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People who experience sexual assault—often called “survivors”—have many options for going forward. Survivors find support from many sources, including informal resources, such as family and friends, as well as professional resources, like crisis centers, health care providers, law enforcement officers, and school officials. All these options offer different services and work in different ways. These options aren’t mutually exclusive, and there is no one “right” course of action.

Our purpose here is to give you an overview of the professional support services available to you. There’s a lot of information in this article, but the most important message is very simple: There are many people who can help survivors find support and take action. If you (or a friend) have any questions or need a safe person to talk to, a sexual assault response center is a great place to start. Find one near you on the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) website.

While this article focuses on sexual assault, there are also resources available for students who have experienced sexual harassment, stalking, or intimate partner violence (also known as dating violence or domestic violence), and for those who aren’t sure how to categorize their experiences.

Sexual assault response centers

In many communities, professionals at sexual assault response centers (sometimes called “rape crisis centers” or “victim advocates”) can help survivors explore their options, connect them with further resources, and provide support.

Services may include:

  • Counseling, both in times of crisis (e.g., through a hotline or at a walk-in center) and ongoing support.
  • Help deciding on immediate steps, such as whether to report to the police or school staff, and connecting to health care.
  • Assistance with disciplinary and legal processes, such as explaining survivors’ rights in schools and courts.
  • Support groups, education, and sometimes, political action.
  • Medical advocates who can accompany survivors to medical appointments and help coordinate follow-up care.

Privacy and confidentiality

  • Most hotlines, including the RAINN national hotline, are confidential and can be anonymous.
  • Victim advocates are not usually required to report assaults to the police unless the victim is under 18, although policies may vary by state. Staff can explain their confidentiality policies and help survivors make choices about what information they want to share.
  • Like any mental health professionals, victim advocates may share information with authorities if they believe that a client is at risk of being harmed.

Immediate steps

Advocates can help in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault. They can provide a safe place to talk, safety planning, and connections to medical care. They can help explain options for reporting a sexual assault.

Next steps

Advocates can be very helpful in the long term. Many offer counseling, support groups, case management, and support during disciplinary and legal processes. They can also provide referrals to sources of ongoing support, such as community mental health centers or faith-based services.

  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center maintains a list of local community advocacy resources.
  • Anyone can contact an advocate, even if they haven’t personally experienced sexual assault. You can call a hotline for advice on supporting a friend or loved one, or if you have questions about sexual assault.
  • Advocates work with a broad range of experiences. Sometimes people contact advocates about experiences that happened years before, to process a friend’s struggles, or even to discuss upsetting events on the news.

School officials

When students experience sexual assault, school officials can help them. Survivors can reach out to any member of school staff, but school counselors, school social workers, and school nurses are trained to respond to students in crisis. School officials can help connect students to ongoing support, arrange for academic accommodations, and explain disciplinary options.

Privacy and confidentiality

classified folder

  • Students can ask school staff about the ways that they maintain students’ privacy. In many cases, school counselors and school nurses will need to take action if a student reports a sexual assault. They will, however, strive to respect a student’s privacy and maintain as much confidentiality as possible. As policies vary by state, it can be helpful for survivors to ask up front about confidentiality.

Immediate steps

  • School staff, such as school counselors, can explain resources available at the school and connect students to other resources, such as medical care and/or the police.
  • School staff can help arrange safety measures and academic accommodations.

Next steps

  • School staff, such as school counselors, can help connect students to ongoing support, such as mental health counseling or support groups.

Time frame

Students can contact school staff at any time. School counselors can provide support immediately after a sexual assault but can also help students process experiences that happened a long time ago.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology vary by state and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

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Title IX Coordinators

Under Title IX, a federal law, all educational institutions that receive federal funding (this means the vast majority of public schools and charter schools, as well as many private schools) are required to have Title IX coordinators. Title IX coordinators are responsible for ensuring that educational institutions are free from gender-based discrimination and sexual misconduct, including sexual assault. They are responsible for helping schools prevent and respond to these problems. The Title IX coordinator often has another job as well—sometimes superintendents, principals, or other leaders are also the school’s Title IX coordinator.

Generally, survivors start by reporting a sexual assault to someone they know at school, such as a school counselor, nurse, or trusted teacher. Typically, if school staff hear about a sexual assault, they need to report it to the Title IX coordinator. This is how a Title IX coordinator keeps track of problems in the school or district so they can make a plan to respond.

Students can also contact Title IX coordinators directly. Title IX coordinators can explain school or district policies on sexual assault and can explain available disciplinary procedures. They can also help ensure that a sexual assault doesn’t hinder a student’s educational process by arranging academic accommodations. You can usually find your district’s Title IX coordinator on the school district website or by asking the principal.

  • Working with Title IX coordinators and school staff can help address a wide range of situations, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking. In many cases, they can also provide support for incidents that happened outside of school if students were involved.
  • A school’s Title IX or disciplinary process is completely separate from a law enforcement investigation. Survivors don’t have to choose one process or the other; they can always do both.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology vary by state and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

Medical professionals

Medical professionals can provide support after a sexual assault. Some nurses have specialized training to provide services in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault. They are often called SANEs (sexual assault nurse examiners) but can go by other names, such as forensic nurse examiners.

clip board with stethoscopeSANEs can explain medical options and conduct forensic exams (a medical exam to collect and preserve evidence of a sexual assault). They provide any other needed medical care, such as preventative treatment for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. In some cases, SANEs testify as a witness if a criminal case goes to trial. Not all hospitals have SANEs on call, so sometimes emergency room nurses and/or doctors complete the exam.

