Dealing with recent sexual assault – Medical matters
I didn’t know what to do. I just felt numb. I couldn’t get my head around it and didn’t want to. I suppose on one level I knew I needed help but that didn’t make it any easier.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone. It happens when someone ignores the wishes or takes advantage of someone else. Nobody ever deserves to be sexually assaulted.
Sexual assault can happen to a man however big or strong he is, old or young, no matter how able he is to defend himself or trained he is in fighting, no matter whether he identifies as straight, gay, bi or fluid sexuality. Recent Australian research suggests that more men are sexually assaulted after they are fifteen than before (Personal Safety Survey 2005).
What to do
If you have recently been sexually assaulted or if you are unsure whether you have been sexually assaulted due to blacking out or being disoriented through drink or drugs, it is important that you:
- find a safe place as soon as possible
- access support – from someone who can provide you with practical assistance (consider calling the sexual assault helpline 1800 010 120 for phone support and information about where to obtain further assistance in your local area)
- obtain medical assistance
You have a choice as to what happens from now on. Services are available that can help you.
Below are some reasons why even if you are unsure what to do next it is helpful to access medical support.
- A medical examination will determine whether you have been injured. Often after a sexual assault you may be in a state of shock and not conscious of any injuries.
- HIV and Hep B Prophylaxis need to be administered within a short period of time of the likelihood of infection in order to maximise their effectiveness. Also a medical examination will enable you and the Doctor to undertake a risk assessment of the possibility of infection, as sexually transmitted infections are not always visible and may require an initial test and a follow up appointment for further testing.
- Medical staff can link you in with a trained counsellor for information and support that will help you to get back on track quicker
Even if you are undecided as to whether you wish to inform the police at present, it will help if prior to gaining medical assistance you can
- resist the urge to wash, shower or bath
- try not to disturb the scene of the crime
- keep the clothes on that you were wearing during the assault
- not clean your teeth, drink or eat if there was oral penetration
- pick up a change of clothes, as your clothes may be kept for evidence.
If you are unsure as to the course of action you wish to take it is useful to talk through your options with someone who is trained in dealing with sexual assault. They should also be able to provide you with details of some common responses to sexual assault and ways of dealing with them both in the short term and long term
My head was in such a spin that I thought it would explode. I couldn’t stop thinking. I kept running it over in my mind. It was such a relief to be able to talk to someone who listened and was able to give me some tips on what to expect and ways of managing the fall out.
Can I take police action?
Sexual assault is a serious criminal offence. If you decide to go ahead and make a statement to Police it is possible that they will lay charges against the person who sexually assaulted you. However it may be hard for Police to investigate crimes if you are unsure what happened or who the person was that assaulted you. Also, it is a reality that sometimes prosecutions do not go ahead, even if you want them to, due to a decision by the DPP that on the evidence available there is insufficient probability of a successful proseuction. This can be frustrating and often upsetting. The Police can offer advice about this and even if no charges are laid, making a report to the Police can help you feel better and could assist them in future investigations of similar assaults. Remember that in these matters, Police will not proceed with investigations or laying charges without your consent.
The forensic medical examination
If you contact the Police they may suggest that you have a forensic medical examination. This is not a test to see if you have been raped but rather a medical examination aimed at gathering evidence for use in a possible court case. You can ask Police to take you there or you can refer yourself by going to the nearest Emergency Department who can call the Police at your request. During the forensic medical examination the doctor or qualified nurse looks for evidence of an assault, including injuries such as bruising and collects body fluids that could identify the person who assaulted you.
The doctor or a qualified nurse can also take a sample of your urine and blood to screen it for drugs. This can sometimes (but not always) confirm that a drug was used. If a drug does not show up this does not prove that you were not drugged or that an offence was not committed against you. The small amounts of drug can often be very hard to detect or it may have left your body already. For this reason it is advisable to have the forensic examination as soon as possible after you have been assaulted.
Remember it is your choice to have a forensic examination as well as to provide a urine or blood sample for drug screening. Also, you should be aware that the forensic medical examination can be a distressing experience and therefore it is worth considering having a support person present whose job it is to be thee for you and help you with any decisions.
Sexual assault can affect people in many different ways. Below are some reactions that men have reported:
- Emotional Shock: I feel numb. How can I be so calm? Why can't I cry?
- Disbelief and/or Denial: Did it really happen? Why me? Maybe I just imagined it. It wasn't really rape. “I won’t think about it – put it all aside”.
- Embarrassment: What will people think? I can't tell my family or friends.
- Shame: I feel completely filthy, like there's something wrong with me. I can't get clean.
- Guilt: I feel as if it's my fault, or I should've been able to stop it. If only I had…
- Depression: How am I going to get through this month? I'm so tired! I feel so hopeless. Maybe I'd be better off dead
- Powerlessness: Will I ever feel in control again?
- Disorientation: I don't even know what day it is, or what I'm supposed to be doing. I keep forgetting things.
- Flashbacks: I'm still re-living the assault! I keep seeing that face and feeling like it's happening all over again.
- Fear: I'm scared of everything. What if I have herpes or AIDS? I can't sleep because I'll have nightmares. I'm afraid to go out. I'm afraid to be alone.
- Anxiety: I'm having panic attacks. I can't breathe! I can't stop shaking. I feel overwhelmed.
- Anger: I feel like killing the person who attacked me!
- Physical Stress: My stomach (or head or back) aches all the time. I feel jittery and don't feel like eating.
For men, the idea that a man should be able to handle himself can make the experience even more confusing and difficult to handle. It is not uncommon for a man to start blaming himself or to become worried that people will criticise him or won’t believe him if he tells them what happened. The belief that a man should always be in control of himself makes not having a clear memory of what occurred even more difficult to deal with. In addition, men often report concerns in relation to sexuality. If he was sexually assaulted by a man then there are the questions regarding whether people will think he is 'gay' and discriminate against him and if he is sexually assaulted by a woman then the idea is that he should have enjoyed it and should feel lucky.
These concerns and difficulties may pass with time, however if they are not lessening then it is advisable to seek help.
Taking care and respecting your choices
Talk to someone who is able to help you and remember
- Safety first. Try to make sure that you are safe, especially from the person/s who has assaulted you.
- Take care of your physical health and wellbeing: it may take a while to get your head around what happened
- Talk about what happened with people you trust and who will respect your privacy. Remember that they will probably be angry and upset for you so you will need to tell them what kind of support you want/need.
- Aim to get back your feeling of control over your own life.
- Don’t fill in any memory gaps – If part or all of the memory of the event is missing, accept that you may never recover that memory.
- Remember that there are common reactions to trauma and that you will move on.
- Don't blame yourself – Many people who have been sexually assaulted feel that somehow they were responsible for the assault. They look for reasons to blame themselves saying things like; "I should have fought them off" or "It was my fault because I accepted the drink" or "I must have looked like an easy target" or even "I can't believe that I was so stupid."
- You have a right to say "No" to sexual contact at any time
- The person who assaulted you is responsible for the choices they made
- Sexual assault is a crime, but it is up to you whether you wish to report to the Police or not
- DON’T let family/friends blame you for what happened, and DON'T let them push you into any action that is not your choice.
It is your choice what to do now.
In Queensland, all victims of a crime, including sexual assault, can apply for Victim’s Compensation, even when an assailant has not been identified. However, to be eligible for Victim’s Compensation you do need to report the offence to the Police and assist them with their investigation.
An application for Victim's Compensation is an entirely separate legal process from any criminal proceedings to do with the assault.
Acknowledgements: Created with reference to the SECASA fact sheet 'Recent sexual assault'.