Protect Yourself: Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention

Sexual assault, also called sexual violence, is a serious public health concern in the United States. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, making it a good time to start conversations about awareness and prevention. While many people believe sexual assault only affects women, people of all genders, ages and sexual orientations can experience sexual violence. 

“Sexual assault is an act that is really about power and control. It refers to a sexual behavior or contact that happens without consent,” says Rama Rao, M.D., chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology in the Department of Emergency Medicine and medical director of the Safe Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Program at Weill Cornell Medicine. “We really have a lot of agency about who touches us under what context and what parts of our body they can have access to. That's a very private thing, and once that is taken out of the control of an individual, we use the term sexual assault.” 

Why Sexual Assault Is Underreported 

The statistics on sexual assault in the United States are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 

  • More than half of all women and one out of every three men experience sexual violence that involves physical contact at some point in their lifetimes 
  • One out of every four women as well as one in 26 men have experienced completed or attempted rape 
  • More than four out of five female rape survivors experienced rape before the age of 25, with more than half reporting being raped as a minor 

However, survivors of sexual assault often don’t report the crime, especially for people in the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Men are generally left out of the conversation when it comes to being survivors and they really need to be invited into that discussion,” Dr. Rao says. “Similarly, people that are non-binary or transgender also may underreport their experiences with sexual assault because they may perceive that the systems of care and the criminal justice system do not serve them the same way that it may for other people.” 

There are many other reasons people who experience sexual assault don’t disclose what happened to them: 

  • Emotional trauma: For many survivors of sexual assault, it’s emotionally painful to remember or talk about the experience. They may also have trouble remembering details. 
  • Shame: Stigma around the topic of sexual assault might make survivors feel ashamed or embarrassed about what happened to them. 
  • Fear: Many survivors fear not being believed or that others might blame them for causing the assault due to factors such as what they were wearing or using drugs or alcohol. Teens might fear being punished by their parents for breaking rules, such as drinking alcohol, or being socially ostracized if the perpetrator is “popular.” 
  • Feeling partly to blame: Victims might mistakenly believe they did something to cause the assault, especially if the perpetrator is someone they know. 

Seeking Support 

If you experience sexual assault or know someone who has, remember it’s always up to the victim whether to report what happened and who they want to talk to about it. But there are benefits to seeking support from others. 

“I think that the most important thing for survivors and people close to survivors to know is you're really not alone,” Dr. Rao says. “There are many people who have experienced the same thing, and it's very difficult for people to be open about something that is often so very private. But there are many resources available that can help.” 

One of the most important things to consider after a sexual assault is getting medical attention. Some hospitals provide specialized services for survivors of sexual assault. Weill Cornell Medical Center offers the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) Program, a designation given by the New York State Department of Health. Medical providers, including doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners provide compassionate medical and forensic care, working alongside social workers and advocates from the Victim Intervention Program 

“If you are a victim of any crime and you reach out to the Victim Intervention Program, you can receive free confidential support, counseling services, legal advocacy and support,” Dr. Rao says. “You can also be connected to people who can support you if you choose to move through the criminal justice system.” 

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) offers the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. Trained counselors can talk to victims and direct them to local services as well.  

Preventing Sexual Assault 

It’s important to remember that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. But there are steps you can take to help keep yourself safe. If you are out by yourself: 

  • Avoid being alone with people you don’t know well. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings and stay alert. 
  • Keep your cell phone with you and charged at all times. 
  • Trust your gut; if a situation doesn’t feel right, say whatever you need to in order to remove yourself. 
  • Stay in well-populated areas. 

If you are at a party or out with friends: 

  • Avoid drinking too much and don’t accept a drink from anyone you don’t know. 
  • Don’t leave with anyone you don’t know or don’t feel comfortable with. 
  • Keep in close contact with a friend and keep an eye out for each other. Don’t leave anyone behind. 

If you are being pressured into sexual activity you don’t want: 

  • Come up with a code word or sentence you can use with a friend or family member that means you are in a bad situation. Call them and use it if you need to. 
  • Make up a reason why you need to leave if necessary. 
  • Say firmly and clearly what you don’t want to do. 
  • Yell or call for help, if necessary. 

Taking a self-defense class is also a good idea, as it can not only give your self-confidence a boost but also teach you valuable skills and strategies to protect yourself.  

Need to talk to a provider? Find a doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine who can help. 

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