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What to do if you are sexually assaulted

Though April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, being more aware for a month isn’t enough. Perhaps one day, sexual assault will get as much attention as the well-deserved issues of breast cancer, AIDS and autism. One day, the shame and stigma of talking about something so common will be removed, so that we can get stronger sentences for offenders and more services for survivors and secondary survivors, struggling to put their lives back together. Sexual assault knows no boundaries. It can happen to you. And if it does, here is what to do if you’re sexually abused.

Upset woman

From rape survivor to activist

My story is certainly a public one. In 1984, I was drugged and gang-raped at a fraternity house during my first semester at the University of Virginia. My case had international attention due to the fact that one of the rapists sent a letter of apology to my home 20 years after the fact and, with the assistance of law enforcement was sent to prison for a bit less than six months. I chronicle my journey from victim to survivor to activist in my new book, Crash Into Me (Bloomsbury, January 2011).

What to do if you are sexually assaulted

Crash Into Me

Sexual assault knows no boundaries and can happen to anyone, even the most vigilant person. So, I’m throwing out the prevention tips and getting real with you. What to do if you are the victim? Or the friend of a victim? There is life beyond tragedy – I’m living proof – and I want to start a genuine dialogue of how to handle this, should it ever happen to you. Studies show that one in four college women (and women, in general) will be the survivor of an attempted or completed rape. One in six young men will be victimized by their 18th birthday. Instead of all of the victim-blaming rhetoric, here’s what I’ve learned in my last few years as an activist, lobbyist, pundit and friend.

1Use technology wisely

If you can, document your surroundings following an assault using your smartphone camera. This is especially helpful in documenting any injuries you may have sustained or in providing evidence as to where you are. But get to safety first and use your smartphone to find a local medical center or police station and set your GPS to active if you are able to call someone and don’t know where you are. If you’ve been drugged, you may be someplace unfamiliar. Keep calm and use your phone.

2Document and save

If you are acquainted with your rapist, there is a chance he will send you texts either apologizing or minimizing what has happened. Save these texts. They will be crucial evidence, should you choose to press charges.

3Have important phone numbers in your contact list

Please have the numbers to 911, your local police department, RAINN and the National Sexual Assault Hotline saved to your phone, as well as any local rape crisis center. This is vital. You must be able to reach out to those who can help. For college students, your resident advisor, student health, women’s center and best friends should of course be in your phone. They are your first line of defense. Don’t wait until something happens – do it now.

4Be compassionate, if a victim comes to you

Studies show that a rape victim’s experiences are completely defined by how the first person they tell reacts. If a friend or family member tells you she has been raped, believe her. Do not ask questions like “Were you drinking?” or “Are you sure?”, or inquire as to her mode of dress. Get her to safety and direct her to some of the above resources. Your reaction can make a real difference in the quality of the rest of her life.

5If you’re assaulted, get help immediately

Rape victims often tell me that they don’t want to press charges. That’s completely understandable. Everyone has their reality and their road. And they way many victims are treated by the media, by defense, by police – I don’t blame them. That said, I strongly recommend that you go to a hospital and have a rape kit done, regardless. Yes, it’s difficult, but no more difficult than what you have survived. Why? You may change your mind and decide to press charges and that DNA, if collected, will be key in your case. Further, rapists rarely offend once – even if you don’t press charges, your rape kit may help capture a rapist who has assaulted someone else. How heroic of you to be of that kind of assistance! Just do it!

6Practice self-care

If you are the victim of a rape, chances are you may experience a self-destructive period of time in your life. It’s textbook and I’ve been there. Try to eat well, exercise when you feel better, avoid drugs and alcohol and get proper sleep. If you find yourself indulging in self-mutilation, depression, suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, do get help. Every community has free help – go to and find the tab that says “Get Help”, then scroll down to “Find A Local Counseling Center”. Chances are, your town will have free assistance for you. Same goes for domestic violence, incest, child abuse and dating violence. Use those resources! They are waiting for you! You don’t need to take on a second job to afford an expensive therapist. These people know exactly how to help!

6Be aware of triggers

Many rape survivors, myself included, suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and flashbacks. Now would be the time to stop watching Law & Order: SVU and avoid anything in the media that depicts violence against women. Unplug the nonstop news channels. Try not to immerse yourself in what I call, “The Cause”. You need to be healthy first. In my book, I tell survivors to be sure they are in a safe mental space before they tackle it.

8You are not defined by rape

Realize that a sexual assault will never, ever define who you are. You are more than what has happened to you and you will be whole again. You must believe me. Your reality may have changed, but you are YOU. No one can take your dignity or happiness.

More on domestic and sexual abuse

Teens and date rape
Dating safety: Tips to avoid sexual assault
How a seemingly healthy relationship turns abusive

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