, or control your medication, care, or other resource that is essential to you.

We think of all of these behaviors as sexual assault. If anything like this has happened to you, please call us if you would like to talk about what happened, about your feelings, what your concerns are, and how we can help. It always helps to tell someone.

Who are victims of sexual assault?

Did I do something to make this happen to me?

Millions of people--women, men, and children--have been subjected to sexual assault in their lives. People of all genders, races, ethnicities and cultures, and economic backgrounds may be targeted for sexual assault. Among women, nearly half have been subjected to some form of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or having someone do sexual things in front of them.

You are not alone and your safety and healing are important to us. You are not to blame for the attack someone else made on you. Many times, abusers will try to convince victims that you did something to provoke the attack, or did not do enough to stop it. The abuser may say you wanted to be attacked and say things--about who you are and what you are like--that are meant to demean you in your own eyes. These are strategies that abusers use to keep you silent and to deny responsibility for their actions. You deserve to be respected, heard, and cared for.

What are some of the effects of sexual assault?

One of the reasons why sexual assault is so serious is because sexual attacks can have the effect of changing the way we feel about ourselves, and the way we feel about other people. Sexual assault can affect whether we feel we can trust other people at all. A sexual attack can also have serious medical consequences—pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections—or create the fear of these consequences.

You may want to punish or hurt yourself after a sexual attack, sometimes for many years. Every person has a different way that she or he might respond to a sexual assault. It might help to know that some of the ways that victims are hurt by sexual assault may include:

  • Disbelief: It can feel hard to believe that the attack we experienced actually happened. You may feel numb or just want to act as if everything is normal.
  • Intense emotions: Depression, feeling sad, angry, exhausted, or feeling nothing at all. You might lose interest in the people or activities that you used to like. You might feel as if you are watching the rest of the world like it was a movie, not really real. You may have also felt intense fear during the attack, and that intense feeling may come back to you.
  • Powerlessness/loss of control:You may feel that the attack means that what you want or don’t want doesn’t matter. You may feel as if you can’t make decisions, because your decisions don’t really count. You may feel as if it doesn’t matter is you take big risks.
  • Sleep disturbances: You may have difficulty sleeping, have disturbing nightmares, or wake and not be able to get back to sleep. Sleep disturbances can have impact on how well your body can process what has happened to you.
  • Eating disorders, self harm, and substance abuse: Managing and getting through your emotions can be very difficult after a sexual assault. Sometimes we use our bodies to feel differently: by eating or not eating, or by using the feelings we get from alcohol or drugs to get rid of the feelings that we have about the assault.
  • Loss of faith in the world and in other people; alienation You may feel intensely disconnected from the “normal” world that other people live in, but not you. You may feel that no one can be trusted to be on your side.

Again, every person is unique and every person has different reactions to sexual assault. We list these common reactions for victims, in the hope that you will feel that what you are going through is what other people have experienced, too. And to know that we might be able to help. We believe in you, and in your rights to healing and to justice.

What about law enforcement?

If you are 18 years old or older, it is your decision whether, and when, to report the attack to law enforcement. We are here to provide you with information about the investigative process, and to support you in preserving evidence of the attack should you decide at any point to report the attack.

Would I feel welcome at Refuge House?

You may feel that Refuge House is a place where other people might feel comfortable, but not you. It’s easy to feel that way, before you meet our staff, and other people who are getting support from Refuge House. Here are some concerns you may have. We want to put your mind at ease:

  • I’m not sure that I’m really a sexual assault victim. If you are feeling confused, or scared, or just bad in after a sexual experience, please call us—even if you aren’t sure what happened is “really” sexual assault. Let us help you sort out your feelings, take a look at what has been happening, and talk about options. Feeling less alone is a really good feeling.
  • I am an immigrant and I am undocumented.Refuge House is a safe place for you and your children. We know that your legal status may be a concern for you, and that your partner may be using your status as a way to control you and isolate you. We can help you exercise your legal rights for protection and support.
  • I have a disability and I wonder if people will welcome me. We are looking forward to your call. We know that abusers can take advantage of a person’s disability to hurt you, or control your access to assistive equipment or services. We are 100% accessible
  • I think I have a problem with alcohol or drugs. You may be using alcohol and drugs as a way to try to cope with the violence in your life or to try to manage your emotions. We are here help you be safe and to support you as you identify your healing goals.
  • I am a gay man and I wonder if you offer services to someone like me. Yes, with open arms. We know that sexual assault affects many gay survivors, and may include emotional, physical and sexual abuse. We are here as your ally and supporter.
  • I am in prostitution and I wonder if you will be willing to help me. We know that prostitution hurts. We are honored to support your well-being in body, mind, and spirit.
  • I am transgender. Will you provide services to me?Please call us. We know that you may have experienced sexual abuse from partners and strangers who say you deserve it because you are transgender. We are here for you.

At Refuge House, we offer safety, welcome, and resources for all victims of abuse and their children.

There is another way to feel and to live.

Hundreds of women, children and men who have suffered abuse have been part of Refuge House, and we have been so happy to be part of the next chapter in their lives. They want you to know that they are cheering for you, and want you to feel well and happy. And that it’s possible for you. One woman said to us, as she was saying good-bye to her sexual assault counselor, “I didn’t think I could ever be helped by talking to someone. Now, I want all my friends to get the help that I got from you.” We are here for your life and your freedom from fear.