Sexual Assault and Rape

What is Sexual Violence?

Sexual Violence:

A broad term that can include all forms of sexual assault, rape, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and voyeuristic behaviors.

Sexual Assault:

Any unwanted sexual contact that occurs by force, coercion or when a person is incapable of giving consent. This is inclusive of unwanted kissing, sexual touching (groping, fondling), oral sex, penetration with objects or body parts.


Unwanted vaginal or anal penetration that occurs by force, coercion or while a person is incapable of giving consent. NYS penal law states that rape can be considered when penetration occurs “no matter how slight”.

Criminal Justice System (CJS) Language:

In NYS, Penal Law Article 130 governs the prosecution of what are called sexual offenses.  Sexual Offenses are the types of crimes that the various forms of sexual violence are defined as and categorized into based on the specific actions that took place during an incident of sexual violence.  Some frequently charged sex offenses you may hear from callers are rape, criminal sexual act, sexual abuse, forcible touching and sexual misconduct.  These charges will generally be associated with a level of severity or degree (1st-3rd), which also guides if the crime is listed as a misdemeanor or felony level offense. (NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, RAINN)

What is Consent?

At the core of sexual assault and rape is the issue of consent.  By its most basic definition consent is to give permission for something to happen or be done.  With this in mind we practice consent in nearly every social or interpersonal contacts we have throughout our days; from asking to sit next to a stranger on the bus to asking a friend if you can borrow money.  These exchanges force us to engage with another person, to not assume their comfort level or response, to pay attention to their words as well as non-verbal cues and to abide by their answer-regardless of our feelings about it.  In the case of sexual consent, it is no different.

Consent is also an ongoing process throughout a sexual encounter and can be withdrawn at any time.  This means that a person can consent to oral sex but not consent to vaginal intercourse and if this occurs it can be considered sexual assault or rape.  Additionally, consent is never assumed, even in the context of a relationship.  Past sexual activity, an intimate relationship or marriage does not provide blanket consent for future sexual activity.

What are the impacts of Sexual Violence?

On Survivors

Every person who experiences sexual violence responds to the trauma differently.  This can be due to a variety of factors including past history with abuse or violence, personality traits, established coping strategies, support systems, relationship with the offender or even where the assault took place.  It is important to understand that there is no “right” way for a survivor to respond to an assault and they may present for help and support either immediately following or it could be weeks, months or years later.

Although there is no one way survivors will respond there are some common responses we tend to hear including:

Common Feelings:

  • Shock
  • Embarrassment “I’m sorry you have to hear about this…”
  • Shame
  • Self blame “I can’t believe I invited him back to my apartment…”
  • Guilt “I must’ve been leading them on, I mean I did flirt with them all night…”
  • Anger
  • Vulnerability or Fear “I’ve tried going out and being normal but everyone I see reminds me of him…”
  • Denying/Minimizing severity of the assault “I know people have much worse things happen to them, maybe mine wasn’t so bad…”
  • Concern for the offender “I want him to know what they did was wrong but do you think they’ll be kicked out of school?”

Common Physical Responses:

  • Feeling dirty and needing to repeatedly shower/bathe
  • Pain
  • Anxiety/Panic attacks
  • Changes in sleeping/eating patterns
  • Flashbacks

Long term impacts:

  • Mental Health issues (depression, anxiety, PTSD, disordered eating conditions)
  • Substance use issues
  • Difficulty concentrating (impacts at work and/or school)
  • Linked with higher likelihood of ongoing physical health conditions

On Others

Many times when discussing the impacts of sexual violence we only focus on the individual survivor and tend to overlook the tremendous impacts this violence can have on others in the survivor’s life.  Sexual violence tends to cause a ripple effect of trauma onto other people that the survivor knows and cares about; including anyone from family members and intimate partners to roommates or fellow college members. Acknowledging these far reaching impacts allows us to remember that healing from this violence often includes providing suppor to secondary victims.  Secondary victims can have many similar feelings as a survivor including shock, anger, a sense of vulnerability and helplessness.  By validating these feelings and also providing them with resources to better understand the experience of the survivor and how to be most supportive we are not only caring for their needs but also helping to create a supportive environment for the survivor to heal.

On the Community & Society:

When cases of sexual violence occur in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, campuses, and cultural or religious communities many community members may feel fear, anger, or disbelief that this has happened to someone they know.  This response can come from a place of shock that a person similar to them has been victimized as culturally many people still believe that victims are somehow different than they are. Additionally, there are financial costs to communities. These costs include medical services, criminal justice expenses, crisis and mental health services fees, and the lost contributions of individuals affected by sexual violence. On the larger societal level, sexual violence endangers critical societal structures through climates of violence and fear. Most importantly, the contributions and achievements that may never come as a result of sexual violence is a cost to society that can’t be measured.

