What to Do if You Were Raped

woman meeting with a therapist


Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Trigger Warning: This article contains information about sexual violence and rape that may be triggering for some survivors.

Rape and sexual assault are traumatic, life-altering experiences that can leave people feeling confused, vulnerable, ashamed, and alone. Yet, shockingly, it happens more often than people might expect.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime, often perpetrated by someone they know and trust. Men and boys can be subjected to sexual violence as well.

Regardless of age or gender, sexual violence and rape robs people of their safety and security. As a result, it's not uncommon for people who have been targeted to struggle with trust. They also may question their judgment, their self-worth, and even their sanity.

Relationships no longer feel safe and intimacy feels nearly impossible. They may also believe lies about themselves and indulge in self-blame and self-hatred.

If you have been assaulted or raped, it's important to remember that what you are feeling, thinking, and experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma. And, no matter how difficult life may feel right now, there is hope.

You can regain your sense of safety. You can learn to trust again. And most importantly you can heal and move on with your life. Here are some steps you can take that will put you on the path to recovery.

What to Do First

Being violated in some way—either through rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse—can leave you feeling shocked, scared, and uncertain of what to do next. Here are some things you can do right away to address the situation and begin the healing process.

Go Someplace Safe

Assuming that the incident happened recently, the first step is to make sure you are safe. Depending on where you are, you might want to go to a friend's house or find someone who can help you like at a hospital.

If you feel you are in immediate danger, call 911. The key is that you are safe and cared for. If you are unsure where to go or what to do, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). They can walk you through the process of getting help.

Leave Your Body As Is

Most people who have been assaulted or raped want to take a shower or a bath right away. But if you can hold off, it is best to leave everything on your body as is. Don't even brush your teeth or comb your hair until you have been examined.

You also should not eat, drink, smoke, or take any medications. Even if you have no plans to press charges, it is important that the evidence is left intact—especially because you might change your mind down the road.

Get Medical Treatment

Understandably, the last thing you want is to be touched, poked, or prodded, but for your health and safety it's important that you get a medical examination right away.

The doctors and nurses who take care of people who have been assaulted are highly trained professionals. They know how to be caring and sensitive to what you have experienced.

In addition to collecting evidence, they will test you for sexually-transmitted diseases and can provide you with post-exposure prophylactics to help prevent HIV. They can also provide you with emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy if you want it.

Decide if You Want to Talk to Police

Even though what happened to you is a crime, you are not required to report it to the police unless you want to. It is 100% your decision.

However, some survivors indicate that filing a report allowed them regain a sense of control over their lives. If you do decide to report what happened, you may want to take a friend or relative with you for support.

If you prefer to have a trained advocate with you, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) can connect you will someone. If reporting the crime is something you want to hold off on, be sure to familiarize yourself with the statute of limitations for reporting rape and sexual assault.

You can visit RAINN's State Law Database to learn more about the laws in your state. It's important to know how much time you have to report what happened to you if you change your mind.

The Road to Recovery

There are many emotional and psychological reactions that victims of rape might experience including:

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Some victims may even engage in self-destructive behaviors like self-harming, eating disorders, and substance abuse as a way to cope. But these things do not have to be the reality for you.

To find healthy ways of coping with what happened, you are going to need to reach out for help. While it's important to surround yourself with supportive people, it's also wise to get some outside help through support groups, individual counseling, and recovery programs. The key is to find what works for you. Here are some other ways you can heal from this experience.

Practice Self-Care

After a trauma like rape or sexual assault, it's important that you take care of your body—even when you don't want to. Aside from healing from any injuries, you want to be sure you are eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

If you are having trouble sleeping or are experiencing nightmares, be sure to talk to your doctor or another medical professional. They may be able to prescribe something to help you sleep or offer suggestions on how to deal with the nightmares and flashbacks.

In addition to caring for yourself physically, you also want to take care of yourself emotionally. Some people find that journaling, meditation, and inspirational books are helpful. Others enjoy hanging out with friends or watching a funny movie.

Before you consume any media, it is good idea to read reviews to find out the story line. You don't want to watch a movie with sex scenes or romance early on because these may be triggering for you.

Consider Therapy

Many people find that therapy and support groups are useful in their recovery. For instance, both are often non-judgmental spaces where you can talk about and work through any challenges you are experiencing.

Therapy also is useful if you are experiencing depression or having thoughts of suicide. A counselor or psychotherapist can provide treatment for these conditions.

When selecting a therapist, make sure the person is experienced in helping victims of sexual assault and rape. It's perfectly acceptable to interview a few therapists or have a few sessions before finding one that is the right fit.

For therapy to be effective, it's important that you are comfortable with your therapist and that you are able to truly be honest about your feelings and challenges.

A Word From Verywell

No matter what route to recovery you take, it's important to remind yourself that what happened to you is not your fault. You are not to blame and nothing you did caused this to happen. It was a choice made by the person who assaulted you.

And more importantly, there are people out there trained to help you. Make sure you reach out and accept it. Recovering from rape or sexual assault is not something you should try to do alone. With patience and persistence you can heal and move on with your life.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.