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How to Report Sexual Abuse

If you think you are a victim of a sexual crime–you have the right to choose whether or not you want to report, and how you report–if you choose to do so.

It’s an unfortunate reality: Sexual violence happens. In fact, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that an American experiences a sexual assault every 92 seconds. And, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, college-aged students are at a higher risk for sexual violence than the general population. This guide aims to provide you with information about the prevalence of sexual violence and to equip you with the tools you need to get help, including how to safely report it to the right people.

Remember sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter your age, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 

Sexual Offense Laws and Statute of Limitations:

Depending on the state you live in, there are varying laws and procedures surrounding sexual crimes. There are different regulations in each state that determine the classification and punishment of sexual crimes: For instance, laws regarding the age of consent, or sexual abuse in Alabama may be slightly different than the laws regarding sexual abuse in New York. You can learn about the laws regarding sexual offenses in your state, here.

There are also varying time frames/limits on reporting a sexual crime in each state, known as a statute of limitations

For instance, in the state of New Mexico, a victim of child sexual abuse (typically referred to as Criminal Sexual Contact of a Minor) can report instances of child abuse until they turn eighteen years old–after the victim has reached eighteen years of age, the offender can no longer be convicted of the crime, and the statute of limitations is considered to be expired. You can learn about the statute of limitations in your state, here.

  • If you believe you have been sexually assaulted or abused, would like to report, and are able to report within the statute of limitations in your state, you can continue reading below about the following aspects of reporting sexual assault.
  • If you believe you have been sexually assaulted or abused, and are unable to report due to concerns for your safety, well being, or you cannot report due to the offense’s statute of limitations being expired, you can continue reading below about victims’ assistance or recovery resources available to you.

Rape Kit and Evidence Collection

After a sexual assault, you have the option to have a sexual assault forensic exam (typically referred to as a rape kit). These forensic exams can be performed up to 72 hours after a sexual assault has occurred to collect physical evidence from the body, clothing, or any other artifacts; this evidence can include DNA evidence that can be later used to identify the perpetrator of the crime, or link them to other unsolved/solved cases of sexual assault to help identify serial offenders.

The Process

The examination process does contain many steps, but you are not required to undergo all steps if you do not feel comfortable doing so; it is entirely your choice. Though the specific process does vary by state, typically a rape kit examination can last a few hours and includes:

  • Treatment of injuries
  • Medical History
  • Full-body examination
  • Continued care (medications for potential infections, referral to other resources, if necessary)

The process may include filling out some paperwork, having photos taken of injuries (if present), blood samples, or swabbing of certain areas.

Victim Advocates

If you would like, you can request to have a victims’ advocate be with you through this process, if one is available. Typically, they can be contacted through your local sexual assault resource center or through law enforcement; this victim advocate can be there with you through this process, as a potential source of comfort and support.

What if you cannot immediately have an examination performed?

If you have been sexually assaulted, and cannot immediately obtain a rape kit–you can preserve clothes and other personal items that may contain evidence in a paper bag; if you can, avoid showering or otherwise disrupting the evidence, so that it can be collected for the rape kit. If you cannot do this, you have not “messed up” or damaged your case–you can still have an exam for a rape kit to collect any remaining evidence; all victims have different responses to trauma–and you are completely justified in your actions during/after the assault, for the preservation of your safety and well being.

Mandatory Reporting for Minors

If you are a minor and decide to have a sexual assault forensic examination done, the person performing the examination may be legally obligated to report the assault to the authorities, depending on the state that you are in.

If you are not a minor, you are not required to report–and neither is the person performing the exam; even if you choose to not immediately report, you can still have the examination done and the evidence saved in the event you decide to report in the future.

Where do I go to have an examination performed?

If you contact your local sexual assault resource center, you can be directed to facilities that will perform the examinations. If you go to a hospital and request to have an examination–you should be accommodated. Only certified professionals should perform sexual assault forensic examinations–these professionals can be Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE), or Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFE).

How much does it cost?

Rape kits/examinations are free; you should not have to pay any fee for a sexual assault forensic examination.

Reporting to Law Enforcement

When reporting to law enforcement, you may have many questions and concerns about how to report, what will happen afterward, and more; reporting sexual assault is not easy, but there are resources and guidelines in place to help assist you through the process.

