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Sexual violence

Sexual violence is the general term used to describe any kind of unwanted sexual act or activity. It includes sexual assault, rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is the general term used to describe any kind of unwanted sexual act or activity. This can include:

  • Rape, which is penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth with a penis without consent.
  • Sexual assault which is any act of unwanted sexual contact including rape
  • Domestic abuse – an abusive relationship which may involve sexual violence
  • Sexual abuse which involves being forced into sexual activity, including online grooming and sexual exploitation.
  • Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
  • Sexual harassment, which is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. this can include:
    • Sexual comments or jokes or gestures
    • Intrusive staring
    • Intimate image abuse (revenge porn)
    • Indecent exposure – including flashing in person or cyberflashing (sending unwanted nudes)

You are not to blame

If you have experienced sexual violence, whether it was recently or many years ago, you could be feeling a range of emotions such as anger, shock, fear or depression. You might feel many things at once, or you may be in shock and feel numb. Whatever you are feeling, you are not to blame and you are not alone.

What’s the difference between rape and sexual assault?

Both rape and sexual assault are crimes which involve someone being forced into sexual activity without their consent. People often say sexual assault when talking about rape, which can be confusing, but they are seen as different things in the eyes of the law.

Rape is the penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus with a penis without consent. Anyone can be a victim of rape, but it can only be committed by someone with a penis. Rape also involves “stealthing” which is the intentional removal or damage of a condom without consent.

Penetration (without consent) with an object or another part of the body is called “sexual assault by penetration” and can be committed by anyone.

Other forms of sexual assault can include:

  • Forcing someone to engage in any sexual activity, including kissing, when they don’t want to
  • Sexual touching of any part of someone’s body (it makes no difference whether they’re wearing clothes or not) without their consent

Sexual assault doesn’t always cause physical injury or leave visible marks. However, it can cause severe distress, emotional harm and injuries which can’t be seen and take a long time to recover from. 

Sexual violence in relationships

Sometimes sexual violence happens within relationships and can be part of an ongoing pattern of domestic abuse or violence. Find out more about abuse in relationships.

Being in a relationship does not equal consent

You always have a right to say no to any form of sex or sexual activity – or to withdraw your consent – at any time. A relationship or marriage is not an entitlement to have sex. Sexual assault is sexual assault whether or not it is within a marriage or relationship. Rape is rape whether or not it is within a marriage or relationship.

After sexual violence

Experiencing sexual violence of any type can have physical, emotional and psychological effects. These can be difficult to deal with, but there are lots of places you can get help and support.

Your sexual health


Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are passed through vaginal, anal and oral (mouth) sexual contact. If you have experienced rape or sexual assault you should arrange to be tested for STIs as soon as possible. This is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.


If you think you could be pregnant as a result of rape, there are a number of places you can be tested for pregnancy, discuss your options and seek support.

There are different types of emergency contraception you can take to prevent pregnancy, some of these can be taken up to 5 days after the incident.

Find out where to seek help if you don’t want to continue the pregnancy

Your mental health and emotional wellbeing

There are many emotional and psychological reactions that victims sexual violence can experience. Some common reactions are:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks
  • Feelings of guilt and blame
  • Problems sleeping and having nightmares
  • Potentially harmful ways of coping with feelings, such as self-harm or substance misuse

You can find out more about these and many others on Mind’s mental health A-Z , which includes sources of help and support.

Rape Crisis also have a number of tools and resources to help you understand and cope with the effects of sexual violence.

Am I just overreacting?

After sexual violence, it’s common to think you shouldn’t feel upset about what’s happened, you’re just overreacting or kicking up a fuss, or that it was somehow your fault. None of these are true and your feelings are valid. Remember: you never asked for this to happen. You didn’t ‘deserve’ it, but you do deserve whatever support you need to cope and move forward.

Specialise support

Sexual violence is a crime, no matter who commits it or where it happens. Whatever has happened, there are places and people who can support youyou are not on your own.

Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs)

SARCs offer medical, practical and emotional support for anyone who has experienced sexual violence. They can help with pregnancy and STI testing, medical help for any injuries and can do a forensic medical examination.

Do I have to report it to the police?

Whether you report to the police or not should always be your choice. If you’re not sure if you want to, you can go to a SARC without reporting beforehand. They can collect forensic evidence in case you later want to report it.

Rape Crisis have lots of information around reporting to the police and if you visit their centres they have Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVAs) who can help give you information about reporting to the police.

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