Surviving and Healing After Rape

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 5 women in the U.S. has experienced rape at some point in their lives, and 1 in 38 men has experienced completed or attempted rape. Accurate sexual assault statistics are hard to come by but, no matter which reports you're reading, the number is too high.

A woman somberly sitting in her bedroom
Cavan Images / Getty Images

If you have been assaulted, it can feel as if there's no coming back from the experience. And in truth, for many, it can color the rest of their lives. But there are steps you can take immediately following a sexual assault to get the care you need, find justice, and continue living your life as a whole human being.

What to Do If You Have Been Raped

Starting from the very beginning, your first instinct might be to take a shower or bath to wash away what has happened to you. This urge is understandable. However, doing this may wash away physical evidence that could be used for prosecution. It is extremely important that before washing yourself or changing, you see a medical professional as soon as possible. Call a friend, family member, or rape crisis counselor to accompany you to the hospital if you don't feel comfortable going alone. It's always OK to ask for help.

What Happens During the Hospital Exam?

When you arrive at the hospital, a doctor will look for signs of trauma and collect evidence in the event you decide to file criminal or civil charges. While you can refuse to be examined for evidence, many hospitals have special programs to assure that rape victims receive the support and information necessary to make the best decisions regarding the health services they accept.

The examination also includes a verbal history of rape or sexual assault. You may find it difficult to recount the event, but these details can provide important information about physical injuries that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

A pelvic exam will also be done to identify the presence of semen, as well as any injury, though it is possible for no semen to be present after a rape. Your pubic hair will be combed to look for the presence of your assailant's pubic hair. The physical evidence collected during this exam will be made available to the police only with your written permission. Pictures of your injuries will also be taken for use as evidence. 

It's a good idea for you and a friend or counselor to examine the record of your rape exam within 24 hours to ensure its accuracy.

What Healthcare Services Will Be Provided to Me?

Emergency contraception may be an option, depending upon your state's Emergency Room laws if you feel that pregnancy is possible as a result of your rape.  An antibiotic can also be given by injection to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs); this will be followed by a dose of oral antibiotics. You do not have to accept the treatment but, if you're relying on symptoms to help you make your decision, be aware that some STIs may not show up for several weeks. The CDC recommends that victims of sexual assault be reevaluated for STIs and HIV two, six, 12, and 24 weeks after a rape.

How Can You Help When Someone You Know Has Been Raped?

If you know someone who has been raped, understand that victims experience a broad range of powerful emotions as a result of this experience. There are a number of things you can do to support a friend or family member who has been raped:

  • Simply allow them to express their feelings; listen to them and validate what they are saying 
  • Help them make changes to their environment that make them feel safer
  • Remind them that the rape was not their fault 
  • Advocate for them when they need your help facing the medical and legal systems
  • Let them know you believe in them, and that you know that they have the strength and courage to heal and survive

The Key to Being a Rape Survivor

Survivors of rape often experience changes in their overall health. Sleep disorders such as insomnia or eating disorders often occur following rape or sexual assault. Some women and men experience nightmares and flashbacks. Others encounter body aches, headaches, and fatigue.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common in those who have experienced rape or sexual assault. Those who have experienced rape sometimes have anxiety, depression, self-injury, and/or suicide attempts, as well as other emotional disorders. Rape survivors sometimes try to cope with their feelings by indulging in alcohol or drugs.

People who have been raped often face an enormous uphill emotional battle to regain self-respect, self-esteem, self-assurance, and self-control. It is a battle that can be won with the help of caring and supportive friends, family, counselors, and physicians.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) provides a toll-free 24-hour hotline for victims of sexual assault at 1-800-656-HOPE as well as an online chat hotline. RAINN also maintains a searchable database of rape crisis centers designed to help you find counseling in your area.

There is hope—but you must take the first step and ask for it.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual violence is preventable.

  2. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexual assault and abuse and STDs.

  4. Planned Parenthood. Sexual assault, abuse, and rape.

  5. Department of Defense Safe Helpline. Effects of sexual assault.

  6. Javidi H, Yadollahie M. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Int J Occup Environ Med. 2012 Jan;3(1):2-9.

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.