How To Seek Help If You’re Experiencing Sexual Assault in a Romantic Relationship

Illustration by Sam LIacos
Trigger warning: The following piece includes material about sexual assault and rape.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and sexual abuse within an intimate relationship is horrifyingly more common than believed. Licensed Master Social Worker and psychotherapist Sabrina Sarro offers ways to seek or offer help.
Words by Lola Mendez.

Sexual assault is any non-consensual sexual activity. “If you feel coerced, pushed, there’s a high chance you’ve just experienced sexual assault,” says Licensed Master Social Worker and psychotherapist Sabrina Sarro. Horrifyingly, 51% of women reported that an intimate partner raped them, and marital rape is four times more common than rape committed by strangers. “Rape from partners is common, deadly, and often shrinks survivors into a place of silence,” Sarro says. Here are ways to seek help if you’re experiencing sexual assault in a romantic relationship.

Ensure Your Safety

Get to a safe place. “Try to scan the environment for possible exit strategies and take advantage of any opportunities to flee, call for support, or make noise,” Sarro says. Once you’re away from your attacker, go to a police station, hospital, a friend’s home, or family’s home. If you go to the police, consider filing a restraining order.

Reach out for support

If you have access to a phone, Sarro recommends calling a sexual assault hotline, such as the National Sexual Assault (RAINN) Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). Operators experienced in working with survivors of sexual assault will connect you with local healthcare facilities and criminal authorities.

Seek medical care

Get medical help as you may have injuries, be pregnant, or contracted sexually transmitted infections. “A rape kit can be an important option in the event you want to have access to filing a police report,” Sarro says. Don’t change your clothes or shower before going to the hospital to avoid interfering with forensic evidence.

Consider filing a police report

Reportedly, 77% of women raped by a husband or boyfriend didn’t file a police report. According to Sarro, this may be because some survivors fear retaliation or further physical and emotional harm. “When having been raped by our partners, we don’t see the rape for what it is; we might make excuses for the behavior or think that reporting the rape is the wrong thing to do.”

They recommend considering the potential legal proceedings, the process of evidence collection, and your safety before you choose to file a police report. Sarro urges having a strong support network who will navigate the legal system with you if you want to move forward.

There’s no set timeline for healing.

Take care of your mental health

Nearly all women rape survivors experience symptoms of PTSD. “Seek help from a counseling center, rape crisis line, therapist, peer support space, group process space, etc.,” Sarro says. They stress that there’s no set timeline for healing.

How to support a friend who has been sexually abused by a partner

If a loved one or someone you know is recovering from sexual assault, ask before touching them and ensure that boundaries are being established. Their body has been violated and a hug may be triggering, as well as recalling the memories from the event. Respect their boundaries and don’t give unsolicited advice.

“Ask your friends what they need from you and how you can show up for them, what they want, and how you can support,” Sarro says. Reassure them that you’re there for them and believe them. 

Do not victim blame. Do not ask for details of the assault. Telling your friend what they should have done differently is not helpful. “Avoid asking your friend what steps they took to say “no.” Avoid phrases that put the onus on the survivor. Avoid asking questions like, ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Did you stop them?’ ‘What time of night was it?’ ‘Were you intoxicated?’” Sarro says. Your friend is not responsible for what someone did to them.

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