What is Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault?

(adapted from RAINN)

Drug-facilitated sexual assault occurs when alcohol or drugs are used to compromise an individual’s ability to consent to sexual activity. These substances create vulnerabilities in a person and  make it easier for a perpetrator to commit sexual assault because of the victims limited ability to resist and, in some cases, remember the assault. The use of drugs or alcohol to impair a person’s ability to understand what is happening, legally inhibits their ability to give consent. Commonly, the term “date rape drugs” is used to refer to substances that can aid a perpetrator in committing sexual assault.

In cases of drug facilitated assault it is quite common for survivors to exhibit self blame, especially when they voluntarily ingested the drug or alcohol. It is not the survivors fault as no one has the right to take advantage of another while they are vulnerable.

Drug-facilitated sexual assault occurs in two ways: when the perpetrator takes advantage of a victim’s voluntary use of drugs or alcohol or when the perpetrator intentionally forces a victim to consume drugs or large amounts of alcohol without their knowledge.

Perpetrators use a variety of substances to incapacitate a victim.

  • Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in drug-facilitated sexual assault.
  • Prescription drugs like sleep aids, anxiety medication, muscle relaxants, and tranquilizers may also be used by perpetrators.
  • Street drugs, like GHB, rohypnol, ecstasy, and ketamine can be added to drinks without changing the color, flavor, or odor of the beverage.

Depending on the substance, the initial effects of a drug can go unnoticed or become apparent very quickly.

Common signs a drug may have been ingested include the following:

  • Nausea
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling drunk without consuming any alcohol or very limited amounts
  • Sudden increase in dizziness, disorientation, or blurred vision
  • Sudden body temperature change that could be signaled by sweating or chattering teeth
  • Waking up with no memory, or missing large portions of memories

If a person identifies any of these signs or believes they may have been drugged it is important to preserve the evidence as quickly as possible.  Many of these substances are processed through the body within 12-72 hours and therefore obtaining a blood or urine sample as soon as possible is critical.  These samples can be collected during a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) Exam at the emergency room.

What is Sexual Harassment?

(Adapted from RAINN)

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Sexual harassment does not always have to be specifically about sexual behavior or directed at a specific person. For example, negative comments about women as a group may be a form of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment interferes with your performance by threatening your job security or becoming an obstacle to effective work.

Although sexual harassment laws do not usually cover teasing or offhand comments, these behaviors can also be upsetting and have a negative emotional impact.

What does sexual harassment look like?

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. The harasser can identify with any gender and have any relationship to the victim, including a being a direct manager, indirect supervisor, co-worker, teacher, peer, or colleague.

Some forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Unwanted touching or physical contact
  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature
  • Physical acts of sexual assault
  • Making conditions of employment dependent on sexual favors

Where can sexual harassment occur?

Sexual harassment can occur in the workplace or learning environment, like a school or university. It can happen in many different scenarios, including after-hours conversations, exchanges in the hallways, and non-office settings of employees or peers.

Title IX & Sexual Harassment

(Adapted from Know Your IX)

When people speak about Title IX they are referring to 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), which says:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Essentially, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. While Title IX is a very short statute, Supreme Court decisions and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education have given it a broad scope covering sexual harassment and sexual violence. Under Title IX, schools are legally required to respond and remedy hostile educational environments and failure to do so is a violation that means a school could risk losing its federal funding.

To understand the specific requirements of Title IX, schools must look to guidance materials from the U.S. Department of Education. Recently, the 2011 Title IX Guidance, known as the“Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL), discussed the obligations schools have to address campus sexual violence. While the DCL is not law, it tells schools how the Department will review and enforce Title IX complaints.

The 2011 DCL focuses on how sexual harassment and violence creates a hostile educational environment in violation of Title IX when it is serious enough to interfere with a student’s ability to learn or participate in educational or extracurricular activities. For the purposes of a Department of Education investigation, one single instance of sexual violence is sufficient to qualify as creating a hostile educational environment.  The DCL has prompted numerous changes on our local college campuses.

Most notable changes include to confidentiality and presence of a specific Title IX coordinator for cases of sexual violence.  As a means to prevent school environments from covering up cases of sexual violence the DCL made it clear that educational institutions must investigate any cases of sexual violence that they knew about or reasonably should have known about.  As a means to comply with this directive, most universities and colleges made it clear that outside a small number of strictly confidential sources (a list can be found for local campuses here) all campus faculty, staff and other designated employees must report any information they receive about sexual violence to the Title IX Coordinator to follow-up on and investigate.  This is a drastic change as a survivor may not be aware of this prior to sharing information with their RA, for example.  As hotline volunteers, you can provide support around issues of confidentiality, connect them with an advocate and also provide students with the strictly confidential resources available on their individual campus.