Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual behaviour or activity that makes the victim feel uncomfortable, frightened or threatened. It is sexual activity that the person has not consented to and refers to a broad range of sexual behaviours, including the use or threat of violence to force another person to engage in a sexual activity against their will.
Sexual assault is a serious crime. According to Australian statistics, since the age of 15 years, one in five women and one in 20 men have experienced one or more episodes of sexual violence. Other significant statistics include that 93 per cent of offenders are male and 78 per cent of sexual assault victims had some form of relationship with the offender. Around half of all sexual assaults occur in the victim’s home.
A common misconception is that sexual assault is motivated by desire. On the contrary, it is about power and violence. Men are also victims of sexual assault, but less frequently. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, a woman over her lifetime is three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a man.
Emotional impact of sexual assault
The terror, pain and humiliation suffered during a sexual assault can have dramatic short-term and long-term consequences for the victim. These impacts may have wide-ranging effects across every aspect of a victim’s life, including emotional, mental and physical health, family and social relationships, schooling, employment, career and housing.
Emotional effects may include:
- shame and embarrassment
- fear, including fear of the offender
- general fear of all men/women (the same gender as the perpetrator)
- anxiety and depression
- feelings of guilt, regret and self-blame
- low self-esteem
- broken trust in others and difficulty with sexual relationships
- post-traumatic stress responses with symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares and withdrawal from people and situations.
Hidden crime of sexual assault
Sexual assault is a vastly under-reported, under-investigated and under-convicted crime. According to the Victorian Law Reform Commission, one in six reports to police of rape, less than one in seven reports of incest or sexual penetration of a child, one in seven reports of women sexually assaulted by a current partner and just over one in six reports of sexual assault by any other male result in prosecution.
Of all those committing sexual assaults in Victoria, less than five per cent face legal punishment. Women are more likely to report the crime to police if the offender is a stranger. Women are less likely to report current husbands, de facto partners or boyfriends.
Reasons for under-reporting of sexual assault
Research shows that sexual assault is not reported to the police for a number of reasons including:
- lack of faith in police and the justice system
- the fear of not being believed
- fear of coping with the medical and legal procedures
- fear of reprisals
- not wanting family and friends to know
- humiliation and shame
- prevalent social attitudes, which blame the victim for sexual assault.
Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASAs)
Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASAs) respond to every victim and survivor with belief, respect, sensitivity and recognition of their struggle and ability to survive. CASAs provide a safe place for them to talk about their feelings in their own way and in their own time. Victims and survivors are informed of their fundamental rights to medical, legal and support options.
Victoria Police – in conjunction with CASA – has adopted guidelines for responding appropriately to people reporting sexual assault. This approach is outlined in the Victoria Police Code of Practice for Sexual Assault.
Key aspects of the code include providing victims of sexual assault with information, choice, and access to support and advocacy.
When contacting police, ask for the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT), which is staffed by experienced and qualified Victoria Police detectives specially trained to respond to and investigate sexual assault and child abuse.
In Victoria, there is no time limit on reporting sexual assault.
Physical evidence of sexual assault
If you’ve been sexually assaulted
, it is a good idea to have a health check-up, even if you decide not to report the assault to the police. You can have a check-up with your doctor or contact a CASA. This is to treat any injuries and check for sexually transmissible infections. If you do not want to speak about the assault, you can say you had unprotected sex.
If pregnancy is suspected, a woman can take the ‘morning-after pill’, which is available from pharmacists and doctors. If you decide to report the assault to police, you will be asked if you agree to a medical examination to collect forensic evidence
to help police with their case.
Physical evidence of the crime is sometimes the only undisputed fact presented in court, so it may help not to shower, change clothes, eat, drink or go to the toilet before the examination.
The examination may include:
- general examination – to look for and treat any injuries, including cuts or bruises. Photographs may be taken of the injuries, but only with your consent. Clothing may be kept for forensic testing
- for women, a pelvic examination – similar to the procedure for a pap smear
- fluid samples – swabs will be taken and sent to a laboratory.
What to do in the case of sexual assault
Someone who thinks they have been sexually assaulted recently, or in the past, can contact any of the services listed below. While the police and Centres Against Sexual Assault work cooperatively to respond to victims of sexual assault, the organisations operate separately. You can use the support services, even if you don’t want to report a sexual assault to the police.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- In an emergency, call 000 (triple zero)
- CASA’s Sexual Assault Crisis Line Tel. 1800 806 292 ( 24 hours)
- National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service (Australia) Tel. 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – free telephone counselling hotline (24 hours, 7 days), online chat www.1800respect.org.au
- Victims of Crime Helpline Tel. 1800 819 817
Things to remember
- Victims are never to blame for sexual assault.
- Sexual assault can have long-lasting effects on a person’s life.
- A common misconception is that sexual assault is motivated by desire – on the contrary, it is about power and violence.
- Most victims do not report sexual assault to the police because of fear, humiliation and shame.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.