This article will explain:
- What sexual assault is
- What ‘active’ sexual consent is
- How sexual assault can be committed by a partner, family member or friend
- What the age of consent is in Australia
- How trauma can affect survivors
- What acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are
- What to do if you have been sexually assaulted
- Why there is no ‘correct’ way to respond to sexual assault
- What your options are if you wish to take action against your perpetrator
Sexual assault is when someone forces, threatens or tricks you into doing something sexual that you don’t want to do.
If you think you have been sexually assaulted, it can be really scary and confusing to come to terms with what happened. You may feel overwhelmed, and unsure about what to do next.
This article covers what sexual assault is, how sexual assault may impact on someone’s life, what to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted, and what support services are available to sexual assault survivors and their loved ones.
The most important thing to remember is that sexual assault isn’t your fault. The only person in the wrong is the person who assaulted you. And while the journey to recovery from sexual assault can feel intimidating, you don’t have to go it alone: there are people available to help and support you.
What is sexual assault?
‘Sexual assault’ is any kind of sexual activity that you were forced, coerced or tricked into doing when you didn’t want to. It refers to a wide range of unwanted sexual behaviours, including:
- forced, unwanted sex, sexual acts or touching
- child sexual abuse: using power over a child or adolescent to involve them in sexual activity
- indecent assault: touching, or threatening to touch, someone else’s body sexually without their consent.
What is ‘active’ sexual consent?
‘Sexual consent’ is when you and your partner both actively and freely agree to do something sexual.
Consent is all about communication. ‘Active consent’ means that you and your partner give each other a clear and explicit ‘yes’ to the sexual activity you are about to be involved in. The absence of a ‘no’ isn’t enough.
Anything less than an active ‘yes’ isn’t consent. It doesn’t matter if you were wearing a short skirt, or flirting with the other person; those things don’t equal consent to sexual activity.
You and your partner should be checking in with each other during the sexual activity to make sure that you’re both comfortable with what you’re doing. That’s because you can change your mind at any point during the sexual activity and decide you don’t want to keep going, even if you’ve already started having sex. You can say things like, ‘Can we slow down?’, ‘Can we take a break?’ or ‘Can we stop?’. And if that happens, your partner must respect you and stop immediately. If they don’t, that’s sexual assault.
You also can’t give consent if you’re being pressured or forced into doing something you don’t actually want to do. And you can’t consent if you are drunk or high. If someone is sexual with you while you’re drunk or high and don’t know what’s going on, that is equivalent to sexual assault or rape.
Is it possible to be sexually assaulted by a partner, family member or friend?
Yes, sexual assault can be carried out by your partner, a family member, friend or teacher, by someone you know or by a total stranger.
It doesn’t matter if you are in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone; if the sexual activity was done without your consent, it’s sexual assault or rape. No one should ever assume that you consent to sexual activity, even if you’ve had sex with them before. Your partner must seek consent from you every time you engage in sexual activity, and must respect your boundaries.
What is the age of consent in Australia?
The age of consent is the age when the law says you can consent to having sex with another person. In this case, ‘sex’ refers to penetration. This covers when a penis, finger or object is inserted into someone’s vagina, anus or mouth. It also includes oral sex.
If you are under the age of consent, the law says you aren’t old enough to freely and actively consent. This means that if someone tries to have sex with you, they are breaking the law and could be guilty of sexual assault or rape.
The law around the age of consent is different in every Australian state and territory. To find out what the age of consent is in your state, visit Youth Law Australia and select the state or territory that you live in.
How can sexual assault impact survivors?
Sexual assault is a form of trauma
Sexual assault is a form of trauma, and your response to this trauma can show up in your life in different ways.
- Shock and denial: You might think, ‘Did this really happen to me?’ or ‘Why me?’, and feel unable to accept that it actually happened.
- Fear: You might be scared of the offender, of being alone, or of not being believed.
- Silence: You might find that you’re unable to talk about the assault, or to describe how you’re feeling, out of fear of being judged.
- Anxiety: You might feel stressed, unsafe or unable to relax.
- Depression: You might feel sad, hopeless or down, or stop enjoying the things that you used to enjoy.
- Guilt and blame: You might ask yourself, ‘Why did I go there/allow it/not fight back?’
- Low self-esteem: You might lose self-confidence and feel ‘unworthy’, ashamed or ‘dirty’.
- Isolation: You might want to be alone, and to isolate yourself from family and friends.
- Nightmares and flashbacks: You might have images and memories of the assault come back to you while you are awake or sleeping.
- Mood swings: You might find that your mood changes quickly from anger and rage, to tears and despair, and back again.
- Loss of confidence: You might worry about your ability to do your work or study, or lack confidence with friends or your partner.
- Loss of trust: You might find it hard to trust people in your social circle or family.
Anxiety and depression
You may also experience anxiety or depression as a result of sexual assault.
