What is sexual assault?

‘Sexual assault’ is when you are forced, coerced or tricked into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence, and covers a wide range of unwanted sexual behaviours that can involve strangers or people you know. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, remember it’s not your fault and it’s never okay for someone to force you to do something you are uncomfortable with.

You might experience a range of emotions and it’s important to know there are support services that can help you to move forward. If you are questioning whether you’ve been sexually assaulted, trust your instinct and speak to a professional who can help, such as the non-judgmental sexual assault counsellors at 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

What is sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse, also known as sexual assault, is any unwanted sexual behaviour that makes a person feel uncomfortable, threatened or scared. It covers:

  • Forced, unwanted sex or sexual acts.

  • Child sexual abuse: using power over a child to involve that child in sexual activity.

  • Indecent assault.

Sexual assault is never your fault

Sexual assault is something that has happened to you, it’s not a result of who you are or something you did, like being drunk or dressing a certain way. Someone has chosen to behave badly toward you and to exert power and control over you. That is never your fault.

Sexual assault is a form of trauma

Sexual assault is a form of trauma, and your response to trauma can show up in different ways. You may have memory flashbacks, which can take you physically back to that time and result in panic attacks. PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) can also be an outcome of sexual assault, and may include nightmares or intrusive thoughts and memories.

How sexual assault might affect you

Everyone reacts differently to sexual assault. All of the following responses are normal:

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 experience fear 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 what it feels like to have been assaulted, out of fear of being judged.

Anxiety: You might feel 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 sexual assault intrude on your daily life and sleep.

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.

PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder): You might experience a particular set of reactions such as reliving the traumatic event with intrusive thoughts or memories, or feeling emotionally numb.

Flashbacks/memories: You might experience flashbacks or memories of the assault.

What to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s not something you have to live with on your own. Here are some things you can do straight away:

Ensure that you’re safe

If you’re in immediate danger, or you’re worried about your safety, contact emergency services on 000 immediately and try to get to somewhere safe.

Talk to someone

This can be tough, but is really important for your support and recovery. Find someone you can talk to, such as a friend or family member, or a professional like a GP, counsellor or youth worker. Contact an organisation in your state or territory that can give you relevant information on seeking help. Check out 5 tips for talking to someone you trust for more info.

You could also chat with a peer worker using ReachOut PeerChat. Book a free, text-based session with PeerChat here.

Get confidential help

Call the confidential 24-hour 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) line to talk with experienced counsellors. Have a look at sexual assault support services listed here for more information.

Get medical help

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, it's highly recommended that you seek medical support. If you decide to, try to get to a hospital or health centre where they can give you appropriate medical care.

Consider contacting the police

You might find it hard to decide whether or not to report the sexual assault to the police. The most important thing is that you make the right decision for you. If you do decide to make a formal report, it’s helpful to know that procedures have been put in place to support you and reduce distress. It can help to take a support person to the police station so you don’t need to be on your own. You can also write down as much as you can remember about the sexual assault to help reduce stress at the time of reporting.

Trust yourself

If someone has assaulted you, you may not feel confident about what to do next. Trust your instincts. Remember that it’s never okay for someone to assault you for any reason.

Remember, there is no 'correct' way to respond to sexual assault.

Know your legal rights

The laws relating to sexual assault vary from state to state. To find out about your rights, check out the Lawstuff website. You can also find legal support from a sexual abuse lawyer who works specifically on cases related to sexual assault and harassment.

What can I do now?

  • Consider talking about the sexual assault to someone you trust.

  • See our article about sexual assault support services.


Sexual assault