Sexual Assault: A Women's Health Issue

Sexual assault can affect a woman’s health both immediately and long term. Some of these residual effects can be:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm/injury
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Stomach problems
  • Ongoing pain
  • Increased risk for suicide

Every woman responds differently after a sexual assault. Common reactions may include feeling terribly shocked, afraid, and confused. Many women experience denial or a feeling of being emotionally numb.

Sadly, a large portion of women who are sexually assaulted experience a sense of shame and guilt. They feel that the assault marks them or makes them dirty or soiled in some way. Guilt can be overwhelming, they think they should have done something to stop or prevent the assault. For example, “if only I had screamed, if only I had locked the door, if only I had not drank so much” – the “if only” list can be endless.

Guilt and shame often is reinforced by the myths that surround sexual assault. Myths such as “if you wear tight clothes, you are asking for it” only serve to secure the unfair and incorrect belief that people who are assaulted are responsible for the assailant’s behavior and that the victim is the cause of the sexual assault. Guilt and shame are most often the reason women do not report sexual assault.

There are things you can do to reduce your chances of being sexually assaulted. The following are tips from the National Crime Prevention Council.

  • Be aware of your surroundings — who’s out there and what’s going on.
  • Walk with confidence. The more confident you look, the stronger you appear.
  • Know your limits when it comes to using alcohol.
  • Be assertive — don’t let anyone violate your space.
  • Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable in your surroundings, leave.
  • Don’t prop open self-locking doors.
  • Lock your door and your windows, even if you leave for just a few minutes.
  • Watch your keys. Don’t lend them. Don’t leave them. Don’t lose them. Don’t put your name and address on the key ring.
  • Watch out for unwanted visitors. Know who’s on the other side of the door before you open it.
  • Be wary of isolated spots, like underground garages, offices after business hours, and apartment laundry rooms.
  • Avoid walking or jogging alone, especially at night. Vary your route. Stay in well-traveled, well-lit areas.
  • Have your key ready to use before you reach the door — home, car, or work.
  • Park in well-lit areas and lock the car, even if you’ll only be gone a few minutes.
  • Drive on well-traveled streets, with doors and windows locked.
  • Never hitchhike or pick up a hitchhiker.
  • Keep your car in good shape with plenty of gas in the tank.
  • In case of car trouble, call for help on your cellular phone. If you don’t have a phone, put the hood up, lock the doors, and put a banner in the rear mirror that says, “Help. Call police.”

Take steps right away if you or someone you know have been assaulted:

  • Get away from the attacker and find a safe place as fast as you can. Call 911.
  • Call someone you trust or a hotline, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 (HOPE). In the Iowa City area, the Rape Victim Advocacy Program’s (RVAP) 24-hour help line at 319-335-6000 or 800-228-1625. The RVAP offers free, confidential services to victims of sexual violence. They also provide services to friends and families of victims/survivors.
  • Protect any evidence. Do not clean any part of your body or comb your hair. Do not change clothes. Try not to touch anything at the crime scene.
  • Go to your nearest hospital emergency room right away. You need to be examined and treated for injuries you may not even know you have. Many hospitals have nurses specially trained to collect forensic evidence and care for a victim of sexual assault called SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners). These nurses are able to give medications to help prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and for emergency contraception to help prevent pregnancy. The hospital also can collect evidence like hairs, saliva, semen, or clothing fiber that the attacker may have left behind.
  • Discuss filing a police report. If you're not sure whether you want to file a report, evidence can still be collected without filing a report. It is best to collect evidence as soon as possible.

If someone you know has been abused or assaulted, you can help by listening and offering comfort. If the person wants, you also can go along to the police station, the hospital, or counseling sessions. Make sure the person knows the abuse is not his or her fault, and that it is natural to feel angry and ashamed.

The Women’s Health Center at the University of Iowa offers Women’s Wellness Counseling Services. This is a service available for patients of the Women’s Health Center and can correlate with other appointments within the clinic. You can schedule an appointment by calling 319-356-2294 Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. or toll-free at 888-573-5437.

Michelle Turner, RN
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) and manager in the UI Women’s Health Center