What To Do If You Are Sexually Assaulted Or Raped

Freshmen girls especially, beware, your first few weeks on campus is the most dangerous period in your life to become a victim of rape and sexual assault. The excitement of college should be tempered by the reality that some predatory guys are targeting you as easy prey. Here’s how to survive and protect yourself if you are raped or sexually assaulted.

First know the facts: you are at greater risk of sexual assault and rape at college than anywhere else including the military. One in four to one in five women are victimized by rape or attempted rape during college. That’s over 300,000 women in the class of 2018. These women will be your roommates, friends, sorority sisters, and classmates. Look around and consider that one of the five girls in your suite, at your dining hall table, or in your study group has or will be a victim of rape and sexual assault, most likely during the first semester of your freshmen year.

A relatively small number of predatory men on campus commit the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults. Rape culture tolerates these predators and validates their well-established methods and excuses. These guys come in many forms, but they will almost always be someone you know and someone who carefully wins your trust. They will be your ‘boyfriends,’ ‘hook ups,’ ‘study partners,’ ‘Greek date night buddies,’ and the guy who ‘graciously’ takes care of you when you’re too intoxicated to find your room, keys, or cell phone.

Rape and sexual assault is defined differently in every state. While knowing the law is important, it’s even more important to use common sense. According to Black’s law dictionary, a battery is quite simply “an intentional and offensive touching of another without lawful justification.” The Title IX standard is even easier: unwelcome. This should be your personal standard: ANY unwelcome physical contact of any part of your body is a violation. If something feels weird then it probably is.

When you are raped or sexually assaulted you may feel embarrassed, guilty, dirty, complicit, and violated. Drunk sex is still rape and it’s not your fault. You might not remember everything immediately (which is one after-effect of rape drugs which can be easily produced in a dorm room) and your first instinct will be to take a hot shower and hide under the covers in your own bed. This is the worst thing you can do.

There are two defenses to rape and sexual assault: consent and denial. In almost every case, the perpetrator will claim that either nothing happened or that you agreed to even the most bizarre and inexplicable sexual act. You need to think and act defensively to protect yourself. After calling a parent or trusted friend, here’s what you must do:

1. Resist the urge to shower, hide, or urinate. If you were drugged or raped, there will be semen or other critical evidence on and in your body. THIS EVIDENCE MUST BE PRESERVED. The latest date rape drugs are difficult to detect and disappear quickly. Immediately go to the nearest rape crisis center or hospital where you want a SANE exam (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner). This is the best and often the only way to gather evidence (even if you were not sexually penetrated) and provide the treatment and care you need including the morning after pill, HIV and STD testing, and medical follow-up. Any delay puts your health at risk. You must do this ASAP, preferably within hours. Ask specifically to be tested for drugs other than alcohol.

2. Immediately report the incident to law enforcement. You should file a police report yourself in person and once it’s filed get a copy. Do not rely on campus authorities to do it. Do not rely on the SANE nurse or hospital social worker to do it. Do not trust anyone who says that they can handle it better than law enforcement. The decision whether to prosecute is up to the district attorney and in many ways you. But without a timely police report, there is nothing anyone can do to prosecute or have a record of what happened when the same perpetrator does the same thing (or worse) to another woman. Once the Title IX investigation begins, months may have passed and the perpetrator will have a lawyer meaning the police cannot question him.

3. Notify your school’s Title IX coordinator. Once again, don’t rely on anyone else to do this for you. You must file a written complaint yourself. And again, the decision on whether to move forward is largely your own, but without a written complaint and investigation, you are allowing a sexual predator to roam campus targeting other women to sexually assault and rape. Chances are you aren’t the first and you won’t be this guy’s last victim. And his next victim might be your roommate, best friend, or sister.

After you’ve taken all these steps, take care of yourself. Rape and sexual trauma will change you in subtle and sometimes profound ways. Get counseling, enroll in a support group, and focus on your mental and physical health. There are lots of campus and community resources to help. Don’t wait.

You also need an independent lawyer or advocate not connected with your school who is on your side and understands what you are going through. Don’t rely on friends, resident advisors, or campus officials to look out for your best interests. Only an independent professional with experience in campus sexual assault and rape can ensure that you receive proper treatment and a fair process. Protect yourself and protect your community; only by taking action can you change rape culture and hold perpetrators accountable.

