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Sexual Abuse


Sexual abuse/violence is unwanted sexual activity or sexual behaviour that happens without consent or understanding. Sexual abuse/violence and abuse can be physical contact or non-contact sexual activities, such as:

• Indecent exposure
• Stalking
• Grooming
• Forced to look at or be involved in
• Producing sexually abusive material
• Forced to watch sexual activities

Possible signs that may indicate someone is a victim of sexual abuse can include:

• Unexplained changes in character or behaviour
• Tendency to withdraw and spend time alone
• Sexual behaviour and/or language which is out of character
• Irregular or disturbed sleep pattern
• Bruising or bleeding in the rectal of genital areas
• Torn or stained underclothing especially with blood or semen
• Sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy where someone didn’t give consent

Sexual violence/abuse can affect anyone regardless of:

​• Age
• Race
• Gender
• Sexuality
• The abuser is committing a crime if they’re sexually violent or abusive to/towards someone.

A person is experiencing sexual abuse/violence when:

• Someone forces them
• Controls them
• Exploits them into sexual behaviour

The abuser could be:

• Stranger
• Partner
• Someone you know
• A family member
• The abuser may be a person someone knows online but never met in person

Rape/sexual abuse /violence/assault can occur when a person gives someone alcohol, drugs or both without consent or a person knowing. Someone may add alcohol or drugs to a persons drink, which is commonly known as spiked/spiking. So-called “date rape drugs” may be used to spike someone’s drink before a sexual assault.

Rape is penetrative sex with another person against their will.

Penetration can be:

​• Vaginal
• Anal
• Oral

Sexual abuse/violence/assault is unwanted sexual contact or unwanted behaviour which can include:

​• Kissing
• Touching
• Sexual behaviour when someone’s drink has been spiked​

A spiked drink can cause a person sudden drowsiness and/or memory loss or a person to black-out.
A person may not be awake to consent to any sexual behaviour or able to remember exactly what happened to them. Many incidents of rape, sexual abuse/violence/assault are unreported because of a persons memory loss, embarrassment and fear.

Tips to stay safe when someone is out socialising can include:

• Not accepting drinks from strangers
• Never leave a drink unattended
• Don’t give out address to someone who is a stranger.
• Before going out, make someone aware of where you’re going and a time you can be expected to return home.
• Try sticking to bottled drinks and avoiding punch bowls or jugs of cocktails.
• Make plans for your safe journey home.
• If someone thinks a drink has been spiked, don’t drink it and tell the person they are with immediately and report it to the police.
• avoid taking out expensive items or anything that could be a target for thieves.
• If someone is going on holiday or travelling abroad, become familiar and aware of the local area and find out where to go for help, if feeling threatened or in danger.

​When a person has been sexually assaulted/abused its really important to seek healing care as soon as possible. A person may need tests to determine if they have been given any sexually transmitted infections or whether they are pregnant.

A victim of sexual abuse/violence/assault or rape, may want to report the crime to the police, but not immediately after the incident has occurred. Forensic evidence that’s obtained during tests can be stored whilst a convenient time/date is arranged, to report the crime to the police.

A lesser-known type of sexual abuse/violence is when someone withholds their STI status. When a person knows that they have an STI and then consciously withholds that information, or actively seeks to pass the disease onto another person, it is abuse. This can be another way to control, the abuser may be seeking to keep the victim from leaving them by passing on an STI. Abusers aim to make their victims undesirable/unable to have sexual contact with others.

​“Always protect yourself. If you do decide to have sex with someone, make sure you really want to and always use protection (condoms or dental dams) a way just to be on the safe side and it’s really important to remember that if something is making you uncomfortable, you have the right to stop at any time. No matter what, why, where or when, it is your right to STOP.”

The Details

If you have been sexually assaulted, whether as an adult or a young person, it is important to remember that it wasn’t your fault. Sexual violence is a crime, no matter who commits it or where it happens. Don’t be afraid to get help.

What is sexual assault?

A sexual assault is any sexual act that a person did not consent to, or is forced into against their will. It is a form of sexual violence and includes rape (an assault involving penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth), or other sexual offences, such as groping, forced kissing, child sexual abuse or the torture of a person in a sexual manner.

Sexual assault is an act that is carried out without the victim’s active consent. This means they didn’t agree to it.

It is not uncommon for a victim of sexual assault to have no physical injuries or signs of their assault. But sexual assault is still a crime and can be reported to the police in the same way as other crimes.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year ending March 2018 showed that police recorded 150,732 sexual offences, encompassing rape (53,977 cases) and sexual assault, and also sexual activity with children.

Most sexual assaults are carried out by someone known to the victim. This could be a partner, former partner, relative, friend or colleague. The assault may happen in many places, but is usually in the victim’s home or the home of the alleged perpetrator (the person carrying out the assault).

“Sexual violence or assault can happen to anyone of any age: men, women and children,” says Bernie Ryan, manager at St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester. “For the victim, the extent of the sexual assault is no indication of how distressing they find it, or how violated they feel. It’s important that anyone affected receives the right advice and support.”

