There are more than 300,000 rape-related physical assaults against women each year in the United States. Nearly one in six women will be the target of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Yet despite its prevalence, rape remains the least reported and punished violent crime in the U.S.
Sexual violence-including rape, date rape, incest, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, exposure, and voyeurism-is a term that describes unwanted, non-consensual sexual activity that is forced on one person by another. Crimes of sexual violence are most often committed by a person that the victim knows and are motivated by the desire to control, humiliate, or harm the victim, not by passion or sexual desire.
The physical and mental effects of sexual violence on victims can be profound and lifelong. Women who have been sexually assaulted are at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HPV. Rape also leads to an estimated 32,000 pregnancies each year. The risk of pregnancy among sexually-abused adolescents is especially high because teens generally have low rates of consistent contraceptive use and are often assaulted repeatedly in incestuous relationships.
Following an assault, many women experience humiliation, embarrassment, self-blame, eating and sleep disturbances, general pain throughout the body, and mood swings. Months and years later, some continue to have psychological and physical reactions such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, phobias, flashbacks, nightmares, substance abuse, and gynecologic problems.
If you have been sexually assaulted, remember that you are not at fault. No matter what a person wears or how they behave, no one "asks" or deserves to be sexually abused.
Make it a priority to see a medical professional, such as your physician or an emergency room doctor, right away. You should be examined immediately and treated for physical injuries, exposure to STDs, and unintended pregnancy. During your examination, physical evidence may be gathered for use by police or legal parties should you decide to report the crime. Do not bathe, douche, use the bathroom, wash out your mouth, clean your fingernails, eat, drink, or smoke before your exam.
As you begin the healing process, it's important to take good care of yourself and tend to your general well-being. Eat healthy foods, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, and surround yourself with supportive friends and family. You may also want to speak with a counselor or mental health professional to help you through this difficult time.
To find a rape counselor or crisis center near you, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE) or use the online hotline at ohl.rainn.org/online. ♀
Richard N. Waldman, MD, is the president of The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Photo: VDay, a global campaign to end violence against women, is marked in Bakersfield, Calif., March 17, 2011. (JulieJordanScott/CC)