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Sexual Assault: What Is It? How to Empower Recovery for Survivors

Despite growing awareness, sexual assault is not going away. In fact, every 98 seconds, someone in America is sexually assaulted, reports RAINN, a leading support provider for sexual assault survivors.

Most incidents of rape or sexual assault — 69% — happen to people between ages 12 and 35.  Each of us can learn something and do something safely to make a huge difference to reduce risk, prevent trauma, and help more people heal.

Victims include men, women and children. Assaults are most often carried out by someone they know. Sexual assault is most prevalent among younger women:

  • 9 in 10 victims of rape are female(1)
  • Most sexual assaults — 69% — involve victims between ages 12 and 35(1)
  • 82% of all juvenile victims of sexual violence are female(1)
  • Nearly 2 in every 3 college students (male and female) experience sexual harassment (2)
  • 7 in 10 of rapes are committed by a person known to the victim (3)

What Is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault consists of any unwanted sexual touch. While it includes rape and groping, any “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent” is sexual assault, says RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).

The degree of violence does not matter. Rape and drug-facilitated sexual assault are two of the most recognizable forms. But assault can also happen when someone rubs up against your body without your consent. It can happen with the uninvited touching or holding that violates your personal space and boundaries.

Placing Responsibility for Sexual Assault Where It Belongs

We need to question and challenge attitudes that blame the victim: “Oh, well what was she wearing? Was she drinking? Or did she lead him on?” This view comes from ignorance or misinformation and needs to change.

Sexual assault is in no way the victim’s fault.  What a person is wearing, whether they are smiling, flirting, partying, or whether they are drunk or sober does not matter. Unless that person freely says ‘yes’ to sexual behavior, that behavior counts as assault.

Victims of assault need to know: You did nothing wrong in that moment. You just happened to be there. And then this person decided that your body was up for grabs.

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The more attention and awareness we can bring to examine our biases, the more I hope we can reduce the incidents of assault and the suffering and shame of survivors.

Why Failure to Resist Does NOT Mean Consent

Without awareness and education, attitudes and misinformation can make it difficult to recognize sexual assault when it occurs. Some people mistakenly fault the victim who does not appear to say no to what is happening. We need to know that victims — especially those who have survived prior traumas — may freeze with terror, which is triggered when someone violates their sense of safety.

Most of us understand the “fight, flight, or freeze” response to fear. Once triggered, our neurobiology takes over, and it is very hard to shut off. When a sense of danger overwhelms the nervous system, it is not uncommon for sexual assault victims to freeze.

As a primal reflex, freezing can increase the odds of survival. After all, if your victim isn’t fighting, why not ease up the attack and save your energy?  Unfortunately, freezing rarely enables escape from a person who is intent on forcing sexual activity on someone else.

When a person feels violated — especially for a person with a trauma history, paralyzing fear is common. It’s a misunderstanding that victims do nothing to resist assault. What they do is freeze, to survive the trauma overwhelming them in that moment.

It is never right to blame the victim for what happened, no matter what they are wearing or where they happen to be, or whether they failed to stop it.

How to Reduce Your Risk

Basic personal safety is key to prevention.  

It is important to remember that the vast majority of sexual assaults happen in a setting with people you know.  Tips for staying safe include:

  • Make sure you go to social events with people you know are safe.
  • Plan ahead of time to look out for each other. Have plans to check in with each other and make sure each of you is okay.
  • If you are going to be drinking, watch your drink and don’t accept open drinks from others.  
  • Agree to go with a designated non-drinker who knowingly takes the role of watching that the situation stays safe.

Helping Others Reduce Their Risk

As one person, you may feel too insignificant to matter.  Please know that the difference you can make is huge. Because so many acts of assault begin in social settings, a bystander can interrupt in safe and helpful ways to help prevent an assault.

Follow your gut.  If a situation does not look right, and it feels safe to interrupt, say something:

  • “Hey, I’ve been looking for you – let’s go someplace to talk…”
  • “How’s it going? Is that okay with you?”
  • “Sorry, but we have to leave.”

If a situation looks unsafe, you can get the attention of someone in charge, such as a security guard or someone working at the venue, to help intervene.

For bystanders, RAINN provides the helpful cue CARE: Create a distraction, Ask Directly, Refer to an authority, or Enlist others.  RAINN provides more resources for safety planning, campus safety, and how bystanders can help.

Recovering from Sexual Assault

If you have experienced sexual assault, it is not your fault — even though you may be feeling guilty, ashamed, even devastated and worthless after what happened.  Know that it is possible for you to better protect yourself and to heal, and it is not too late to begin.

The important thing to do is tell someone you can trust about what happened.  If you do not know someone you can trust, there are local and national resources you can call to talk to someone who is trained to listen, and guide you responsibly to the help you need.  See More Resources below.

Signs of Change in the Media, On Campus and in the Legal System

Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of victims, doctors, therapists and advocates, more people are starting to recognize sexual assault for what it is — a trauma and a crime that needs greater awareness and prevention.

More colleges are holding surveys of students to learn the extent of unwanted sexual behavior and put better safeguards in place. The tragic sexual assault and murder of Hannah Graham, a local Virginia student, gained national media coverage, including stories on CBS News (for example, these stories in 2015 and 2016) and in the Huffington Post. Celebrities including Lady Gaga and Mary J. Blige are using their music as a powerful way to reach survivors and challenge the bias of blame (See More Resources below).

Lawmakers are beginning to help better protect the rights of rape victims. State Department official and rape survivor Amanda Nguyen has been a forceful advocate for a bill now introduced to Congress: the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which aims to protect victims’ rights to their evidence, whether or not they decide to press charges.

Your Voice Matters

If you think your voice is too small to matter, please know it does matter. If you think you alone can’t make a difference, that is not true: you can make a huge difference. Each of us can learn something to help prevent the next incident, and empower another victim to get help.

Sexual assault happens too often and devastates too many lives for us to accept without greater awareness. It is so important for all of us to educate ourselves about what we can do.  

Where Our Numbers Came From

(1) Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics (RAINN)

(2) Get Statistics (NSVRC)

(3) Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics (RAINN)

More Resources:

Education and Support for Victims of Sexual Assault

RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) has excellent educational resources  support for victims, and a hotline:

About Sexual Assault

Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE

Survivors of Incest Anonymous

Local Resources

Alexandria Sexual Assault and Awareness Program
Hotline: 703-683-7273


No More, a campaign for public awareness and to help engage bystanders in ending domestic violence and sexual assault

RISE (to support passage of the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights)


Caution: This content may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault

Lady Gaga – Til It Happens To You: 

Mary J. Blige Sheds Spotlight on Domestic Violence in ‘Whole Damn Year’ Video, by Bennan Carley, Spin magazine

Ten Inspiring Songs About Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault That Will Move You, by No More staff

Sexual Assault: What Is It? How to Empower Recovery for Survivors

Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT

Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT, is the founder and director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she established in 1999. Her insights for parent and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post, and Washington Parent magazine, and she presents educational workshops for clinicians on the treatment of adolescent substance abuse and trauma. Her counseling and psychoeducational services provide treatment for recovery from trauma and/or abuse, including dissociation; addictions; adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) issues; body image issues and eating disorders; self-harming behaviors, including emotional intensity and instability; anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; challenged family systems; chronic illness; co-dependency; dysfunctional relationships; life transitions; loss and bereavement; relationship distress; self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; and stress reduction. She is a trained trauma and addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

APA Reference
Brickel, R. (2020). Sexual Assault: What Is It? How to Empower Recovery for Survivors. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 29 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.