If you’ve been sexually assaulted

If you’ve been sexually assaulted, there are services that can help. You don’t have to report the assault to police if you don’t want to. You may need time to think about what has happened to you. However, consider getting medical help as soon as possible, because you may be at risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you want the crime to be investigated, the sooner a forensic medical examination takes place, the better.

Try not to wash or change your clothes immediately after a sexual assault. This may destroy forensic evidence that could be important if you decide to report the assault to the police.

Where you go for help will depend on what’s available in your area and what you want to do. For specialist medical attention and sexual violence support, whether you decide to have a forensic medical examination or not, your first point of call is a sexual assault referral centre (SARC).

The following services will also provide treatment or support, and can refer you to another service if you need more specialist help (such as a SARC):

  • a doctor or practice nurse at your GP surgery
  • a voluntary organisation, such as Women’s Aid, Victim Support, The Survivors Trust or Survivors UK (for male victims of sexual assault)
  • the 24-hour freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
  • the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day of the year)
  • a hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department
  • a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic
  • a contraceptive clinic
  • a young people’s service
  • NHS 111
  • the police, or dial 101
  • in an emergency, dial 999

Sexual assault referral centres

Sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) offer medical, practical and emotional support. They have specially trained doctors, nurses and support workers to care for you.

If you decide to report the assault to the police, they can arrange for you to attend a SARC for medical care and, if you wish, a forensic medical examination.If you have not reported the assault to the police, you can still refer yourself to a SARC for assessment and medical treatment to prevent some STIs and pregnancy.If you refer yourself to a SARC and are considering reporting the assault to the police, the centre can arrange for you to have an informal talk with a specially trained police officer, who can explain what is involved.There are also specially trained advisers available in some SARCs or voluntary organisations to help people who have been sexually assaulted. These independent sexual violence advisers (ISVA) can help victims get access to the other support services they need. They will also support you through the criminal justice system if you decide to report the assault to the police, including supporting you through the trial, should the case go to court.You can tell someone you trust first, such as a friend, relative or teacher, who can help you get the support you need. SARC services and ISVA support are free to all, whether a resident of the UK or not.

TheSite is an organisation for young people that has made a video about what to expect if you visit a SARC. People of all ages may find this video useful.

Forensic medical examination

If you have been sexually assaulted, you don’t have to have a forensic medical examination. However, it can provide useful evidence if the case goes to court.

You can decide at any stage if you would like a forensic medical examination. However, the sooner this takes place, the more chance of collecting evidence. If the assault occurred more than 7 days ago, it is still worth asking for advice from a SARC or the police about a forensic medical examination.

The forensic medical examination usually takes place at a SARC or in a police suite. The examination is carried out by a doctor or nurse specially trained in sexual assault forensic medicine.

The doctor or nurse will ask any relevant health questions – for example, about the assault or any recent sexual activity. They will take samples, such as swabs from anywhere you have been kissed, touched or had anything inserted. They will also take urine and blood samples and occasionally hair, depending on the information you provide about the assault, and also retain some clothing and other items.

If you haven’t decided whether to involve the police, any forensic medical evidence that’s collected will be stored at the SARC to allow you time to decide if you do want to report the assault. An ISVA, sometimes called an advocate, will also offer practical and emotional support, whether or not you wish to involve the police.

If you do decide to report it to the police, a police officer specially trained in supporting victims of sexual assault will talk to you and help to make sure you understand what’s going on at each stage.

The police will investigate the assault. This will involve you having a forensic medical examination and making a statement about what happened. The police will pass their findings, including the forensic report, to the Crown Prosecution Service, who will decide whether the case should go to trial.

To find out more about what’s involved in an investigation and trial, you can: 


Your details will be kept as confidential as possible. However, if there’s a police investigation or criminal prosecution linked to the assault, any material relating to it is “disclosable”. This means it may have to be produced in court.

If there is no investigation or prosecution, information about you won’t be shared with other services without your permission, unless there’s a concern that you or anyone else is at risk of serious harm.

Supporting a victim of sexual assault

For relatives and friends of someone who has been sexually assaulted, The Havens website has advice on what you can do to help. The advice includes: 

  • Don’t judge them, don’t blame them. A sexual assault is never the fault of the person who is abused.
  • Listen to the person, but don’t ask for details of the assault. Don’t ask them why they didn’t stop it. This can make them feel as though you blame them.
  • Offer practical support, such as going with them to appointments.
  • Respect their decisions – for example, whether or not they want to report the assault to the police.
  • Bear in mind they might not want to be touched. Even a hug might upset them, so ask first. If you’re in a sexual relationship with them, be aware that sex might be frightening, and don’t put pressure on them to have sex.
  • Don’t tell them to forget about the assault. It will take time for them to deal with their feelings and emotions. You can help by listening and being patient. Find your nearest rape and sexual assault services, including SARCs.


Page last reviewed: 23 July 2018

Next review due: 23 July 2021


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