Sexual Assault : Getting Help

Medical Care

What happens during a sexual assault medical examination?

The doctor or nurse will usually begin by asking questions about your general health. If you are a female, you will be asked about your menstrual history and your use of contraception. You will also be asked specific questions about the assault. It may be difficult to recall some of the details, and it may be emotionally painful to remember and talk about what happened. Medical personnel ask specific questions to find out what to look for when they examine you. The information you give helps them conduct a thorough physical evaluation. For female victims, this usually includes a pelvic exam.

The doctor or nurse will look for injuries and any other signs that force was used, such as tender areas, marks on your skin, and bruises. Although many sexual assault victims do not appear to sustain physical injuries, it is still important to be examined by a health care provider. If you do have visible injuries, you may be asked to give your consent to have photographs taken. Photographing injuries is important because by the time your assailant is prosecuted in a court hearing, the injuries may have healed.

In addition to checking you for injuries, the doctor or nurse can collect other evidence of the sexual assault. Depending on the types of sexual contact that occurred, the search for physical evidence may include taking samples from the vagina, mouth, or rectum to test for sperm cells and semen (the fluid around the sperm). Other evidence may be obtained from fingernail scrapings, foreign matter on your body, and the clothes you were wearing at the time of the assault.

After the examination is completed, the doctor or nurse will document the findings in a medical record. The written record can later be subpoenaed to assist in the legal process.

Should I have a medical examination and evidence collection even if I am unsure about making a police report?

Yes. Even if you are undecided about whether you want to make a police report and unsure about whether you want your assailant prosecuted, you should have evidence collected as soon as possible after a sexual assault. This is the best way to keep your options open for the future. Physical evidence is very important in sexual assault cases. Physical evidence that is present immediately after an assault will deteriorate as time passes. If you do not have an examination soon after the assault, the evidence will be lost forever.

In some communities, you can consent to a medical examination and the collection of evidence and still withhold consent to release the evidence to the police. The hospital or forensic clinic where you have the examination can store the evidence in a locked freezer and preserve the chain of custody. If you later decide to file a police report and participate in the prosecution of your assailant, you can give your consent at that time to release the evidence to the police.

Can I get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) as a result of a sexual assault?

The likelihood of getting an STI as a result of a sexual assault depends upon a number of factors, including the type(s) of sexual contact that occurred, the number of assailants, and whether or not an assailant was infected with an STI at the time of the assault.

A number of STIs can be contracted during sexual contact, including hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, genital warts, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. Immediate and effective treatment options are available for some of these STIs.

Immediately following a sexual assault, most healthcare providers offer victims two choices for dealing with the risk of STIs. You may choose to reduce the risk of contracting certain STIs (hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis) by taking medication immediately as a preventive measure, or you may wait to see if you actually contract any infections before taking medication.

Where can I get medical care?

If you have been sexually assaulted, the best place to receive the type of specialized medical care you need is a hospital emergency department, a specialized forensic clinic, or a sexual assault treatment center where the staff is experienced in treating sexual assault victims and collecting forensic evidence. Most of these facilities are available 24 hours a day.

The doctors and nurses in many of these facilities receive special training in ways to treat victims of sexual assault. They should be sensitive to your needs and able to answer your questions about the physical and emotional effects of the assault.

To find a specialized medical care facility in your community, contact a local rape crisis center or a victim assistance agency. You can also contact the police, and they will refer you to an appropriate medical facility.

Can I get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) as a result of a sexual assault?

The likelihood of getting an STI as a result of a sexual assault depends upon a number of factors, including the type(s) of sexual contact that occurred, the number of assailants, and whether or not an assailant was infected with an STI at the time of the assault.

A number of STIs can be contracted during sexual contact, including hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, genital warts, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis. Immediate and effective treatment options are available for some of these STIs.

Immediately following a sexual assault, most healthcare providers offer victims two choices for dealing with the risk of STIs. You may choose to reduce the risk of contracting certain STIs (hepatitis B, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, bacterial vaginosis, and trichomoniasis) by taking medication immediately as a preventive measure, or you may wait to see if you actually contract any infections before taking medication.

Do I need to be checked for STIs after a sexual assault, even if I have no symptoms?

Even if you do not have any symptoms of an infection, you should be tested for STIs following a sexual assault. Unfortunately, it is possible to have STIs and not have any physical symptoms. If left untreated, most STIs can cause serious medical problems. Even if you choose not to have an evidentiary examination immediately after a sexual assault, you should see a health care provider for STI testing and information about the treatment options available to you.

What are my chances of contracting HIV as a result of the assault? Should I be tested?

The probability of contracting HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) through a single sexual contact is very low. Nevertheless, you should consult with a healthcare provider to assess your risk factors and what you can do in the unlikely event you contract HIV as a result of a sexual assault. In some circumstances, the likelihood of HIV transmission may be reduced by preventive therapy with certain medications. After you and your healthcare provider discuss your individual risk of exposure to HIV following a sexual assault, your healthcare provider can advise you about whether preventive medication is recommended for you. If preventive medication is indicated, it should be started as soon as possible, usually not more than 72 hours after a sexual assault.

Most healthcare providers recommend, for your own peace of mind and the protection of your sexual partner, that you be tested for the disease. The recommendations for follow-up testing are at 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months from the date of the sexual assault.