The term “sexual abuse” embraces a variety of misconduct that is based on the victim’s gender or sexual characteristics. Some forms of misconduct, including sexual assaults, are criminal. In those cases, the criminal justice system might provide the primary recourse for a victim. In many instances, however, the civil justice system can help victims of sexual abuse get their lives back on track by requiring the wrongdoer to pay compensation.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that about 3 million victims over the age of 12 were subjected to a violent sexual assault during 2014. Some victims experienced multiple assaults. Those statistics understate the scope of the problem of sexual abuse because they exclude young children and forms of sexual assault that are not accompanied by physical violence.
Bringing a lawsuit against an individual who commits a sexual assault is not always realistic. Insurance does not usually cover intentional misconduct and perpetrators do not always have money to pay judgments. It is even more difficult to collect from offenders who are sent to prison.
In some cases, however, it is possible to bring a lawsuit against an institution that employs the offender. Many sexual assaults are committed by people who hold positions of trust or authority, including:
- Daycare workers
- Eldercare workers
- Foster parents
- Coaches and athletic department staff members
- Nursing home employees
- Hospital employees
- Members of the clergy
- Psychologists, counselors and therapists
- Police officers and jailers
When people abuse their positions of trust by sexually assaulting vulnerable victims, their employers can often be held responsible. Employers who fail to conduct adequate background checks of employees, who do not provide adequate supervision, or who otherwise neglect to protect vulnerable victims in their care can be forced to pay compensation in a civil lawsuit. Government agencies can also be held responsible for placing vulnerable individuals in unsafe environments.
The civil justice system provides the primary remedy for other kinds of sexual abuse, including sexual harassment. The following information is provided to help victims of sexual abuse understand their rights.
Types of Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is a generic term that applies to a variety of unwanted sexual contact. It can also apply to unwanted attention that is based on the recipient’s gender. The different kinds of sexual abuse for which victims may have the right to sue for compensation include:
- Rape. The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines rape as a forced act of sexual intercourse. In that definition, the use of force implies the absence of consent and generally includes the use or threat of physical violence to coerce the victim’s compliance. Intercourse means penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth. Rape is a crime in every state, although some state laws have abandoned the term “rape” in favor of a more generic name such as “first degree sexual assault.” While most rape victims are women, modern criminal statutes recognize that both men and women can be victims of unwanted sexual penetration.
- Sexual assault. The broad term “sexual assault” includes rape as well as other crimes of sexual violence and unwanted sexual contact that do not necessarily involve penetration of the body. State criminal laws differ in their categorization of sexual assaults, but the most serious crimes are typically those that involve the use of force or the infliction of injury. States also tend to treat acts of intercourse with victims who are asleep, unconscious, seriously intoxicated, or physically or mentally disabled as serious crimes. Other sexual assault offenses that are criminalized in every state include penetration without consent but without the use or threat of physical violence, and touching the intimate parts of the victim without the victim’s consent.
- Intimate partner sexual violence. Sexual violence committed against a spouse or partner in a domestic relationship can include a rape or some other form of sexual assault. Marriage is no longer a defense to a sexual assault accusation. The laws of some states enhance the penalty for sex offenses when they meet the state’s definition of domestic violence. Although state laws differ, the victim of a crime of domestic violence is typically defined as a current or former spouse, a cohabitant, or someone who is in an intimate relationship with the abuser.
- Child sexual abuse. State laws typically enhance the penalties for rape, molestation, and other acts of sexual contact when the victim is a prepubescent child or has not reached a designated age (typically ranging from 12 to 15). Exposing a child to pornographic materials, allowing or forcing a child to watch adults engage in sexual activity, creating pornographic images or videos that exploit children, and forcing children into prostitution are also acts that are criminalized by a variety of state and federal laws.
- Statutory rape. The offense that is generically known as “statutory rape” is a crime of sexual abuse that occurs when older children have willingly participated in an act of sexual intercourse or sexual contact. Each state has a law that creates an “age of consent” ranging from 16 to 18. Children who have not reached that age are legally incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse. While most states do not use the words “statutory rape,” it is a crime in every state to have sexual intercourse or intimate contact with a child who has not reached the age of consent regardless of whether consent was, in fact, given. Some states have enacted laws that carve out an exception to their statutory rape law when the individuals engaging in sexual activity are close to each other in age.
- Date rape. Date rape is a term that been attached to rapes or sexual assaults that occur in the context of a friendship or dating relationship. In some cases, they are facilitated by date rape drugs like Rohypnol.
