What to Do After Sexual Assault: First Steps

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Sexual assault is all too common in the United States, where one in five women has been raped and half of women have experienced another kind of sexual violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. If you have been sexually assaulted, help is available. There are steps you can take to get treatment for potential injuries, minimize further harm to your health, and collect evidence in case you choose to report it to the police.

1. Reach out for help. You don’t have to go through this alone. If you have a friend or family member you trust and can ask to accompany you when you seek medical treatment, do so. If not, you can always call the National Sexual Assault Hotlineat 800-656-HOPE (4653) and they can connect you to an advocate who can walk you through your options and offer support throughout the process of getting help. They may even be able to send someone to accompany you to the hospital. You also can find help near you or chat with someone anonymously at RAINN’s website. If you are in immediate danger or seriously injured, call 911.

2. Save potential evidence. You don’t have to decide right away whether you want to report your assault as a crime. But in case you later decide to do so, it is important that you avoid disturbing or getting rid of anything that may have the attacker’s DNA on it, such as clothing or anything else at the scene of the assault. This also means avoiding cleaning your body, using the bathroom, or changing your clothes before receiving medical treatment. While this can be difficult following such a traumatic experience, it will help preserve potential evidence.

“Don’t douche, don’t take a shower, don’t change your clothes … because [examiners] are going to be able to get more of the DNA evidence: stuff from your fingernails, swabs from the vagina, swabs from your mouth,” said Cheryl Iglesia, M.D., F.A.C.O.G., director of MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Section of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery and a professor of gynecology and urology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

3. Seek medical attention right away. Following sexual assault, it is important that you get the right medical treatment as soon as possible.

Not all medical facilities have employees trained in providing care for people who have been sexually assaulted, so seeking care from a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) is ideal, Dr. Iglesia told HealthCentral. A SANE is a registered nurse who has been specially trained to care for sexual assault victims, which also means they can perform a forensic exam and provide expert testimony if a case goes to trial.

“If you’re on a college campus, you don’t go to your health clinic the next day. You’re actually going to go to an emergency room,” said Dr. Iglesia. “Somewhere [with] someone who is actually a sexual assault nurse examiner who has been certified to do these exams and collect the kits properly and conduct a prior history without using words or documentation that could hurt a case.”

You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4653) to be connected with a trained local provider and to locate the nearest health facility that offers sexual assault forensic exams.

The sooner you get to a medical facility, the better — especially if you later decide to prosecute. In some parts of the country, evidence of a sexual assault must be collected within 72 hours of the assault. In other areas, evidence can be collected as much as 5 days or 1 week afterward.

Once there, you will receive medical attention that can include getting treatment for injuries, medications, a sexual assault forensic exam (also called a “rape kit”), and support for your mental health.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.