Skip to main content

Sexual Assault: What It Is and How to Cope

Lili thinks critically about the ways gender roles have influenced behavior and society.

Begun in 2006 by activist and survivor Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement raises awareness around sexual assault and amplifies the voices of those who have experienced it.

Begun in 2006 by activist and survivor Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement raises awareness around sexual assault and amplifies the voices of those who have experienced it.

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is an act in which a person intentionally sexually touches another person without that person's consent, or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will. It is a form of sexual violence.

The Department of Justice defines sexual assault in the following way:

The term “sexual assault” means any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.

Sexual assault is not isolated to rape, even though the two are often conflated in people's minds. It is simply unwanted sexual contact. This means that even something as minor as a touch or a kiss can be a violent act against someone if there is no consent.

Some people feel the urge to respond by victim-blaming or making excuses for the behavior of the perpetrator. Another notable reaction is belittling; belittling someone's experience is when another person without that experience downplays the feelings and reality of another. Neither of these reactions is appropriate. In this article, I offer tools to both survivors and bystanders for responding to sexual assault. I cover:

  • What Is Consent?
  • Different Common Types of Unwanted Sexual Advances
  • The Effects of Sexual Abuse
  • How to Cope With Sexual Abuse
  • Other Types of Abuse
  • Resources
Getting consent is the act of asking permission and receiving reciprocated interest in an activity.

Getting consent is the act of asking permission and receiving reciprocated interest in an activity.

Consent, for the purpose of sexual encounters, "is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity," according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN. Broadly speaking, it's the act of asking permission and receiving reciprocated interest in an activity. I like to remember the principles of consent with an acronym: FRIES.

  • Freely Given
  • Reversible
  • Informed
  • Enthusiastic
  • Specific

I found this acronym on Planned Parenthood's website. Essentially, consent should be an easy-going conversation; not a conversation full of leverage and negotiation. Consent is all about listening and respecting boundaries defined both in advance and in the moment.

Different Types of Common Unwanted Sexual Advances

There are endless violations that qualify behavior as sexual abuse and/or sexual assault, but most are central to the above theme: consent. All definitions are from RAINN.


In a sexual context, "groping" or "fondling" is touching another person in an unwelcome sexual way. Gropers might use their hands, but pressing any part of their body against another person can be considered groping.

Research from RAINN shows that in 2018, 51% of women and 17% of men have experienced unwelcome sexual touching without consent or permission.



Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person's consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who is incapable of giving valid consent, such as one who is unconscious, incapacitated, has an intellectual disability, or is below the legal age of consent.

Statistics reported by the RAINN indicate that 7 out of 10 cases of sexual assault involved a perpetrator known to the victim.

  • One in four women and one in nine men have experienced sexual violence, stalking, or rape
  • One in three women and one in six men experienced violent sexual contact in their life
  • Nearly 23 million women and 1.7 million men have been victims of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives
  • 8.5 million women experienced rape before age 18
  • 1.5 million men were made to penetrate before age 18
  • One in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is intimidation, bullying, or coercion of a sexual nature. It may also be defined as the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors.

79% of victims of sexual harassment are women, 21% are men. Often sexual harassment takes place in the workplace, in which case:

  • 51% are harassed by a supervisor
  • 12% received threats of termination if they did not comply with their requests

Even more startling, 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012.

  • 302 of the 2,558 cases pursued by victims were prosecuted
  • 38% of the cases were committed by someone of a higher rank than the victim

The Effects of Sexual Abuse

I'm gonna be honest: It was really hard reading about and writing down all these statistics. They're not pretty. Sexual assault is everywhere, and it can happen to literally anyone of any age, race, or gender. It is hard to comprehend these facts and reflect on all the effects these acts can have on an individual.

The effects sexual assault has on the survivor are often two-fold:

1. Emotional

2. Physical

The Emotional Effects of Sexual Assault

Emotional effects can often be long-term, meaning the survivors can deal with these for years, decades, or even until the end of their lives. According to the Community Associations for Healthy Living and Lifestyle:

These can include, but are not limited to: denial, learned helplessness, genophobia, anger, self-blame, anxiety, shame, nightmares, fear, depression, flashbacks, guilt, rationalization, mood swings, numbness, promiscuity, loneliness, social anxiety, difficulty trusting oneself or others, difficulty concentrating. Being the victim of sexual assault may lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder, addiction, major depressive disorder or other psychopathologies.

