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You have the right to an education free from sexual assault.
First, know that this question is normal. Despite popular belief, most sexual assaults occur between people who know of each other.
Second, while state laws vary, the short answer is that rape occurs if you do not consent to ANY part of a sexual act. You cannot consent to sexual activity if you are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, or if you are under the age of consent in your state. (However, a perpetrator can still perpetrate if they are under the influence.) Your consent can be withdrawn at any time, meaning that you can consent to certain sex acts (like kissing, undressing, or touching) but not consent to others (fondling, penetration).
Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in any form of sexual activity. It goes further. According to the Consent Awareness Network, consent must be a freely given, knowledgeable, and informed agreement without force, fear, or fraud. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Individuals who are under the age of consent, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or unconscious cannot legally give consent. Further, the absence of a “no” does not equal a “yes,” and consent by someone’s body language or their dress or state of dress cannot be taken as consent.
Consent should be a continuous dialogue between participants to ensure their experience is positive and safe.
Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when someone is pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way. A partner using coercion can make you think you owe sex to them. Common scenarios include someone who wears their partner down by repeatedly asking for sex, who lies to their partner to trick them into having sex, or who threatens to end a relationship or spread rumors if their partner doesn’t have sex with them. Another common scenario of coercion is when an authority figure (like an older student, relative, friend, teacher, coach, counselor, boss, or professor) takes advantage of a power imbalance or uses their authority to pressure someone into having sex.
Because there is so little public knowledge about sexual coercion, many women who have been sexually coerced are not aware that what happened to them qualifies as sexual assault and may instead blame themselves for their trauma. If you have said “yes” when you didn’t want to, know that you may have been sexually coerced and that what happened is considered an assault. You are not at fault.
There is no correct response to being sexually assaulted. In fact, our bodies are wired to respond to trauma in ways we may not expect. Learning more about the body’s response to stress may help you process what happened.
You should absolutely seek support from someone you can count on, those closest to you, and at least one adult that you trust. You should understand that some people (like teachers, school administrators, doctors, and nurses) may be required to report what you tell them to the police. If you don’t know if the person you want to talk to is a “mandatory reporter,” ask them. You can also contact RAINN or your local rape crisis center and talk through your options with a victim advocate, who will not report to law enforcement unless you identify yourself and ask them to help you.
Even if you are unsure whether you want to report what happened to you to the police, you should consider requesting a sexual assault forensic examination as soon as possible. Every state allows you to get the exam as a “Jane Doe,” meaning that the hospital will preserve any evidence and/or findings from the exam under an anonymous number. If you never decide to report to the police, the evidence will be destroyed. If you decide to report, you will receive a code to access your evidence and provide it to law enforcement.
If you decide to receive an examination, it is important to make sure you are going to the right kind of hospital to meet your needs, as only certain hospitals are equipped to care for sexual assault survivors. Be sure to call 911 and tell the operator you were sexually assaulted and that you want to be transported to the nearest emergency room that performs sexual assault or rape exams. Federal law requires emergency personnel to offer to transport a victim of sexual assault to the nearest hospital capable of performing a sexual assault forensic exam regardless of where the sexual assault occurred. So if you were raped in New York and you decide to go home to New Jersey before calling the police, the New Jersey police will take you to a New Jersey hospital. Any hospital you go to will examine and treat you for injuries and give you antibiotics for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you are concerned about becoming pregnant, you may be offered emergency contraception depending on the state in which you live.
The sooner you get a forensic exam after the assault, the better, because important evidence (like blood alcohol level, bruising, and swelling) can go away in a matter of minutes. To preserve as much evidence as possible, it is best not to shower, change clothes or even use the bathroom before going for the exam. In most states, you must get a forensic exam within 72 hours of the assault. If you are not eligible for a forensic exam, you can still report the assault to law enforcement.
Getting a forensic exam DOES NOT mean you have to report the assault to the police. Federal law requires the hospital to offer you the option of a “JANE DOE” exam in which your name or identity is withheld. The hospital will give you an identification number you can use to retrieve the results of your exam and any collected evidence. Most places will hold the exam and evidence for up to 60 days to allow you to consider whether to report to law enforcement.
Once you are at the hospital, you will be asked to decide if you want a sexual assault forensic exam. It is your choice whether to get a forensic exam and nothing will be done to you without your permission. You have the right to refuse any aspect of the forensic exam once it starts. The exam is conducted by a trained forensic nurse examiner under the supervision of a doctor. The examiner closely follows an evidence collection checklist that requires the collection of hair samples, bodily fluids and an in-depth internal vaginal and/or anal examination for any evidence of injury. The examiner may also ask to take photographs. If you are uncomfortable with any part of the exam, you can ask the examiner to tell you why that portion of the exam is necessary and you can decide whether you want to allow it. The evidence from the exam may be used later in court but the presence or absence of evidence does not prove whether you were sexually assaulted. What happened to you was real and is not something that needs to be proved, justified, or explained.
Deciding whether to report an assault is a hard decision each survivor has to face based on their own circumstances. If there is any chance you might want to report, it is best to get a forensic exam as soon as possible. Once you have preserved the evidence, you can talk through whether reporting is a good idea for you with a sexual assault advocate. The advocate can also help make sure you only need to tell your story once: to the right person. You should know that once you make the police report, the decision on whether the perpetrator is prosecuted is out of your hands: police and prosecutors will decide whether criminal charges are brought.
Generally, the sooner you make a police report, the better. Until you decide whether you want to report to law enforcement, you should avoid deleting any texts, voicemails or other evidence that could be used to help support your case. You should preserve (don’t discard, wash, or alter) any clothing, sheets or other items that the perpetrator touched or came into contact with.
The exact process for police interviews varies widely from municipality to municipality. In just about every jurisdiction, however, there is a specialized police unit dedicated to handling sexual assaults. When you express you wish to report an assault, you will be assigned to a detective who has some training in interviewing sexual assault survivors. The best jurisdictions have trained forensic interviewers who are instructed on techniques for conducting interviews in a way that does not re-traumatize survivors. Other jurisdictions treat the interview more like an interrogation. Unfortunately, no matter where you go, telling your story to the police will not be easy and you should get as much support as you can if you decide to make a report. Here are other tips to keep in mind.
Police will conduct an investigation and will present evidence to the prosecutor, a lawyer who works for the state. The prosecutor will decide whether there is enough evidence to issue criminal charges against the perpetrator. While you have the right to be updated on the investigation and to talk to the prosecutor about his or her decision to issue charges or not, the prosecutor makes the final decision about whether charges will be brought. Unfortunately, most sexual assaults are never prosecuted. There are a variety of reasons for this that have nothing to do with you or your case. Know that what happened to you was real and that you are not to blame.
Unfortunately, victims cannot “appeal” a prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute. Many national organizations such as I Have The Right To, RAINN, Human Rights Watch and others are advocating for more aggressive prosecution of sexual assault and we can help advise you on ways to advocate for prosecution in your case.
If a criminal case against your perpetrator does not move forward, you have the right to file a civil suit against the perpetrator and against any person or organization that enabled, facilitated and or failed to protect you from the assault itself. Contact us to learn more; we are happy to serve as an initial resource about this process.
If you were assaulted in a school that receives federal funds (most schools do), you also have the right to file a Title IX complaint with your school. This may result in disciplinary action against the perpetrator and may allow you to get academic and other types of accommodations to help you cope with the assault. We encourage you to ask your school for the accommodations you need to feel safe at school. It is worth noting that a school does not have to wait for a criminal investigation to take action.
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