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Topics In Brief

All Topics In Brief

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault, most prevalent among young people, is a significant public health issue in the U.S. This edition of Topic in Brief includes the following:


Terms presented below are defined differently by researchers, legal experts, clinicians, and advocates. If legal definitions are relevant to your prevention programming, you should consult your state’s laws. For our purposes on ReCAPP, we have adopted definitions provided in Drawing the Line . . A Guide to Developing Effective Sexual Assault Prevention Programs for Middle School Students, a publication developed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, (see ACOG's National Rape and Sexual Assault Prevention Project, website:

Sexual assault

Unwanted sexual acts, ranging from exhibitionism to penetration, that involve threats, physical force, intimidation, or deception. (See ReCAPP's May 2000 edition for information on childhood sexual abuse, or sexual assault which occurs during childhood.)

Rape, stranger rape, acquaintance rape, date rape, and gang rape are all terms that may be used to describe forms of sexual assault. These terms are defined as follows:
Rape is a term generally used to indicate an act of forced or coerced oral, anal, or vaginal penetration but can be defined more broadly.

Statutory rape is a term applied to sexual activities which occur between adults and adolescents, even if minors believe that the sexual relationship is consensual. Refer to your state’s laws to find out how "minor" is identified.

Stranger rape refers to attempted or completed nonconsensual sexual acts committed by a person unknown to the victim.
Acquaintance rape refers to attempted or completed nonconsensual sexual acts committed by someone known to the victim, such as a classmate or neighbor.

Date rape, a form of acquaintance rape, refers to attempted or completed nonconsensual sexual acts that occur within a dating relationship.

Gang rape refers to attempted or completed nonconsensual acts committed by two or more people.

Sexual violence

An umbrella term that refers to any unwanted actions or activities of a sexual nature that often are intended to humiliate or degrade another person. The term is also used to describe similar actions or activities when they are imposed on an individual who is unable to:

  • understand the nature or condition of the act
  • decline participation
  • communicate unwillingness to engage in the sexual act due to:
    • illness
    • disability
    • influence of drugs or alcohol
    • intimidation or coercion


Short for Rohypnol, now considered the "date rape drug of choice." Rohypnol is a very potent tranquilizer similar to valium, but much stronger. Because roofies are inexpensive and easy to import from other countries like Mexico, they are slipped into the drinks of unsuspecting victims in hopes of lowering inhibitions or causing blackouts, making "sexual conquest" easier. Besides facilitating rape, rohypnol can lead to even more deadly consequences such as respiratory depression, aspiration, and death when mixed with alcohol or other drugs. (See more information on Rohypnol on the web at


Someone who assaults others psychologically, physically or sexually. Sexual assault may be committed by a wide range of people known or unknown to the victim, including parents and grandparents, other relatives, family "friends," acquaintances, and strangers. Others in positions of authority, such as clergy, coaches, teachers, and other people found in institutional settings may perpetrate sexual assault.


Someone who has experienced sexual violence. The term reflects the belief that an individual's strength has enabled him or her to survive the assault. It also implies that a victim can recover from the impact of sexual assault.


Someone who has experienced sexual violence. Some people believe this term has a negative connotation because it can imply that experiencing sexual assault permanently damages the individual and limits prospects for recovery from the assault. Victims can become survivors with time, intervention, and/or counseling. The term victim is also used to refer to someone who dies as a direct result of sexual assault.

Overview of the Issues

Sexual assault is a real and all-too-common problem within our society, Moreover, it endangers the health and lives of youth at alarming levels, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Sexual assault is related to teen pregnancy as well as the transmission of STIs including HIV, depression, suicide, poor academic performance, and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Most experts believe that sexual assault is an expression of power, hate, and control.

Among the findings of a recent national survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20% of women reported they had been raped at some point during their lives. Fifty-four percent had been assaulted before the age of 18; 22% had been assaulted before the age of 12. (Tjaden, 1998)

Women are not the only target of sexual assault. Each year, it is estimated that 5-10% of reported rape or sexual assault cases involve male victims. (Scarce, 1997) A male is sexually assaulted when he is forced to have intercourse or sexual contact without his consent as a result of actual or threatened force. (Crooks & Baur, 1998) Only recently, however, have many states amended their criminal codes to include males 16 years old or older in their definition of rape. (Isely & Gehrenbeck-Shim, 1997)

The consequences of acquaintance rape are often far-reaching. After being raped, the victim is faced with the decision of whether or not to tell someone about it. Many rape survivors disclose to a close confidant, but fewer report to police or other law enforcement, and still fewer decide to prosecute. Intense fear and helplessness, self-blame, guilt, and having to face the personal and sometimes critical questions which may subtly blame the victim all lead to apprehension about disclosure.

Physical consequences may be serious. However, seeking medical help can also be a traumatic experience as many survivors feel the examination itself feels like being violated all over again. Many survivors experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Emotional and physical consequences of sexual assault may vary depending on the degree of emotional support available and personal coping style. According to clinical psychologist David Curtis, "Survivors who tend to deal the most effectively with their experiences take an active role in acknowledging the rape, disclosing the incident to appropriate others, finding the right help, and educating themselves about acquaintance rape and preventing strategies." (Perspectives on Acquaintance Rape, 1997)

What Educators Can Do

While the prevention field is moving toward involving entire communities in comprehensive efforts to educate young men and women about issues related to sexual assault and rape, there are some good first steps that can be taken by all adults who work with youth. As educators, agency staff, and parents, we must be aware of the myths concerning sexual assault, especially acquaintance rape.

Many among us hold a set of beliefs and misunderstandings that shape the way acquaintance and date rape, in particular, are dealt with on both personal and societal levels. Because these assumptions often present serious obstacles for victims as they attempt to cope with their experience and recovery, educators should be aware of these assumptions, help to dispel myths, and lend support to victims whenever possible.

