Obtaining Medical Attention if You Have Been Sexually Assaulted

By OBOS Violence & Abuse Contributors | October 15, 2011

If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, it is critical to obtain medical attention as soon as possible, even if you have no obvious injuries. It is understandable to want to take a shower and try to forget what happened, but bathing may wash away evidence that could be crucial if charges are filed.

Even if you do not think you want to go to the police right now it is important to gather evidence in case you change your mind. For more information, see Legal Considerations Regarding Sexual Assault.

Hospital Exam

A friend or advocate can help you through the step-by-step examination process. Trained rape crisis advocates are available through many organizations; contact Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network at 1-800-656-HOPE to be connected to a rape crisis center near you.

Clothing you wore during an assault may have evidence on it, so bring it with you if you changed before going to the hospital, or ask a friend to bring a change of clothing to the hospital so you can leave your clothes there if needed.

If possible, request a trained sexual assault nurse examiner in the emergency room. Some hospitals have specialized programs staffed by nurses or doctors who have received extensive training in the medical, legal, and emotional issues associated with sexual assault. The programs are designed to provide sensitive medical exams and collect the best evidence possible for prosecution. Under the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2005, there is no charge for a rape exam; the physical samples and information gathered are considered criminal evidence.

Rape can cause physical injuries to any part of the body. You should request a thorough examination that includes and/or results in the following.

A verbal history of the sexual assault and related medical concerns: You will be asked to give a detailed description of the assault, which will be written down. Although it may be difficult to talk about these details, it is important for the medical provider to know where to check for injuries and what evidence to document for possible prosecution. Do not answer irrelevant questions about your sexual history, past drug use, or mental health counseling; should you go to trial, the perpetrator’s defense might try to gain access to your records.

A pelvic or rectal exam: You will have a pelvic exam if you were raped vaginally and a rectal exam if you were raped anally. You or your advocate should check the clinician’s written record for accuracy and objectivity as soon as possible after the exam. Try to do this while the clinician is still present.

Checking for external injuries: The practitioner will examine and treat you for any external injuries and may photograph bruises or other marks to document the assault. Take pictures of any bruises that emerge after the exam and call the examiner so the information can be added to your record.

Prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs): You should be offered antibiotic injections as a preventive measure against STIs that are treatable by antibiotics. Medications are available to decrease the risk of some other STIs, including HIV. If you are offered testing for HIV, be aware that immediately after the assault is too soon for HIV antibodies to show up. Also, the test results could become part of your medical and legal record. Because some STIs are not detectable until six weeks have passed, you should get tested again for STIs six weeks after the rape. (For more information on testing and treatments, see Sexually Transmitted Infections.)

Prevention of pregnancy: If it is possible that you will become pregnant as a result of the rape, the practitioner may offer you emergency contraception (EC), sometimes called “the morning-after pill.” Catholic hospitals may not offer EC. You can buy emergency contraception at pharmacies without a prescription; for more information, see Facts about Emergency Contraception. A pregnancy resulting from rape cannot be detected until several weeks later.

Follow-up exam: Although you may feel physically recovered shortly after the rape, a follow-up visit that includes tests and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and a pregnancy test, if indicated, is an important part of taking care of yourself.