What “counts” as sexual assault?

…And what about sexual harassment or stalking, where the abuser may never physically touch you at all, but 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 (even more than we can list!):

  • 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 meeting 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 them 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: Prostitution is easy to get involved in, and so hard to get out of. You may have felt that this was all you could do to escape a worse situation or to take care of yourself and your child. Your partner or a family member may have pushed or convinced you. However it started, turning tricks hurts.
  • 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 resources that are 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.

Millions of people have been subjected to sexual assault in their lives. People of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, 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.

One of the reasons why sexual assault is so serious is because sexual attacks can change 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 they might respond to a sexual assault. It might help to know some of the ways that victims are hurt by sexual assault:

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.

  • 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.

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.