Sexual violence affects women across all age groups, and from all cultural, racial and economic backgrounds, including women with disabilities, lesbians and transgender women.
Sexual assault is more widespread than many people realise. The consequences of sexual violence primarily affect victims and survivors, but may also have detrimental effects on their family and friends, as well as the wider community.
On this page:
- What is sexual assault?
- Misconceptions about sexual assault
- The health impacts of sexual assault
- What to do if you are sexually assaulted
- How to help someone who has been sexually assaulted
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault refers to criminal acts like rape and indecent assault, but it also includes any sexual or sexualised behaviour that makes a person feel uncomfortable, intimidated, threatened or frightened. It is sexual behaviour that someone has not agreed to, where another person uses physical or emotional force, or the threat of physical or emotional force, against them.
We use the terms ‘sexual assault’ and ‘sexual violence’ here as they cover many forms of unwanted and frightening sexual behaviour experienced by women. We use ‘child sexual abuse’ to describe adult women’s experience of sexual assault through childhood and adolescence.
Sexual assault includes:
- rape – forced vaginal, anal or oral sex
- child sexual abuse
- sexual violence from intimate partners
- unwanted physical contact – touching, pinching, rubbing, groping, kissing, fondling
- sexual harassment – dirty jokes, explicit comments, invasive questions about sex
- stalking – repeatedly following or watching someone
- voyeurism – watching someone doing intimate things without permission
- sex-related insults – for example, ‘slut’, ‘dyke’, ‘homo’, ‘slag’
- invitations for dates that turn into threats, demands for sex or not taking ‘no’ for an answer
- indecent exposure – exposing or flashing genitals
- forcing someone to watch or participate in pornography – explicit photos, videos or movies of sexual acts
- offensive written or graphic material – dirty jokes, letters, phone messages, pictures
- having sex with someone who is severely affected by drugs or alcohol, spiking drinks with alcohol or drugs
- unwanted explicit and offensive communication by word, graphic image or social media.
Many forms of sexual assault are criminal offences. Sexual violence is never the fault of the victim/survivor.
Misconceptions about sexual assault
There are many common misconceptions about sexual violence. Such misconceptions can interfere with women receiving appropriate support when they talk about experiences of sexual assault.
Misconceptions can support sexual violence by suggesting that women provoke men or give them permission to commit sexual violence by:
- wearing particular clothing
- being in certain places
- being by themselves
- being drunk or drug affected.
These misconceptions can make it difficult for a woman to recognise that she has experienced sexual assault. They might make her reluctant to talk about her experience or to seek help because she feels ashamed or embarrassed.
The health impacts of sexual assault
Intimidating and/or unwanted sexual behaviour from another person can have wide-ranging harmful effects on a woman’s health – emotional, psychological, mental, physical, spiritual, gynaecological and reproductive.
The negative impact on women’s health and wellbeing can be made worse if they are not believed or if they are blamed when they first speak about being sexually assaulted. This impact many be more severe the longer the time between the sexual assault and receiving appropriate care and support.
The consequences of previous child sexual abuse for women may be wide ranging, long term and complex. Sexual assault has the potential to profoundly disrupt a child’s world and the patterns and pathways of their unfolding life.
Sexual violence may traumatise and profoundly violate every aspect of a woman’s being. It can affect her emotional and physical health, her sense of self, her relationship with her body, and her sense of safety everywhere, including in intimate relationships and in health-care settings.
What to do if you are sexually assaulted
If you are in immediate danger ring:
- 000 (police);
If you need support, and live in Victoria, call:
- Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) 1800 806 292
If you need support and live outside Victoria, call:
- the National Sexual Assault and Family Violence Service on
1800 7377 328 to find your closest crisis support service.
How to help someone who has been sexually assaulted
If you are the friend, relative or service provider of a victim or survivor of sexual assault seeking support, keep these principles in mind:
- listen to her and believe her story of violence and abuse
- take what she says seriously without trying to tell her what to do
- let her speak for herself
- normalise her responses to the trauma of sexual violence
- validate her feelings and individual reactions to the experience
- explore with her what she would like to happen now
- respect her decision.
Victim/survivors report that a sense of emotional and physical safety is fundamental to disclosure and recovery. Take the time to learn about what safety means to each woman and how to assist her in creating a sense of safety.
The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.