Sexual assault: what it is, where to go for help, and whether it has to be reported to police.
If you have been sexually assaulted, whether as an adult or a young person, it is important to remember that it wasn’t your fault. 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?
Help and support
Sexual assault referral centres
Forensic medical examination
What is sexual assault?
A sexual assault is any sexual act that a person did not consent to, or is forced into against their will. It is a form of sexual violence and includes rape (an assault involving penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth), or other sexual offences, such as groping, forced kissing, child sexual abuse or the torture of a person in a sexual manner.
Sexual assault is an act that is carried out without the victim’s active consent. This means they didn’t agree to it.
It is not uncommon for a victim of sexual assault to have no physical injuries or signs of their assault. But sexual assault is still a crime and can be reported to the police in the same way as other crimes.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year ending March 2015 showed that police recorded 88,219 sexual offences, encompassing rape (29,265 cases) and sexual assault, and also sexual activity with children. This is a steep rise on previous years and probably reflects increased confidence in reporting sexual assault. However, many more sexual offences remain unreported.
Most sexual assaults are carried out by someone known to the victim. This could be a partner, former partner, relative, friend or colleague. The assault may happen in many places, but is usually in the victim’s home or the home of the alleged perpetrator (the person carrying out the assault).
"Sexual violence or assault can happen to anyone of any age: men, women and children," says Bernie Ryan, manager at St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester. "For the victim, the extent of the sexual assault is no indication of how distressing they find it, or how violated they feel. It’s important that anyone affected receives the right advice and support."
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. You may need time to think about what has happened to you. However, consider getting medical help as soon as possible, because you may be at risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you want the crime to be investigated, the sooner a forensic medical examination takes place, the better.
Try not to wash or change your clothes immediately after a sexual assault. 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. For specialist medical attention and sexual violence support, whether you decide to have a forensic medical examination or not, your first point of call is a sexual assault referral centre (SARC).
The following services will also provide treatment or support, and can refer you to another service if you need more specialist help (such as a SARC):
- a doctor or practice nurse at your GP surgery
- a voluntary organisation, such as Women’s Aid, Victim Support, The Survivors Trust or Survivors UK (for male victims of sexual assault)
- the free, 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247
- the Rape Crisis 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, or dial 101
- in an emergency, dial 999
Sexual assault referral centres
Sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) offer medical, practical and emotional support. They have specially trained doctors, nurses and support workers to care for you.
Find your nearest sexual assault referral centre.
If you decide to report the assault to the police, they can arrange for you to attend a SARC for medical care and, if you wish, a forensic medical examination.
If you have not reported the assault to the police, you can still refer yourself to a SARC for assessment and medical treatment to prevent some STIs and pregnancy.
If you refer yourself to a SARC and are considering reporting the assault to the police, the centre can arrange for you to have an informal talk with a specially trained police officer, who can explain what is involved.
There are also specially trained advisers available in some SARCs or voluntary organisations to help people who have been sexually assaulted. These independent sexual violence advisers (ISVA) can help victims get access to the other support services they need. They will also support you through the criminal justice system if you decide to report the assault to the police, including supporting you through the trial, should the case go to court.
You can tell someone you trust first, such as a friend, relative or teacher, who can help you get the support you need. SARC services and ISVA support are free to all, whether a resident of the UK or not.
TheSite is an organisation for young people that has made a video about what to expect if you visit a SARC. People of all ages may find this video useful.
Forensic medical examination
If you have been sexually assaulted, you don’t have to have a forensic medical examination. However, it can provide useful evidence if the case goes to court.
You can decide at any stage if you would like a forensic medical examination. However, the sooner this takes place, the more chance of collecting evidence. If the assault occurred more than seven days ago, it is still worth asking for advice from a SARC or the police about a forensic medical examination.
The forensic medical examination usually takes place at a SARC or in a police suite. The examination is carried out by a doctor or nurse specially trained in sexual assault forensic medicine.
The doctor or nurse will ask any relevant health questions – for example, about the assault or any recent sexual activity. They will take samples, such as swabs from anywhere you have been kissed, touched or had anything inserted. They will also take urine and blood samples and occasionally hair, depending on the information you provide about the assault, and also retain some clothing and other items.
If you haven’t decided whether to involve the police, any forensic medical evidence that's collected will be stored at the SARC to allow you time to decide if you do want to report the assault. An ISVA, sometimes called an advocate, will also offer practical and emotional support, whether or not you wish to involve the police.
If you do decide to report it to the police, a police officer specially trained in supporting victims of sexual assault will talk to you and help to make sure you understand what's going on at each stage.
The police will investigate the assault. This will involve you having a forensic medical examination and making a statement about what happened. The police will pass their findings, including the forensic report, 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.
If there is no investigation or prosecution, information about you won’t be shared with other services without your permission, unless there's a concern that you or anyone else is at risk of serious 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:
- Don’t judge them, don’t blame them. A sexual assault is never the fault of the person who is abused.
- 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 time for them to deal with their feelings and emotions. You can help by listening and being patient. Find your nearest rape and sexual assault services, including SARCs.