- Elder abuse. Some states impose harsher maximum penalties when the victim of a sexual assault has reached a certain age (typically 65).
- Sexual abuse of protected persons. States have enacted a variety of laws that give special protection to certain individuals (in addition to children and seniors) who are perceived to be in a vulnerable position. Usually the prohibited sexual relationship involves a disparity of power, making it possible for a predator to take advantage of someone who is under the predator’s care. Teachers, psychologists, mental health counselors, physicians, guardians, and caretakers are among the people who might be prohibited by a state law from engaging in a sexual relationship with individuals they are responsible for treating or overseeing.
- Sexual harassment in employment. Federal and state laws prohibit employers from sexually harassing employees. The laws given employees a civil or administrative remedy when harassment occurs. Although the laws are complex, as a general rule sexual harassment occurs when employment or a job benefit is conditioned upon agreement to a sexual relationship or sexual contact. Unwelcome sexual contact may also be a form of sexual harassment even when it is not conditioned upon employment. Finally, a pattern of behavior that creates a hostile work environment because of a person’s gender (such as the frequent use of sexually disparaging language or the open display of pornography in the workplace) might give an employee the right to seek a remedy for sexual harassment.
- Sexual harassment in other contexts. Different states have a variety of harassment laws that provide different remedies. For example, it may be possible to get a restraining order against a former lover who engages in stalking, makes persistent and unwanted telephone calls, or subjects the victim to other disturbing behavior. It may also be possible to pursue a civil remedy against someone who persistently engages in rude or threatening behavior because of the victim’s gender. Sexual harassment laws and the remedies they provide differ substantially from state to state.Since different states categorize sexual assaults and sexual harassment in different ways, the specific names given to acts of sexual abuse differ from state to state. For the most part, however, all states prohibit the kinds of sexual abuse described above, regardless of the words they use to describe the conduct.
Sexual Abuse Injuries and Harms
Injuries caused by sexual abuse can be categorized as physical and emotional. Sexual assaults can produce both kinds of injury. Sexual abuse that does not include physical violence can still produce psychological harm.
Physical injuries and health harms that can result from sexual violence include:
- Vaginal and anal injuries. These typically involve cuts and torn tissues, as well as bruises and scratches caused by violent penetration.
- Fractures and physical trauma. Since rape is often accomplished by physical violence, consequences can include broken bones, head injuries, facial scarring, internal injuries, reproductive system damage, bruises, and the other physical manifestations of a beating.
- Pregnancy. One study estimates that more than 32,000 unwanted pregnancies are caused by sexual assaults each year.
- Sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes simplex infection, chlamydia, and human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) are among the potential consequences of unwanted sexual contact.
Emotional trauma can be even more devastating than physical injuries. Emotional injuries include:
- Rape-trauma syndrome. Sexual assault victims often feel pain throughout their entire body, as well as sleep disturbances, mood swings, and a variety of emotional reactions that range from fear and anger to anxiety and humiliation. In fact, the syndrome is often described as a wide range of unpredictable emotions that victims experience after a rape. The syndrome generally proceeds in phases that, in the best cases, end with the victim gaining the ability to move on with life.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When victims cannot move on, rape-trauma syndrome evolves into a long-term disorder that affects all aspects of the victim’s life. In common with other survivors of terrifying ordeals (including war veterans and survivors of plane crashes), rape victims who suffer from PTSD experience flashbacks, are under constant stress, and are unable to overcome feelings of emotional numbness. It may take years for PTSD to develop. It is often a long-term or permanent condition, although treatment strategies can help victims cope with the worst symptoms.
- Substance abuse. Survivors of sexual assaults sometimes turn to alcohol and addictive drugs in an effort to bury their memories or numb their emotional pain.
- Depression and anxiety. Even when the symptoms do not rise to the level of rape-trauma syndrome or PTSD, the impact of sexual abuse can trigger depressive episodes and anxiety. Depression is particularly common when victims blame themselves or worry about the impact of the sexual abuse on their relationships with friends and family.
- Sexual dysfunction. Victims of sexual abuse may lose interest in sexual relations with their intimate partners. Children who have been sexually abused may respond by becoming sexually active in inappropriate ways.
Whether sexual abuse causes physical or emotional symptoms, victims should seek treatment as soon as they become aware of those symptoms. Early intervention with treatment or counseling is often the key to recovery.