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James R. Marsh
A University of Michigan Law School graduate, James represents victims of campus sexual assault and rape; Title IX violations; sex abuse in schools, colleges, churches, and government and military institutions; online sexual exploitation; child pornography; sextortion, and revenge porn. His case on compensation for victims of child pornography in federal criminal restitution proceedings was recently decided by the United States Supreme Court. That case, United States v. Paroline, led to the Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act currently pending in the House and Senate. James founded the nationally recognized Children's Law Center in Washington, DC, and is an experienced trial attorney, and frequent commentator, lecturer, and Huffington Post Blogger. He now leads Marsh Law Firm in New York which is recognized worldwide for its work helping sexually abused survivors obtain justice and rebuild their lives with dignity and respect.
  1. Pingback: Title IX – What to do if you are sexually assaulted on campus – and ways to minimize the chance | News from Victim Rights Center

  2. This is for the most part, a fantastic post.

    The one thing it ignores is that many women will be raped by predators who are also extremely adept at convincing them NOT to report. These men will cry, they will claim they have a drinking or a drug problem, that they are mentally ill…anything to make their victim feel sorry for them and delay reporting.

    Women need to also be educated to expect this behavior and not buy their bullshit. Yeah, the rapist might even be mentally ill or an addict…but that makes them more likely to assault again; it doesn’t excuse it.

    Victims should also know that if for some reason they can’t or don’t report right away that they can also save their own forensic evidence by taking their clothes off over a clean sheet or newspaper and folding everything up in a PAPER bag (plastic destroys DNA and encourages mold/mildew growth). You can also pee in a sterile cup and freeze it.

    If it has been weeks and you suspect you were drugged, contact a crisis center, hospital, or toxicology lab and ask about testing you hair using highly sensitive mass spec or gas chromatography analysis. Date rape drugs of various sorts can be detected for months in this way.

    • Thanks for these excellent suggestions. “Verbal coercion” is another aspect of rape culture which is not discussed or readily understood. Many rapists use coercion to get their victims to engage in sexual activity. Many of these perpetrators are successful and therefore don’t need to resort to physical coercion, but verbal coercion is as damaging as physical coercion. It is a complete abdication of mutual consent.

      As far as hair testing goes, some companies can now detect a single exposure to drugs and can even provide an estimated time period. Contact me for more details on these or other steps to take if your are sexually assaulted or raped.

  3. Pingback: Rape on Campus: University of Virginia Rape and its Aftermath | Marsh Law Firm's ChildLaw Blog

  4. A large part of the effort to keep women and men safe on campus comes from creating an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported. To encourage victims to come forward —and support survivors— communities are developing and operating a Sexual Assault Response Team, referred to as a SART.

    A SART brings together professionals from disciplines on the front lines of responding to sexual assault. It’s a proven strategy for reducing sexual violence in our communities.
    How a SART addresses the severity, complexity and impact of sexual assault—and seeks justice for victims–is powerfully portrayed in the video, “Break the Silence: Sexual Assault and the SART Solution.”

    In the video, SART sexual assault victims in rural and Native American Communities, as well as SART members, share their experiences and how a SART has served them.

    Watch the video. Download it. Share it.
    http://www.sane-sart.com/breakthesilence/

  5. This information should be part of every university Orientation Class. If this information had been part of my orientation perhaps I could have avoided the young man who drugged and raped me when I was a 19 yo virgin. I bled profusely from Saturday night until Monday when I had to go to the doctor to get stitches for the lacerations and silver nitrate for the small abrasions. My doctor was very upset that I had not called him sooner, he was worried that I could now have a disease or be pregnant. Nothing could have been worse than the damage to my soul.

    I spoke with my son and daughter about the rape that was perpetrated on me when they were 15 and 16. I wanted to be certain that my son was very clear as to the meaning of the word “NO” whether it was the “no” of a young lady or his own “no”. I wanted my daughter to understand the importance of staying in a group when walking home from the Library or going out to entertain potential football recruits as was her responsibility at university along with a number of young men and woman elected to do so. She was blessed with great friends, sorority sisters and 2 very respectful boyfriends one of whom is her husband of 16 years. My son was murdered at 17 when he was home in his room. He never had the chance to attend university.

    I have felt tremendous guilt for 43 years about not having found the courage to report my rapist. I was certain my father would spend the rest of his life in jail if he found out what that man did to his daughter.

    Please, tell me if I can help do anything to try to get this information into Freshman Orientation on as many campuses as possible. I am retired and would like to make it my mission for not having spoken up when I was 19.

    Wounded