Privacy and confidentiality

  • Forensic nurse examiners may need to report the assault to police if the survivor is under 18, although laws vary by state
  • Like any medical professionals, forensic nurse examiners may share information with authorities if they believe that a patient is at risk of being harmed.

Immediate steps

A specially trained medical professional may complete a forensic evidence exam, commonly called a “rape kit.” The process can include:

  • A full-body physical examination and collection of medical history.
  • Collection of blood, urine, hair, semen, and other body secretion samples.
  • Collection of the survivor’s clothes.
  • Photos to document any injuries.

Find a detailed description of the process here.

Next steps

Medical professionals can give survivors referrals to counseling, follow-up medical care, and other resources. Rape kits are turned over to local police as evidence. Medical professionals should inform survivors of how long the rape kit will be stored, as this varies by state.

Time frame

Survivors can seek medical care at any time. The sooner survivors seek care, the greater the likelihood of preventing sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. The guidelines for collecting forensic evidence vary by state, but state authorities typically recommend collecting evidence within three days (72 hours).  

  • If possible, survivors should avoid any activities that might disrupt evidence, such as showering, brushing hair, or changing clothes.
  • Survivors can refuse any part of the exam, although this may impact what evidence is collected.
  • Survivors can bring a friend, family member, or victim advocate to the exam if they wish.
  • Exams must be free or fully reimbursed by health insurance companies, whether or not survivors decide to report the assault to the police. Other hospital costs, such as X-rays or lab tests, might be charged to survivors or health insurance companies.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology vary by state and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

Police

The police can explain a survivor’s legal options, investigate the incident, and potentially prosecute the perpetrator. In some cases, survivors can work with a sensitive crimes officer, who is specially trained to handle sexual assault.

Privacy and confidentiality

  • Confidentiality laws vary by state. Law enforcement officers can explain these laws to survivors.
  • If charges are pressed, survivors should discuss privacy and disclosure concerns with the prosecutor and/or legal counsel.

Time frame

Some states have statutes of limitation (time limits for starting legal proceedings). In general, it’s easier to report earlier. Sexual assault response centers can help answer questions about reporting to the police.

Immediate steps

The police interview the survivor about what happened. They can help the survivor connect with a health care provider for a medical examination and the collection of physical evidence.

Next steps

Police can help survivors make a safety plan, such as requesting a restraining order.

Survivors can decide to what extent they participate in the investigation and what information to share. In most states, the police or district attorney decides whether to press charges. While survivor wishes are considered, the choice ultimately rests with the police or the district attorney. After an investigation, the case may be dropped, there may be a plea bargain, or the case may be decided in court. Survivors are usually called to testify in court; the police or a victim advocate can explain how court processes work.

  • Survivors are not required to report a sexual assault to the police.
  • Survivors can bring a friend, family member, or victim advocate with them.

Laws, policies, processes, resources, and terminology vary by state and institution. This content might not be accurate in every situation. Always ask.

Ultimately, the support a person chooses to get after an incident of sexual assault or harassment is completely up to them. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault or harassment, it can be very helpful to talk to someone. RAINN offers free, confidential support via live chat or their 24/7 hotline: 1-800-656-4673.

Learn more about sexual assault prevention, support, and consent here.

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Article sources

Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. (2019). Confidentiality and privacy. Retrieved from https://barcc.org/help/confidentiality

Break the Cycle. (2014). Reporting sexual assault to the police. Retrieved from https://www.breakthecycle.org/blog/reporting-sexual-assault-police

Brown University: Title IX and Gender Equity. (2019). I am a responsible employee. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/title-ix/get-help/i-am-responsible-employee

Forensics for Survivors. (2015). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.surviverape.org/forensics/sexual-assault-forensics/answers-to-faq

Harvard University. (2019). Title IX coordinators. Retrieved from https://titleix.harvard.edu/links/title-ix-coordinators

Michigan Tech Title IX. (2019). Responsible employees/mandated reporting. Retrieved from https://www.mtu.edu/title-ix/policy/responsible-employees/

National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2018). Find help. Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/find-help

Northeastern University Office for University Equity and Compliance. (2019). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from https://www.northeastern.edu/ouec/frequently-asked-questions/

RAINN. (2019a). Reporting to law enforcement. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/articles/reporting-law-enforcement

RAINN. (2019b). What is a rape kit? Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/articles/rape-kit

RAINN. (2019c). Aftermath: Working with the criminal justice system. Retrieved from https://rainn.org/get-info/legal-information/working-with-the-criminal-justice-system

United States, Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2017, September). Q&A on campus sexual misconduct. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-title-ix-201709.pdf

University of Washington. (2019). Making a report to police. Retrieved from https://www.washington.edu/sexualassault/reporting/police/

Yale University Office of the Provost. (2019). When to contact a coordinator. Retrieved from https://provost.yale.edu/title-ix/when-to-contact