Tools for Service Providers

Identifying and Dealing With Sexual Assault


Sexual assault is one of the most common crimes in the United States. Nationally, about one in five women and one in seventy-one men say they have been victims of a forced or nonconsensual penetrating sexual act at some time in their lives, according to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the actual number of victims may be much greater because many people don't report the crime or don't realize that what happened to them was a sexual assault.

Being the victim of a sexual assault can be a confusing experience. Some victims find that they are physically and emotionally devastated, questioning whether it is possible to heal and resume normal lives. Other victims experience less severe trauma. Nevertheless, a common experience for people who have been sexually assaulted is that they feel their trust has been violated in some way. Nearly three-quarters of all sexual assaults are committed by a friend, relative, or acquaintance of the victim. This fact debunks the notion that most sexual assaults are perpetrated by strangers in dark alleys.

Recovering from a sexual assault usually occurs more quickly with help and support, which can come from professional counselors, trusted friends, and many other sources.

What is sexual assault?

According to Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 6495.01, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program (PDF), sexual assault is defined as follows:

Intentional sexual contact characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual assault includes rape, forcible sodomy (oral or anal sex), and other unwanted sexual contact that is aggravated, abusive, or wrongful (including unwanted and inappropriate sexual contact), or attempts to commit these acts.

Sexual assault can occur without regard to gender, spousal relationship, or age of victim.

"Consent" means words or overt acts indicating a freely given agreement to the sexual conduct at issue by a competent person.  An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent.  Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from a perpetrator's use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent.  A current or previous dating relationship or the manner of dress of the person involved with the perpetrator does not constitute consent.  There is no consent where the person is sleeping or incapacitated, such as due to age, alcohol or drugs, or mental incapacity.

As stated in the definition, the attacker doesn't have to use physical force to commit a sexual assault. The person may instead use threats or intimidation to make someone feel like he or she can't say no. Sexual assault can also occur when someone is too drunk, drugged, unconscious, or otherwise mentally incapacitated to be able to agree to sexual contact. Most sexual assault victims do not physically fight off their attackers: a victim does not have to physically resist the attacker to demonstrate a lack of consent in a criminal case. In addition, every state has its own laws about the age of consent for sexual contact, which may also be different from military law. Moreover, some countries define sexual assault differently than the United States does. Questions about what is and what isn't sexual assault can often be discussed with a helping professional.

Common reactions to sexual assault

Reactions vary among victims of sexual assault, but may include nightmares and flashbacks, poor concentration, memory problems, avoidance of reminders of the incident, self-blame, shame, feeling responsible for the attack, being easily startled, excessive concern about personal safety, changes in appetite and sleeping habits, increased substance use, and feeling hopeless about the future.

Reporting sexual assault

There is help available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for anyone in the military community at the DoD Safe Helpline.  Safe Helpline (1-877-995-5247) is a groundbreaking crisis support service for members of the DoD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline provides live, one-on-one support, and information to the worldwide DoD community. The service is confidential, anonymous, secure, and available worldwide, 24/7 by click, call, or text — providing victims with the help they need, anytime, anywhere. 

For additional information about sexual assault prevention and response in the military, visit or the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office website.


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