What to do if you’ve been sexually assaulted

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∎ If you are in immediate danger or seriously injured, call 911.

∎ Even if you have not decided whether to report the crime, it is best to preserve anything that might contain the offender’s DNA. If at all possible, this means avoiding the following:

• Using the bathroom

• Changing clothes

• Showering or bathing

• Combing your hair, washing your hands, or brushing your teeth

• Cleaning up the site of the attack

• Moving anything you think the offender may have touched

∎ Get to a safe place. If that place is not your home, go to the home of a friend or family member that you trust and feel comfortable with and bring a change of clothes with you if you are able. When you change your clothes, save all of the items you were wearing when the attack took place and put them in a paper (not plastic) bag to hold, for the time being, as evidence.

∎ Seek medical attention. If you suspect that you have been given a date-rape drug, ask to give a urine sample. The presence of drugs such as Rohypnol are more easily detected in urine than in blood.

∎ Write down as many of the details of the assault as you can, including as much description as possible of the offender — even if it is someone you know.

Deciding on your next steps is a personal choice. To make the best decisions about your options — for example, whether to do a forensic medical exam, whether to seek criminal charges against the offender, and how to review counseling programs — it is strongly recommended that you contact a local crisis center.

If you’re not sure where to start, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673), and a trained staff member will direct you to a local hospital or clinic.

If you live in Hampshire County or in the Five College community, your nearest crisis center is most likely to be the Center for Women & Community, located at UMass Amherst, at (413) 545-0800, 24 hours a day. In Hampden County, contact the YWCA of Western Mass., which has sites in Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, and Huntington, at (413) 733-7100, in Spanish at (800) 223-5001. In Franklin County contact NELCWIT, with locations in Greenfield and Orange, at (413) 772-0806. The centers provide walk-in services, short-term counseling, support groups, and legal assistance. The programs support survivors of rape, sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and abuse — which includes emotional, psychological, and verbal attacks as well as physical ones. Services are open to people of all genders, as well as friends, family members, and significant others.

It’s okay to ask …

What if it was my fault?

It wasn’t. Period. The only person who can be blamed for an attack is the attacker. This is always the case, regardless of the circumstances. Rape and sexual assault are violent crimes. And no matter what happened leading up to a violent crime, committing that act is inexcusable.

What if I don’t have a safe place to go?

Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (listed above), and a trained professional will help point you in the right direction.

Should I get a medical exam even if I don’t feel physically injured?

Yes. Regardless of whether you feel you have sustained any injuries, having an exam and a candid discussion with a medical professional is an essential step in ensuring your health and safety.

What happens when I get a medical exam?

You have two options when you go in to see a medical professional. One is a preliminary exam, which will help you identify any immediate injuries you may have sustained, as well as your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection or disease.

The other is a sexual assault forensic exam, often called a “rape kit.” The purpose of this exam is to collect DNA evidence that can help identify the offender. You do not have to get a forensic exam in order to receive treatment. But if you decide to report the crime, either right away or later, this exam can provide crucial evidence.

These forensic exams are free in Massachusetts. You can get a forensic exam up to five days, or 120 hours, following an attack. And the information from that exam is held for up to six months while you decide whether or not to report the crime.

What if I showered and cleaned myself before seeing or telling anyone?

Even so, evidence may still be present that can be collected during an exam.

What happens if I call the police?

In most areas, law enforcement will connect you with officers specifically trained to talk with survivors of sexual assault. Before contacting the police, however, it’s usually best to contact a crisis center to discuss this option.

“We can talk with you, and we can accompany you to the police if you feel comfortable with that,” says Becky Lockwood, an associate director at the Center for Women & Community at UMass. “The interview process can be long and challenging, so we would want to talk with you about what to expect.” The center can also help survivors apply for a restraining order. This is free, and it is not the same as pursuing a criminal case against someone. If a survivor is interested in pursuing a criminal case, Lockwood says the center can help explain what to do from there.

What about my privacy?

“People do have a lot of concerns about this,” says Lockwood. But at the Center for Women & Community, staff don’t report what people tell them, “unless we are concerned you are going to harm yourself or someone else,” Lockwood says. As for the police: Massachusetts law is written to protect the identities of people who report sexual crimes. “We can help survivors anticipate whether information might become public knowledge,” Lockwood says, “but we do not typically expect personal information of this sort to show up in police logs.” And privacy should not come at the expense of support, Lockwood adds. “It’s common to feel a sense of isolation, and it’s important that survivors can heal by talking things through with people that care about them and support them.”

What if the attack didn’t happen recently?

It is never too late to seek support for an incident in your past. Violence stays with us in unexpected ways, and it is always a good idea to seek out people to talk with us and support us as we grow over time.

One of the main functions of crisis centers is to provide ongoing support and opportunities for conversation.

If you are considering filing a charge against your attacker, Massachusetts law allows you up to 15 years to do so in cases of rape and sexual assault.

What if I know my attacker?

Most people are attacked by someone that they know. Lockwood estimates that these make up between 75 and 90 percent of sexual assault cases.

It comes down to the safety of the survivor, Lockwood says. “Are you safe? Are you going to come into contact with this person frequently? We can offer safety planning. Maybe you don’t go to parties at a particular person’s house anymore. Maybe we can help you work with a lawyer to break your lease at an apartment building. There are lots of options for safety that don’t necessarily involve the criminal justice process.”•

— Hunter Styles

SOURCES: UMass Amherst Center for Women & Community, http://www.umass.edu/ewc, and RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, http://www.rainn.org

Hunter Styles

Author: Hunter Styles

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