In the year 2011/12, police recorded 38,100 most serious sexual offences in England and Wales, encompassing rape, sexual assault and sexual activity with children. Many more offences are unreported. Find out where to get help if you're sexually assaulted.
Sexual violence is a crime, no matter who commits it or where it happens. Don’t be afraid to get help.
What is sexual assault?
A sexual assault can range from inappropriate touching, to a life-threatening attack, rape or any other penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus. It's a myth that victims of sexual assault always look battered and bruised. A sexual assault may leave no outward signs, but it's still a crime.
“Some people are afraid they won’t be believed if they haven’t got signs of injury,” says Bernie Ryan, a counsellor and manager at St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester. “But that isn’t so. We don’t necessarily expect to see injuries. For the victim, the extent of the sexual assault is no indication of how distressing they find it, or how violated they feel.”
Victims are most likely to be young women aged 16 to 24, but men and women of any age, race, ability or sexuality can be assaulted. This could be by a stranger or, much more likely, someone they know. It could be a partner, former partner, husband, relative, friend or colleague.
Most sexual assaults happen in the home of the victim or perpetrator (the person carrying out the assault).
Sexual assault is an act that is carried out without the victim’s active consent. This means they didn’t agree to it.
If you have been sexually assaulted, remember that it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, where you were or whether you had been drinking. A sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator.
If you’ve been sexually assaulted
If you've been sexually assaulted there are services that can help. You don’t have to report the assault to police if you don’t want to. Other services and organisations won’t insist that you do. However, consider getting medical help as soon as possible because you may be at risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
If you get help immediately after the assault, try not to wash or change your clothes. This may destroy forensic evidence that could be important if you decide to report the assault to the police.
Where you go for help will depend on what’s available in your area and what you want to do. The following services will provide care and treatment or refer you to another service if you need more specialist help (such as a forensic examination):
- a sexual assault referral centre (SARC), if there's one in your area
- a doctor or practice nurse at your GP surgery
- a voluntary organisation, such as Rape Crisis or Women’s Aid
- the free, 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247
- the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day of the year)
- a hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department
- a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic
- a contraceptive clinic
- a young people’s service
- NHS 111
- the police
- in an emergency, dial 999
Sexual assault referral centres
Sexual assault referral centres offer medical, practical and emotional support. They have specially trained doctors and counsellors to care for you. If you're considering reporting the assault to the police, they can arrange for you to have an informal talk with a specially trained police officer who can explain what’s involved.
There are also specially trained advisers available in some sexual assault referral centres or voluntary organisations to help people who have been sexually assaulted. These independent sexual violence advisers (ISVA) help victims get access to all the support services they need. They will support you through the criminal justice system if you decide to report the assault to the police, including giving a statement and, if necessary, giving evidence in court.
You can tell someone you trust first, such as a friend, relative or teacher, who can help you get the support you need.
TheSite is an organisation for young people that has made a video about what to expect if you visit a sexual assault referral centre. People of all ages may find this video useful.
If you have been sexually assaulted, you don’t have to have a forensic examination and you can change your mind at any time. But a forensic examination can provide evidence against the person who assaulted you. The examination usually takes place at a sexual assault referral centre or in a police suite, carried out by a doctor or nurse specially trained in forensic medicine.
They will take samples (such as hair, bodily fluids or swabs) from anywhere you were touched during the assault. The doctor or nurse will ask any relevant questions, for example about the assault or any recent sexual activity.
If you haven’t decided whether to report the assault to the police, any evidence that's collected will be stored until you make up your mind.
If you do decide to report it to the police, a police officer specially trained in supporting victims of sexual assault will be there to help and make sure you understand what's going on at each stage.
The police will investigate the assault. This will involve you having a forensic exam and making a statement about what happened. The police will pass their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service, who will decide whether the case should go to trial.
To find out more about what’s involved in an investigation and trial, you can:
Your details will be kept as confidential as possible. However, if there’s a police investigation or criminal prosecution linked to the assault, any material relating to it is "disclosable". This means it may have to be produced in court.
“When a forensic exam is conducted, the person who has been assaulted is asked for consent in relation to disclosure,” says Bernie Ryan. “We will do everything in our power to protect sensitive records, but if a judge says they are relevant to the case, he or she can subpoena them [order them to be released].”
If there is no investigation or prosecution, information about you won’t be shared without your permission unless there's a concern that anyone else is at significant risk of harm.
Supporting a victim of sexual assault
For relatives and friends of someone who has been sexually assaulted, The Havens website has advice on what you can do to help. The advice includes:
- Listen to the person, but don’t ask for details of the assault. Don’t ask them why they didn’t stop it. This can make them feel as though you blame them.
- Offer practical support, such as going with them to appointments.
- Respect their decisions, for example whether or not they want to report the assault to the police.
- Bear in mind they might not want to be touched. Even a hug might upset them, so ask first. If you’re in a sexual relationship with them, be aware that sex might be frightening and don’t put pressure on them to have sex.
- Don’t tell them to forget about the assault. It will take them time to deal with their feelings and emotions. You can help by listening and being patient. Find your nearest rape and sexual assault services, including sexual assault referral centres.