Frequently Asked Questions

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Frequently Asked Questions

I feel OK physically. Do I need a medical examination?

It is very important to have a thorough medical examination immediately after a sexual assault, even if you do not have any apparent physical injuries.

You may have injuries of which you are not aware. Most sexual assault victims do not have serious or life-threatening injuries. Many victims do not even have visible minor injuries. However, you should still be examined by a healthcare provider with special training in sexual assault victim care. You may be in shock, and you may have internal injuries of which you are not aware. You may also have minor injuries, such as scratches or bruises. The healthcare provider can also document any injuries you have sustained so that if you decide to take any kind of legal action, such as participating in the prosecution of your assailant, you will have a record of what happened to you.

A medical/forensic examination enables you to identify and preserve physical evidence of the assault. During the examination, the healthcare provider can look for any assault-related injuries and collect potential evidence from your body. This evidence may be present immediately after the assault but will deteriorate as time passes.

A sexual assault can place you at risk for getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A healthcare provider can help you evaluate your risk of contracting various STIs and advise you about ways to protect yourself against these risks. One of the benefits of obtaining medical care soon after a sexual assault is that medication can be provided to help prevent some STIs.

If you are a female sexual assault victim, your healthcare provider can evaluate your risk of pregnancy resulting from a sexual assault. Your healthcare provider can offer you treatment to prevent pregnancy or advise you about available alternatives.

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.

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 clinic where you have the examination may be able to 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.

What happens during a sexual assault examination?

The healthcare provider will usually begin by asking questions about your general health. You will also be asked specific questions about the assault. It may be difficult to recall some or any 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 to conduct a thorough physical evaluation and to optimize evidence collection. For female victims, this usually includes a speculum exam.

The healthcare provider will look for injuries, such as tender areas, marks on your skin, and bruises. Although many sexual assault victims do not sustain physical injuries, it is still important to be examined by a healthcare provider. If you do have visible injuries, you will be asked to give your consent to have photographs taken. Photographing injuries is important because injuries heal over time.

In addition to checking you for injuries, the healthcare provider can collect evidence that may be related to your sexual assault. Depending on the types of sexual contact that occurred, evidence collection may include taking samples from the mouth, body, vagina, or rectum. 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 healthcare provider will document the findings in a medical record or on a sexual assault reporting form. The written record can later be subpoenaed to assist in the legal process.

Can I have someone I know (a support person) stay with me during the examination?

You can have a support person (or persons) of your choice – such as a sexual assault victim counselor, a friend, or a family member – accompany you throughout the medical care process.

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 chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, herpes, HIV, 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 healthcare 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 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, within 72 hours after a sexual assault.

For your own peace of mind and the protection of your sexual partner, most healthcare providers recommend 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.

There are laws in some states, including California, that permit a criminal court judge to order a sexual assault suspect to be tested for HIV and other communicable diseases, such as hepatitis and syphilis, and to inform the victim of the test results. If a suspect has been arrested for your assault and you wish to have the suspect tested, ask the police investigator or the prosecutor involved in your case for information about obtaining a court order to have the assailant tested for these diseases.

Can I get pregnant as a result of a sexual assault?

Your personal risk of becoming pregnant from a sexual assault depends on many factors, including the time in your menstrual cycle when the assault occurred, the regularity of your cycle, the use of contraception, your fertility, the fertility of the assailant, and whether or not the assailant ejaculated in or near your vagina. A healthcare provider can help you evaluate your personal risk of pregnancy.

If you are at risk for becoming pregnant as a result of a sexual assault, a healthcare provider can explain the various treatment options available to you. If you choose to have immediate treatment to prevent the risk of a pregnancy, the options are most effective if you seek care within 72 hours after the assault.

You may also decide to wait to see if you become pregnant as a result of a sexual assault. If you do become pregnant, a healthcare provider can discuss your options with you.