Anxiety might show up in different ways for different people. You might think obsessively about scary scenarios, or feel excessive fear or worry, or feel your heart beating super-fast or tightness in your chest. You might be having trouble sleeping or have difficulty thinking about anything other than what is worrying you.
An anxiety disorder occurs when anxiety starts to impact a person’s life and prevents them from engaging with friends, family, work or school.
You might feel sad, hopeless or down, or stop enjoying the things you used to enjoy. However, if you feel low on more days than not for a few weeks, you might be suffering from depression.
Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder
You might find yourself reliving the sexual assault, suffering from nightmares about it, or feeling emotionally numb about what happened. These could all be signs that you are experiencing acute stress disorder (ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Whether you are experiencing ASD or PTSD depends on how long after the traumatic event you are experiencing symptoms.
ASD symptoms often begin within a month of the traumatic event, and can last anywhere from three days to a month. PTSD may be diagnosed if you are experiencing symptoms more than a month after the traumatic event.
You can learn more by reading our article about ASD and PTSD.
It can take time to come to terms with sexual assault
It’s completely normal for it to take weeks, months or even years to recognise that a past experience was sexual assault. Confronting trauma can be very difficult. You may feel unable to accept what actually happened, or want to distance or distract yourself from the experience. You may feel better denying the fact that what happened to you was sexual assault because it’s too awful or scary to think about. Or you may have only just realised that what happened to you was sexual assault.
These are all very common responses to sexual assault. If this is your experience, you are not alone. For information and help, read our article about what to do if you think a past experience was sexual assault.
What should I do if I’ve been sexually assaulted or abused?
Make sure that you are safe
If the sexual assault was recent, you may need to take steps straight away to ensure you are safe and far away from your abuser. The best thing you can do is call someone for help.
You may need to call 000 and ask for the police, or for an ambulance if you are injured. The people who work for the emergency services are specially trained to help sexual assault survivors and will be able to get you to a safe place.
Talk to friends or family
You could start by talking to a trusted friend, family member or colleague. If you are finding it hard to work up the courage to start the conversation, check out our article on talking to someone you trust for some tips.
If you are a friend of someone who has been sexually assaulted, here are six tips on how to support them.
Call a helpline
You can always call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), a confidential 24-hour helpline for people who have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence. They have trained professionals who can talk to you about how you are feeling, and help you work out what you want to do next.
You can also contact Lifeline (13 11 14) for mental health support.
Click here for a full list of national, state and territory helplines that you can contact if you have been sexually assaulted.
See a GP/professional support
If you think you have been sexually assaulted and need help or support, you can always speak with your GP or visit a hospital. If you were sexually assaulted recently, they can talk it through with you and provide you with medical support, such as emergency contraception, or carry out tests for sexually transmitted diseases. You could also chat with a trained mental health professional, such as a counsellor or youth worker.
Having a rape kit performed
GPs and hospitals can also perform a rape kit for you. This is where they do a forensic exam of your clothes and body and try to take samples of DNA, such as your perpetrator’s hair, saliva or semen. These samples can be used by police later as evidence of your sexual assault. A rape kit should be performed as soon after the sexual assault as possible. But, it’s really important to know that, just because you have a rape kit performed, it doesn’t mean you have to report your sexual assault to the police or take legal action against your perpetrator.
Visit a sexual assault service
There are free sexual assault services or clinics in most towns. They have trained health-care professionals and sexual assault counsellors who can answer all your questions, address any concerns you might have, and talk you through some options about what to do next.
Read our article containing a list of sexual assault services in each state to find help near you.
It’s important to know that visiting a sexual assault service doesn’t mean you have to take any kind of action. It doesn’t mean you have to see a doctor, or undergo any kind of examination (such as a pregnancy test), or have a rape kit performed.
Instead, you will probably be given the choice of meeting with a counsellor, or a doctor or a nurse, if you would like to.
Depending on your age, the sexual assault service may be required by law to report the sexual assault to other people, such as the police or child protection services. But this shouldn’t scare you off from visiting a sexual assault service. These steps are in place simply to help protect you and make sure you stay as safe as possible.
Remember: there is no ‘correct’ way to respond to sexual assault
It’s very important to remember that there is no ‘right’ way to respond to sexual assault. Every survivor’s recovery from sexual assault will look different.
Sexual assault is something that happens to you without your consent; it takes away your decision-making power. This is why it’s so important that, even if you seek help or guidance from other people, you choose what happens next.
You may be feeling pressure from friends or family, or even from society generally, to respond in a certain way. But you should always trust your own instincts and never do anything that you don’t want to do.
Taking action against your perpetrator
If you have been sexually assaulted, it’s normal to want your perpetrator to face justice for what they did to you. You may also want to stop them from being able to harm others.
For more advice, read our article on how to take action against your perpetrator.
What can I do now?
- Read more about what sexual assault is and where you can find support.
- If you've recently realised that a past experience was sexual assault, click here.
- Check out the ReachOut online community to chat about what you are going through or to read about other people’s experiences.