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Sexual assault and rape

9-minute read

If you have been, or think you may have been sexually assaulted and you don't feel safe, call triple zero (000).

Key facts

  • Sexual assault is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that makes a person feel uncomfortable, scared or threatened.
  • Anyone can experience sexual assault and most victims know the person who assaulted them — which can include a spouse.
  • If you've been assaulted, you decide whether to report a sexual assault to the police or a support service. This can be done at any time.
  • Avoid washing yourself or your clothes immediately after an assault, so physical evidence can be collected if you choose to report the assault.
  • There are many sexual assault helplines and rape-crisis centres that can help you — even if you wish to contact them anonymously.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that makes a person feel uncomfortable, frightened or threatened. It can occur when a person is forced, tricked or coerced into sexual behaviour without agreeing to it.

There are helplines and crisis organisations that can help you if you, or someone you know, has been sexually assaulted. See 'Helplines and support' below.

Sexual assault includes unwanted or inappropriate touching or kissing of a person's body, having sex with someone without their consent, and rape. It can also involve exposing another person to sexual behaviour without their consent, such as masturbating in front of them or forcing the person to watch pornography.

Rape typically refers to penetration of the genitals, anus or mouth — without consent — by a penis, object or other part of the body. However, rape is defined differently in different states and territories, and the term has been replaced with 'sexual assault' in some states.

When a child is involved, sexual assault is usually referred to as child sexual abuse.

Sexual assault laws and definitions differ between states and territories. To read more about these laws, go to the Australian Institute of Family Studies website.

Anyone — of any age or gender — can experience sexual assault and most victims know the person who assaults them. They may be a spouse, intimate partner or carer.

Sexual assault is a crime and a major health and welfare concern in Australia. Almost 2 million Australian adults have experienced at least one sexual assault since the age of 15.

The effects can be wide-ranging and long-term. Sexual assault victims might experience physical injuries, long-lasting mental-health challenges and difficulty with everyday activities such as eating and sleeping.

You can only consent to sexual behaviour — which means you agree to the behaviour — when you are not being intimidated and you are aware of what is going on. For example, someone cannot give consent if the other person is threatening them in any way, or if they are unable to understand the nature of the behaviour.

The states and territories all have laws that define the 'age of consent'. If you are below that age, you cannot lawfully give your consent. These laws can be complex — to learn more about them go to the Australian Institute of Family Studies website.

You or your sexual partner can decide at any time that you don't consent to sexual behaviour continuing — even if you've already started. If this happens, both of you must stop right away.

ldeally, sex is part of a respectful and trusting relationship and your partner is not allowed to pressure you into sexual behaviour. You do not have to stay with anyone who is making you do something that you don't want to do.

What should I do after a sexual assault?

If you're still in danger or worried about your safety, call triple zero (000).

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, you should go somewhere you feel safe, if you can. This might be a police station, hospital or the home of a close friend or family member.

You might want to tell someone you trust about the assault, such as a friend or family member, a sexual assault helpline or a health professional. Do not feel ashamed or to blame. Sexual assault is never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

If you speak to someone from an organisation or via a helpline, they'll give you support and advice. You don't have to give them your name if you would prefer not to.

Try not to wash yourself or your clothes until you have decided whether to report the assault to the police. Clothing and skin can hold vital evidence that can help you during a police investigation. Keep any unwashed clothing you were wearing when you were assaulted in a paper bag.

Seek medical help, if you can, from a hospital, health clinic or rape-crisis centre. Staff will give you appropriate medical care and some can provide counselling services.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The healthdirect Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How do I report a sexual assault?

Only you can decide whether to report a sexual assault to the police or to a support service, such as a helpline. It can be done at any time — for example, immediately after the incident; or days, weeks or even years later.

Be aware that if you report the crime immediately, the police have a better chance of collecting evidence.

If you report an assault later on, some physical evidence may be lost. Your clothes may be needed as evidence, so if you go to a police station, hospital or rape-crisis centre, take other clothing to change into if you can.

How is physical evidence collected?

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, to collect evidence a doctor may take samples of your saliva, urine, blood and pubic hair. They may collect swabs from your mouth, rectum and genitals. Swabs can be taken from any area where the perpetrator touched you.

It is best if physical evidence is collected within 72 hours (3 days) of the assault.

What medical treatment might be needed after a sexual assault?

Even if you haven't yet decided to report it to the police, you should seek medical support after a sexual assault or rape. You may have injuries that need treatment. It's also good to get advice on sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

You can go to a:

Doctors and nurses will deal with your medical needs confidentially and, if you're an adult, they will not inform the police without your permission. (In the case of a child, it is mandatory for people in certain occupations, such as doctors and nurses, to report child abuse.)

If you think you might report the sexual assault to the police, you should tell a doctor or nurse so they can arrange for swabs to be taken as evidence. You can have the swabs taken and still decide not to go to the police.

Sexually-transmitted infections (STIs)

Even if you don't have any symptoms, it's best to be checked for sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) since most have few signs or symptoms. Your doctor may refer you to a sexual health clinic for further testing.

You may choose to have an HIV test. If you do, you will be offered pre-test counselling to ensure you fully understand why the test is being done, the risks and benefits, and the possible outcomes of the results.

You may also need to discuss with the doctor or nurse the possibility of pregnancy. In some situations, it may be advisable to take the morning after pill to reduce the risk of an unwanted pregnancy.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the sexual health Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How might I feel after a sexual assault?

Being raped or sexually assaulted is an extremely distressing experience. Everyone reacts differently, and your feelings can change over time, or even from day to day.

It is normal to go through a range of emotions, including:

  • shock and denial
  • not being able to talk about the assault
  • anxiety, fear or not being able to relax
  • depression or mood swings
  • feeling guilt, shame or worry about being judged
  • feeling isolated
  • having nightmares and flashbacks
  • loss of confidence, self-esteem and trust in others

It's important to remember that if you're a victim of a sexual assault or rape, it was not your fault.

You may feel you need to talk to someone, such as a close friend, family member, counsellor or support group. Hospitals, police, your GP and other health professionals should be able to give you the contact numbers for support organisations in your area.

If you are experiencing anxiety or symptoms of depression, you should see a GP, who can offer you support, advice and treatment. They can also refer you to a counsellor or mental-health professional.

You can seek help any time after the assault, including in the following days, months or years. There is no 'time limit' to getting help for sexual assault.

Helplines and support

Support organisations can help you even if you don't report a sexual assault to the police.

Wherever you are in Australia, you can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) any time for confidential information, counselling and support in cases of sexual assault, domestic violence or abuse. Visit the website to chat online and find services in your area.

You can also call Sexual Assault Counselling Australia on 1800 211 028 to speak with a trauma specialist, 24 hours a day.

In your state or territory, you can contact:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2021


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