Sexual abuse is often associated with suicidality, both directly and indirectly through hopelessness and depressive symptoms. Check out RAINN's statistics on the emotional effects of sexual assault; they will blow your mind.

The Physical Effects of Sexual Assault

While sexual assault can result in physical trauma, many people who experience sexual assault will not suffer any physical injury. Women who experienced rape or physical violence by a partner were more likely than people who had not experienced this violence to report frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, activity limitation, poor physical health, and poor mental health. Other potential ailments (which are tied to emotional consequences of sexual assault as well) include:

  • Deliberate self-harm
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Pregnancy
  • Sleep disorders
  • Suicide
Sometimes it can feel like you against the world.

Sometimes it can feel like you against the world.

How To Cope With Sexual Assault

Coping with sexual assault and responding to sexual assault as a third party are very different processes.

Coping With Sexual Assault

First and foremost, I must make it clear that I am not a licensed health practitioner. This list of advice is made up of tools I've used to work through my own trauma and advice I've found online from licensed professionals. The following have helped me heal.

  • Give Yourself Time and Practice Self Care. Recovery will not happen in a matter of minutes, hours, or even days. Working through being sexually assaulted is a big deal and can be hugely traumatic, both mentally and physically. When someone breaks a bone, it needs to be set in plaster because it is essential for the bone to heal correctly in the spot where it broke. Bones also need a certain amount of time to heal properly. Obviously, trauma is a completely different animal, but one thing they share is that they both need time to heal. Be kind to your body. Avoid drugs and alcohol, be careful of what you watch online, and prioritize eating and sleeping enough. Restore the health of your body to make working on the mind easier.
  • Try Opening Up To a Trusted Friend. I know that the thought of talking about the assault you've experienced can be terrifying, but it can be so helpful. You can take your time on this one, and of course, you should only share as much detail as you feel comfortable with and only share it with people you feel 100% comfortable with. Bottling up your feelings and thoughts can make it harder for you to cope with them. Another advantage of telling someone about the abuse is that they can help you report it if you want to go along with that. Surrounding yourself with people who support and love you in these times can be crucial.
  • Don't Deny Your Reality. Accept that what happened to you was sexual assault. Denying the severity of what happened to you can seem like the easy way about this, but it's only a short-term solution. It is much healthier to start the journey of healing and acceptance as soon as possible. And, in case you haven't heard it from anyone lately: You can do anything you set your mind to, and you're so much stronger than you think!
  • Don't Blame Yourself. Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. It does not matter what you were wearing. If you were disinterested in an act that required the consent of both parties, then you did not give consent, and your boundaries were violated. Don't let someone else's assertive nature define or deny your experience. But self-blame can sneak into your thoughts. Survivors often have thoughts like:
    • "It was surely my fault; I didn't say no."
    • "Why didn't I try to stop it?"
    • "I could've stopped it."
    • "I could've done something differently."
    • "I was dressed a bit risqué."
  • Be Prepared For Flashbacks. Flashbacks from a traumatic moment can often be triggered by very minimal moments or things you see in everyday life. People, places, and things can trigger flashbacks. Come up with a plan to soothe yourself during these times and calm down. Try slowing your breathing, grounding yourself in the present, and remembering it is a flashback, not reality.
  • Pursue Trauma-Focused Therapy. Some of these include Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged-Exposure Therapy, and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
  • Have Faith. Lastly, but most importantly: know that you're going to get through this, and it is going to get better. You won't even notice that in a month or a year, you've improved so much, and you got so much better. You should be proud of yourself at the end of every day, 'cause you got through it! You survived!

I am proud of all of you out there who have experienced sexual assault in any shape or form. Keep doing what you're doing. I love you all.

Responding to Sexual Assault as a Third (Non-Involved) Party

If you are a bystander who witnessed a sexual assault or became privy to an unwanted sexual assault through word of mouth, it is imperative to stay calm.