Contacting the Authorities

When contacting the authorities to file a report, you have some options–depending on the circumstances of your situation and what you’re most comfortable with. You can:

  • Go directly to the police station/department and file a report in person; though the process may seem unclear–you can ask to speak with an officer or detective, then consult them to report a sexual assault.
  • Call 911; if you are in immediate danger, and your safety is in jeopardy or you cannot go to the police department yourself, you can call 911 and tell dispatch about the situation and report the assault.
  • Call the police station/department; if you do not want to call 911, you can call the police station or police department’s direct line (this can be found in a phone book, or even online), and report a sexual assault.
  • Contact your local sexual assault resource center and disclose that you would like to report a sexual assault; sexual assault resource centers are often able to facilitate and guide you through the reporting process, and can even provide you with a victims’ advocate when you go to report to the authorities.
  • Go to a hospital or medical center; you can go to a hospital or medical center to be treated for injuries from the sexual assault, and you can tell a doctor, nurse, etc. that you would like to report a sexual assault, and they will help facilitate this process. At this point, you can also request a rape kit/sexual assault forensic examination–but you do not have to.
  • Tell a trusted adult–a counselor, a teacher, or principal; if you are a minor and disclose sexual assault to any teacher, counselor, principal, or adult in a position of authority–they are legally obligated to report it to administration or the authorities. The laws surrounding mandatory reporting do vary by state, but it is school policy under Title IX that employees be trained to report and respond to disclosure of sexual assault.

What if they don’t believe me?

Law enforcement officials are specifically trained to handle reports of sexual assault, and are supposed to be impartially dedicated to enforcing the law and addressing your report of sexual assault. Most of the time, law enforcement agencies provide victims’ advocates or officers specifically versed in handling sexual crimes to address your case. If you feel your case is not being handled properly, you can request to have the investigation done by another officer, or file a complaint to the supervisor of the offending officer.

What will I have to do or say?

Usually, you will be interviewed by a detective or officer about what exactly happened that is causing you to file a report of sexual assault. You may be asked to identify or describe the perpetrator, when the assault happened, where it happened, and what specifically occurred. You may also be asked to turn over any evidence that you have of the assault (clothing, text messages, photos, etc.) This may be an uncomfortable process–but you can request to have a victim advocate, parent, or other individual be with you during this questioning to offer support. When reporting these details, consider the following:

  • Be specific and detailed: It is not comfortable and can be extremely difficult to discuss the details of what happened to you, but it is necessary to form a complete, detailed record of what happened that can be used in trial to convict the offender. The investigator does not know what happened to you, so it is your job to effectively describe and tell the story.
  • It’s okay to cry: Reliving the trauma of sexual assault is never easy, and can be emotionally troubling–you are allowed to cry, and can “pause” the interview to collect yourself and continue.
  • It’s okay not to cry: We all have different responses to trauma, and there is no one way to behave when dealing with emotional upset–your response is justified, no matter what.
  • Be honest: The truth always prevails, and being dishonest about even small aspects of the assault can be troubling or damaging to your case later. The investigator or victims’ advocate will not judge you for being sexually assaulted, or your actions during the assault. Remember, it is not your fault.
  • If you do not remember or do not know something, tell the investigator: If you’re asked a question about the perpetrator, or something that happened and you either do not know or do not remember–that’s okay, trauma can influence the ability to recall memories of the assault. Do not make something up if you do not know/remember the answer, be clear and tell the investigator the truth.

If you have not had a sexual assault forensic examination already, and less than 72 hours have passed since the assault, you may have the option to have an examination done. However, this is not required.

Reporting at a School or University

As a student at an educational institution (college/university/K-12 school) you have certain rights under Title IX. If you are sexually assaulted by an administrator, teacher/professor, school employee, or even another student–you can report this to the administration, another teacher, or a counselor on campus that should begin a Title IX and disciplinary investigation of the situation. You can choose to report to the institution and have it handled within the institution; you can choose to report to law-enforcement for a separate criminal investigation; or you can do both.

If you have any questions about Title IX on your campus, you can reach out to the institution’s Title IX Coordinator (all federally funded institutions are legally required to have one). Typically, the specific procedures for Title IX investigations vary by institution and situation, and these procedures should be accessible to you as a student.

Here are extra tips for safely reporting sexual violence on campus.

If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. Otherwise:

  • Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). A trained staff member can help you locate a health facility that can provide you with medical care, if required.
  • Go to your campus health center or campus police station to report the incident. If you are reporting to the police, you may be concerned that your situation is not serious enough. RAINN provides a list of some common concerns about reporting, as well as the reasons why you should still report.
  • Know your rights. Title IX requires schools that receive federal funding to ensure that you are able to continue with your schooling in an environment free from harassment and sexual violence.
  • Keep yourself safe. If you share classes or a residential building with the perpetrator, request a change.
  • Take care of yourself. Make use of security escorts or safe walks that your school may offer, and consider attending counseling sessions or accessing your school’s sexual assault services.

Support Resources:
RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network; a national resource for sexual assault survivors with a national, 24-hour hotline and chat feature to answer questions/offer information about reporting sexual assault.
VictimLaw: a national database and resource that informs on victims rights and related programs–separated by state.
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: Organization for the prevention and treatment of child abuse with a national, 24-hour hotline that operates in several different languages by certified crisis counselors.
Victim Support Services: A resource that offers information, guidance, and information about support services for victims through the legal process.

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