What to do if you've realised a past experience was sexual assault

a young woman at a party with her hands in her lap

This article will explain:

  • What sexual assault is

  • Why it can take weeks, months or even years to recognise that a past experience was sexual assault

  • What you can do if you have been sexually assaulted

  • Different people you could talk to for support

It can be really upsetting and confusing to realise that you’ve been sexually assaulted. You might feel anxious, overwhelmed, angry, or unsure of what to do next. You might even blame yourself for not recognising sooner that what happened to you was sexual assault.

But it’s important to remember that recovering from sexual assault is a journey, and that everyone’s journey will look totally different. There is no set timeline for coming to terms with sexual assault and no set schedule for healing.

Defining sexual assault

‘Sexual assault’ is any kind of sexual activity that you were forced, coerced or tricked into participating in when you didn’t want to. Click here for more information about what sexual assault is.

Sexual assault can be carried out by a romantic partner, by someone you know or by a total stranger.

The most important thing to remember is that sexual assault isn’t your fault. It’s something that happened TO you.

It doesn’t matter how you are dressed, whether you are drinking, or if you are flirting with the other person. It’s never okay for someone to do something to you without your active and enthusiastic consent. Click here for more information about what constitutes sexual consent.

If you are unsure about whether you’ve been sexually assaulted, it can be really helpful to contact a sexual assault service. They have specially trained people who can help you understand what happened to you and figure out what to do next.

Why can it take time to realise that something was sexual assault?

It’s completely normal for it to take weeks, months or even years to recognise that a past experience was sexual assault. This can be for a number of reasons.

Sexual assault is a form of trauma, and confronting that trauma can be really tough. What’s most important is to remember that these kinds of responses are very normal, and that there is nothing wrong with feeling this way. Everyone’s response to trauma can look totally different.

It can be hard to accept what happened

You may feel unable to accept what actually happened, or want to distance or distract yourself from the experience. You might deny that what happened to you was sexual assault because it’s too awful or scary to think about.

If the perpetrator was a friend or loved one, it can also be hard to come to terms with the fact that someone you trusted would hurt you in this way.

You may have only just remembered what happened

It may have taken a while to piece together exactly what happened during the assault. Psychologists have found that trauma can impact the brain’s ability to remember or process events. This makes it easier to ‘bury’ painful memories, or to pretend that the situation never occurred.

Another reason why it can be hard to remember is if the assault happened while you were unconscious or intoxicated. Perpetrators sometimes take advantage of people who are unable to consent. If this was done to you, it was wrong and wasn’t your fault.

You didn’t know what sexual assault looked like

Or you may not have known when this happened to you what sexual assault was. You may have felt really uncomfortable, or angry or upset, but didn’t know to call the experience ‘sexual assault’ until now. Sometimes, misconceptions about sexual assault can cause people not to realise that this is what happened to them. For example, many people don’t realise that they can be sexually assaulted by their romantic partner.

What can you do if you think you have been sexually assaulted?

Sexual assault isn’t something that you have to deal with on your own. If you think you may have been sexually assaulted, one of the best things you can do is talk to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member.

If you talk with someone, you can choose how much you want to share. You may not want to talk about all the details of what happened but would still like to talk about how you are feeling now. That’s okay: some people may want to share their story with others, and others won’t.

You could talk to:

Friends or family

You could start by talking to a trusted friend, colleague or family member. If you’re having difficulty working 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.


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 to work out what you want to do next.

GPs/Professional support

If you think you have been sexually assaulted and need help or support, you can always go and 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 and STD tests. You could also chat with a trained mental health professional, such as a counsellor or youth worker.

Sexual assault service

There are also free sexual assault services or clinics in most towns. You can find links to state-specific sexual assault services in this article. Trained professionals will just talk you through all of your options and you will probably be given the choice of meeting with a counsellor, doctor or 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 just in place to help protect you and make sure you stay as safe as possible.

Online resources, such as RO’s online community

Another option is to speak with other people who have gone through similar experiences to you in the ReachOut Online Community. This is a safe and anonymous space where you can read what others are saying about similar situations, ask questions and share what you’re going through.


You can also report the sexual assault to the police. They will take a statement from you about your experience, which means you will need to talk about the sexual assault in as much detail as possible. This process can take a few hours, and it can be helpful to take a support person to the police station to be there with you.

For more information about reporting a sexual assault to police, read our article about ways to take action against your perpetrator.

What can I do now?

  • Read more about sexual assault.

  • Check out the ReachOut online community to chat about what you are going through or read about other people’s experiences.


Sexual assault