  • If the victim is a loved one, let them know you love them. Reassure them the assault was not their fault.
  • Don't be pushy. Encourage the person to reach out and seek help, but don't put too much pressure on them.
  • Be understanding about a lack of interest in physical intimacy. Allow the victim to process their need for touch in their own time.
  • Be patient with all processes the victim is going through and how they reflect on this time in their life.
  • Take care of yourself.
Child abuse is more prevalent than you might think.

Child abuse is more prevalent than you might think.

Other Types of Abuse

Child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse is a form of child abuse in which an adult or older adolescent abuses a child for sexual stimulation. "Forms of child sexual abuse include asking or pressuring a child to engage in sexual activities, indecent exposure of the genitals to a child, displaying pornography to a child, actual sexual contact against a child, physical contact with the child's genitals, viewing of the child's genitalia without physical contact, or using a child to produce child pornography, including live streaming sexual abuse." (K12 Academics)

And now, the horrifying facts and statistics:

Approximately 15 to 25% of women and 5 to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims. Approximately 30% of the perpetrators are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters, and uncles or cousins. Around 60% are other acquaintances such as friends of the family, babysitters, or neighbors. Strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases.

That's right. Noone typically suspects trusted friends and family, or at least not until there is solid evidence of the crime. People do not often think that a person from their family would do such a thing.


Elder abuse. "Elder abuse (also called "elder mistreatment," "senior abuse," "abuse in later life," "abuse of older adults," "abuse of older women," and "abuse of older men") is "a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person." (Prasad et al. 2018)

Work undertaken in Canada suggests that approximately 70% of elder abuse is perpetrated against women, and this is supported by evidence from the Action On Elder Abuse (AEA) helpline in the UK, which identifies women as victims in 67% of calls. Certainly, abuse increases with age, with 78% of victims being over 70 years of age.

Use these queues to signal to trusted loved ones that you are unsafe.

Use these queues to signal to trusted loved ones that you are unsafe.

Domestic Violence. Domestic violence (also called family violence or intimate partner violence) is violence or other abuse in a domestic setting, such as in marriage or cohabitation. It is committed by a spouse or partner in an intimate relationship against the other spouse or partner and can take place in heterosexual or same-sex relationships or between former spouses or partners.

It takes a number of forms, including physical, verbal, emotional, economic, religious, reproductive, and sexual abuse, which can range from subtle, coercive forms to marital rape and to violent physical abuse such as choking, beating, genital mutilation, and acid throwing that results in disfigurement or death.

According to the CDC, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes. At least 5 million acts of domestic violence occur annually to women aged 18 years and older, with over 3 million involving men. Approximately 1.5 million intimate partner female rapes and physical assaults are perpetrated annually, and approximately 800,000 male assaults occur. About 1 in 5 women have experienced completed or attempted rape at some point in their lives. About 1% to 2% of men have experienced completed or attempted rape.



Prasad, Barre Vijaya, Akbar, Shamsi. 2018. Handbook of Research on Geriatric Health, Treatment, and Care. Retrieved from Google Books.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Lili Zoltai


Lili Zoltai (author) from Hungary on September 18, 2020:

Thank you everyone, for reading, and giving your feedbacks! Means a lot!

OLUSEGUN from NIGERIA on September 16, 2020:

This is educational. Thanks for sharing. Good work.

blessedp on September 13, 2020:

The biggest drawback is fear why most people stay in sexual abusive relationship. It is happening to many people in our society today. But we can't see the hurt and the pain behind the mask they wear to hide the open wounds and the scars. Wounds that leads to emotional and mental break down. Good article thanks for sharing.

Lorna Lamon on September 13, 2020:

During lockdown restrictions there were twice as many cases of assault on woman living with violent partners. Sadly some of them ended in death. Unfortunately many people feel helpless or frightened when it comes to reporting sexual abuse as they fear they will not be believed. This appears to be a growing trend across the world and more needs to be done by governments to respond to these alarming figures. Thank you for sharing this article and drawing awareness to the severity of the situation.