Some of these myths are identified below. How many have a familiar ring? Are you aware of the reality?

Someone who gets raped usually deserves it, especially if the person agrees to be alone in his/her date's house or parked car.

No one deserves to be raped. Being in your date's house or car does not mean that you've agreed to have sex.

If someone agrees to allow his/her date to pay for dinner, drinks, etc., then it means the date is owed sex.

Sex is not an implied payback for dinner or other expense, no matter how much money has been spent.

Acquaintance rape is committed by men who are easy to identify as rapists. Rape is committed by "normal" acquaintances who seem to be "regular guys."
Victims who don't fight back haven't been raped. Rape occurs when someone is forced to have sex against her/his will, whether he/she has decided to fight back or not.
Intimate kissing or certain kinds of touching mean that intercourse is inevitable. Everyone's right to say "no" should be honored, regardless of the activity which preceded it.
Once a man reaches a certain point of arousal, sex is inevitable, and he can't help forcing himself on a woman. Men are capable of exercising restraint in acting upon sexual urges.
Most people lie about acquaintance rape because they have regrets after consensual sex. Acquaintance rape really happens -- to people you know, by people you know.
Women who say "no" really mean "yes." This belief is based on rigid, outdated sexual stereotypes.
Certain behaviors such as drinking or dressing in a sexually appealing way make rape the victim's responsibility. Drinking or dressing in a sexually appealing way are not invitations for sex.

(adapted from the article, "Perspectives on Acquaintance Rape," by David Curtis, PhD, BCETS, and found on the web at

According to Drawing the Line (ACOG, 2000), there are "approaches which seem to help students develop attitudes and behaviors about relationships, sexuality, and violence." The National Rape and Sexual Assault Prevention Project advocates communities and schools do the following:

  • Create or expand resource networks that establish and implement community-wide prevention efforts.

  • Take steps to ensure that schools and other organizations promote violence-free environments.

  • Develop on-going educational efforts that feature activities that can be integrated into standard school curricula.

  • Tailor programs to address the needs of diverse populations.

  • Take an age-based approach to designing curricula.

  • Involve peer educators in the program planning and implementation process.

  • Convey positive messages about relationships, sexuality, and individual rights and responsibilities.

  • Establish ways to effectively respond to the needs of sexual assault victims and perpetrators.

(adapted from Drawing the Line . . A Guide to Developing Effective Sexual Assault Prevention Programs for Middle School Students, developed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and found at

More Information/Resources

  • Drawing the Line . . A Guide to Developing Effective Sexual Assault Prevention Prorams for Middle School Students
    Available in limited copies from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG)
    National Rape and Sexual Assault Prevention Project
    PO BOX 96920
    Washington DC 20090-6920
    Phone: (202) 638-5577
    Guide also available on ACOG’s Violence Against Women website:

  • "Sexual Coercion Content in 21 Sexuality Education Curricula." Christine E. Beyer, Roberta J. Ogletree. Journal of School Health (1998) Nov.; vol. 68, no. 9, 371-375.
    This article reviews curricula for coverage on the topics of date rape, stranger rape, exploitation, pressure, incest, sexual harassment, and unwanted touch. It also looks at themes such as myths, guilt, drug use, self-esteem, reputation, homophobia and suicide within these topics. This review may be a good resource for educators to evaluate and compare various curricula.


  • Perspectives on Acquaintance Rape
    David G. Curtis, Ph.D., B.C.E.T.S.
    The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.

  • "Friends" Raping Friends -- Could It Happen to You?
    Jean O'Gorman Hughes, Research Associate, and Bernice R. Sandler, Executive Director
    Project on the Status and Education of Women
    Association of American Colleges, April, 1987.

  • Sexual Assault Information Page (SAIP) website

  • The National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization (NOMSV) website

  • Doubting Thomas: Male Survivors Issues and Resources website

  • Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame
    Scarce, Michael
    Insight Books, 1997

  • Sexual Assault of Men in the Community
    Isely, P., & Gehrenbeck-Shim, D.
    Journal of Community Psychology. 1997

  • Our Sexuality: Seventh Edition
    Crooks, R. & Baur, K.

Organizations with additional information:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics
    141 NW Point Blvd.
    Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098
    Phone: (847) 228-5005
    FAX: (847) 228-5097

  • The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence
    936 N. 34th St., Ste 200
    Seattle, WA 98103
    Phone: (206) 634-1903
    FAX: (206) 634-0115

  • National Resource Center for Safe Schools
    101 SW Main, Ste. 500
    Portland, OR 97204
    Phone: (800) 268-2275
    FAX: (503) 275-0444

  • National Sexual Violence Resource Center
    Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape
    125 N. Enola Dr.
    Enola, PA 17025
    Phone: (717) 728-9740
    FAX: (717) 728-9781

  • U.S. Department of Justice
    Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
    810 Seventh St, NW
    Washington, DC 20531
    Phone: (202) 307-5911
    FAX: (202) 307-2093

  • American Bar Association
    Center on Children and the Law
    740 15th St, NW
    Washington, DC 20005
    Phone: (202) 662-1720
    FAX: (202) 662-1755

  • People Against Rape
    PO Box 5876
    Naperville, IL 60567-5876
    Phone: (708) 717-0310
    Toll-Free: (800) 877-7252
    Fax: (708) 717-0391

  • National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape
    2325 Oak St
    Berkeley, CA 94708
    Phone: (510) 524-1582

  • Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW)
    605 West Olympic Blvd, Ste 400
    Los Angeles, CA 90015
    Phone: (213) 955-9090
    FAX: (213) 955-9093
    TDD: (213) 955-9095