Locations of Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse can take place anywhere. Since sexual assaults can occur in parking lots and other dark places, you should always be aware of your surroundings. Keep in mind, however, that most instances of sexual abuse are caused by people who know the victim. The many locations in which sexual abuse can occur include:
- Homes. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey determined that most sexual assaults against women are committed by a current or former intimate partner, a family member, or an acquaintance. Only 14% are committed by a stranger. The home of the victim or the victim’s companion are the most common locations of sexual assaults.
- Foster homes. Children who are placed in foster care are often vulnerable to abusive adults who have not been adequately screened.
- Nursing homes and hospitals. Sexual assaults of the elderly tend to occur in environments where seniors do not have control of their surroundings.
- Daycare centers. Sexual abuse of children can occur in daycare centers when the operators do not provide adequate screening or supervision of employees.
- Facilities for disabled individuals. Residential care facilities are charged with protecting the disabled, but without proper staff supervision, residents are vulnerable to predators.
- Schools. Teachers have abused their authority by seducing students in classrooms. Coaches and athletic trainers have abused students in locker rooms. School grounds also attract predators in search of young victims.
- Professional offices. Vulnerable patients may be coerced into having unwanted sex during medical or psychological treatment when they are isolated from friends and family.
- Churches and other places of worship. Most scandals involving sexual contact by members of the clergy with young parishioners have taken place in buildings maintained by religious organizations.
- Workplaces. Employers who condition employment on sexual favors act in violation of federal law. Other kinds of sexual harassment (including taunts, vulgar language, suggestive comments, and inappropriate touching) take place in work environments when women are hired to do jobs that are traditionally dominated by males.
It is impossible to protect yourself from all instances of sexual abuse, but avoiding places where you will encounter people who have abused you in the past is a key to avoiding repeated abuse. Taking the steps described below is also critical to your protection if you have been the victim of sexual abuse.
What Sexual Abuse Victims Can Do
If you have been sexually assaulted, there are things you should and should not do.
- Make yourself safe. Get away from your attacker. Call for help if you are still in a vulnerable position after the attack ends.
- Do not bathe or wash your clothes. Sexual assault investigators, including forensic nurses, may want to gather evidence that can be used to identify or arrest the person who assaulted you. Since they may want to take swabs of semen samples or DNA from your body and clothing, you need to preserve that evidence.
- Get immediate medical attention. Do not be afraid to tell a nurse or doctor that you were sexually assaulted. Most hospital emergency rooms will make specially trained nurses and social workers available who can gather evidence while helping you cope with an emotional crisis. At the same time, a physician can evaluate, treat, and make a record of your injuries.
- Contact the police. The police will probably send a specially trained detective to the emergency room if you (or a staff member acting on your behalf) report the crime. Cooperate with the investigation. Allow your body to be photographed if necessary to preserve evidence of the assault.
- Follow up with mental health counseling. Getting through the trauma of an assault is something that most people cannot do alone. The sooner you get help, the less likely you are to experience a permanent traumatic condition.
- Contact a personal injury lawyer. If your assault occurred in an environment where you should have been protected or if it was inflicted by a person who had a special duty to care for your safety, it may be possible to pursue justice by seeking a civil remedy. A personal injury lawyer can help you do that.
If you were sexually harassed, follow these steps:
- Follow your employer’s procedure. If the harassment occurred at work, find out whether your employer has a procedure for reporting sexual harassment. Larger employers usually include those procedures in an employee handbook. Follow the steps of that procedure. You may be able to resolve the problem that way. If you fail to follow the procedure, you may jeopardize your ability to obtain compensation.
- Get legal advice about filing an employment discrimination claim. If the harassment occurred at work, talk to an attorney who handles employment discrimination cases. Since administrative claims must usually be filed within a few months after the sexual harassment takes place, you need to obtain legal advice promptly. A lawyer can tell you what you need to do to protect yourself.
- Get legal advice about other forms of sexual harassment. If sexual harassment is taking place in a context other than employment, talk to a lawyer about your potential remedies. You may be able to seek a protective order. In appropriate cases, you may be able to sue for compensation for any emotional distress you have suffered, particularly if the harassment included unwanted physical contact.
Some law firms handle all kinds of sexual abuse cases. Others may handle some (such as personal injury cases) while referring clients to a different lawyer (such as an employment lawyer or a family lawyer) to handle other issues. In all cases, a sexual abuse lawyer can help you understand your legal rights as a victim.