Know the Laws:
UPDATED February 17, 2017
Many people in society do not understand the extent of trauma endured by rape and sexual assault victims. If you do not have visible physical injuries from the assault, friends and family may think you are okay. However, there may be physical and psychological injuries that you (and others) can’t see.
These are some suggestions you may want to consider to get the practical and emotional support you may need. Depending on what you think is best in your situation, you may do any or all of the following:
Even if the sexual assault happened in the past, you may still be able to report the abuse to law enforcement if you want the offender to be held criminally liable. Although an investigation that takes place months or years after the assault may have its legal challenges, police still can investigate past sexual assault if the statute of limitations on the criminal act has not already expired. A statute of limitations is a legal time period for which a person can be prosecuted for committing a crime – each state has its own statute of limitations for each crime. After the statute of limitations has run (expired), a prosecution is no longer possible, though you may still be able to take civil action. However, depending on how long ago the assault happened and the age of the victim at the time of the assault, the statute of limitations for sexual assault may last many years. RAINN has a link to each state’s statute of limitations on their website if you want to check out the statute of limitations for the state in which the sexual assault took place. If you are interested in pressing charges for a sexual assault that occurred in the past, you can read more on the RAINN website and you may want to contact a lawyer from our Finding a Lawyer page for legal advice.
You can also seek support and counseling for yourself for the trauma that the assault has caused. Sexual assault, no matter when it happens can change your life. It can change your view of yourself and others and influence your intimate relationships. You may experience changes in your eating and sleeping patterns. You may have nightmares or flashbacks about the assault or rape. Certain sounds, smells, or other sensory experiences may trigger these feelings and fears. You may be afraid of being alone, or you may fear being in crowds. You also may experience ongoing fear that the offender may have infected you with a sexually transmitted disease that may not have been detected initially after the assault.
Whether you were abused by someone you knew or were assaulted by a stranger, you may have a difficult time dealing with the assault for many years afterwards. As time passes, you may have a variety of feelings, thoughts, and reactions to what has happened that may not have occurred right after the assault -- many rape and sexual assault victims do. Whatever the circumstances, whatever your reactions or fears may be, support and help are available for you. Local rape crisis or sexual assault program staff may be able to assist you, regardless of whether you decide to report the assault to the police.*
If you feel like you need support, you may consider:
There are several places you may call for help if you have been sexually assaulted or fear you might be sexually assaulted:
Note: Depending on to whom you report the abuse, if it involves a minor, there may be mandatory reporting requirements for minor victims. Many states require that health professionals, school officials, and counselors report any accusations of sexual assault, rape, or unlawful sexual contact to child protective services and/or to the police if the victim is a minor. Mandatory reporting requirements vary by state. You can look up your states specific laws on mandatory reporting requirements for minors in RAINN’s State Law Database. If you are a minor and you want to talk to an adult about sexual assault or abuse without having it be reported to the police or child protective services, it may be a good idea to ask the adult if s/he is a mandatory reporter before you talk to him/her. If s/he says “yes,” you can ask if s/he can refer you to someone who you can talk to confidentially (who is not a mandatory reporter). Alternatively, you may want to call a national or state hotline anonymously without giving any identifying information about yourself.
The path to seeking “justice” after a sexual assault can look different for every victim. Some people may choose to pursue criminal charges, file civil lawsuits for money damages, file for civil protection orders, and/or file complaints with their universities or other educational institution. Other victims may choose not to pursue any of these options. In addition to finding a sense of justice, victims of sexual assault may also want information about caring for their own emotional well-being and working towards recovering from the trauma they have experienced. Any of the below options can be pursued independently or possibly at the same time.
Some victims of sexual violence may wish to have the prosecutor press criminal charges against the person(s) who victimized them. The criminal process usually begins with a victim reporting the incident to police and the prosecutor will determine whether or not there is enough evidence to start a criminal case. Each state defines crimes of sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, differently and has different statutes of limitation. You can look up the crimes in your specific state on our Crimes page.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) provides information on how to report to law enforcement and what to expect from a criminal trial, which may help you decide whether or not to file a report. If you need legal assistance, you can find legal resources for your specific state on our Finding a Lawyer page. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.
Civil lawsuit for money damages:
Some survivors of sexual violence may choose to file a civil lawsuit for money damages against perpetrator(s) of sexual violence. Unlike a criminal investigation, a civil suit is a private legal action that you initiate. Civil actions generally require a lower standard of proof (preponderance of the evidence) than criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt). You may wish to initiate a civil suit to seek compensatory damages (money for the damages or injuries you sustained as a result of the sexual) assault and possibly punitive damages, which are aimed at punishing the defendant.
Civil suits may take years to resolve, and there is no guarantee you will win. However, some survivors may prefer civil suits over a criminal trial. The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs has compiled a survivor’s guide to filing a civil lawsuit, which provides more information on civil lawsuits and their pros and cons. If you need legal assistance in filing a civil lawsuit, you can look for your state bar association’s legal referral service for private attorneys on our Finding a Lawyer page. Additionally, the organization Know Your IX has a list of free and pro bono legal resources that may be able to help you.
Civil protection order:
Sexual assault victims may choose to file for a civil protection order as one measure of protection to try to keep the perpetrator away and to prohibit any contact. Usually, an applicant for a protection order can get an immediate, temporary order issued (ex parte) and then there will be a hearing at which the perpetrator has the right to be present to defend against the order being issued. To read about the protection order options in your state, go to our Restraining Orders page.
Numerous federal laws require that educational institutions, including local school districts, post-secondary institutions, charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums take steps to both prevent sexual violence as well as address complaints of sexual violence. The organization Know Your IX has information that may be able to help you learn the laws that protect you at educational institutions and the resources available to you. You can also find legal resources on our Finding a Lawyer page.