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With over half of women and almost one-third of men experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, sexual assault is an all-too-prevalent issue. Sexual assault can create a variety of mental and physical issues including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal behavior. Despite this, care for survivors post-assault is severely lacking. Only one-third of survivors receive assistance after being assaulted, and this number decreases for survivors from marginalized communities.

However, treatment for sexual assault survivors is crucial. Many sexual abuse survivors need in-depth, trauma-informed care to recover, often including medical, psychological, and legal assistance, and survivors who don’t get the care that they need suffer long-term, negative effects. The benefits of disclosing a sexual assault and seeking assistance can include emotional support, reducing the burden of the assault, protection for themselves or others from future violence, increased awareness about sexual assault, and justice for the survivor. Receiving medical care post-assault can also be valuable, with around half of the survivors who sought medical attention reporting that they found it to be healing.

Survivors may be unable or choose not to seek treatment for a variety of reasons. First, many survivors are simply unaware of the resources and support available to them. Second, myths and social stigma surrounding sexual assault can lead survivors to experience shame, guilt, and self-blame, believe they won’t be taken seriously, or think that their assault wasn’t “bad enough” to warrant help. Additionally, due to the stigma around mental health care, some individuals hold negative beliefs about receiving treatment or believe they should be able to solve the problem alone. Some survivors also experience fear or distrust of the systems in place to provide them assistance. Some may fear being re-traumatized by the system, believing they will be met with victim-blaming, for example. Also, survivors may have a lack of confidence that they will receive effective help, believe that their case will be mishandled, or have privacy concerns. This fear or distrust of formal systems increases for marginalized individuals due to historical patterns of oppression and maltreatment. Moreover, support systems for survivors are often created to serve white, heterosexual women, resulting in a lack of culturally competent resources. A lack of access to resources is also a barrier for many survivors, such as those in rural areas, survivors with disabilities, and those who have financial and time limitations.

Marginalized survivors are most heavily impacted by barriers to assistance post-assault. For one, discrimination can make it difficult or even dangerous for marginalized survivors to disclose their sexual assault. Additionally, internalized oppression can result in survivors buying into negative narratives about themselves and their abuse, including that it was their fault or that they don’t deserve support. Language barriers can also create an accessibility issue; for survivors who have limited proficiency in or don’t speak English, there is a significant shortage of resources available. The organization or physical space of resources for survivors can be problematic as well, sometimes being inaccessible for people with disabilities.

LGBTQ+ individuals are another marginalized group who are at a higher risk for sexual assault but can experience significant barriers to seeking assistance. For example, LGBTQ+ survivors may fear being outed, which can have serious consequences, or experience erasure, especially if they identify as outside of the gender binary. Additionally, people of color often face higher barriers to assistance, making them less likely to seek support than white survivors. A study of rape survivors’ experience with community service providers found that ninety-one percent of people who contacted a rape crisis center were white.

Indigenous women, one-third of whom experience rape in their lifetime, face unique barriers to receiving assistance for sexual assault. One reason for this is that many tribal jurisdictions don’t have access to trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, making it difficult for them to access emergency care post-assault and resulting in low awareness of available services. Additionally, there are often cultural barriers that prevent survivors from seeking assistance. For example, some indigenous survivors have past experiences with racism that prevent them from seeking support. Specifically in the realm of sexual violence, from 1970 to 1976, twenty-five to fifty percent of indigenous women were non-consensually sterilized in the United States. This history of oppression and trauma within these systems can result in a distrust of the justice system and other systems of assistance within indigenous communities.

Black women also face significant barriers to support for sexual assault. Black cisgender women under twenty-five are at a higher risk for experiencing sexual violence than their white counterparts but receive less post-assault assistance. Black women are often sexualized from a young age and subject to stereotypes that portray them as hypersexual and promiscuous, creating a barrier to care for survivors. Additionally, Black women are less likely to report their assault and receive assistance from the police due to a distrust of law enforcement as a result of police brutality and mass incarceration which targets primarily Black people.

Another group that faces higher barriers to sexual assault care is those experiencing poverty or homelessness. Sexual assault is costly—the Center for Disease Control estimates that the lifetime cost of rape is $122,461 due to medical costs, loss of productivity, criminal justice expenses, and other costs. Survivors experiencing poverty or homelessness can struggle to afford the necessary legal, medical, or mental health services, obtain necessary transportation, or have the time to receive treatment. This is especially problematic because youth experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk for sexual assault than housed youth; this risk only increases for women, transgender individuals, and those who experienced childhood sexual abuse. Because of the barriers in place, only twenty-one percent of youth experiencing homelessness seek post-assault care, and often not in time to intervene with issues of pregnancy and HIV.

Students are also less likely to receive mental health services and assistance post-assault. A recent survey, aligning with existing research, found that college students are far more likely to talk to peers about experiencing sexual assault than anyone else; among those surveyed only six percent told campus or local police, seven percent told a university employee, three percent went to an on-campus crisis center, and sixteen percent went to an off-campus crisis center. This is due in part to barriers like limited hours for support centers, location of resources, and fees. However, recent surveys have also found that many students have little awareness of the resources available on campus for sexual assault or where to go if they experience sexual violence. These issues increase for marginalized survivors; for example, non-white students are less likely to be aware of sexual assault resources and access them than white students. This is problematic, as survivors who do access these resources have better mental health outcomes.

Despite the widespread inaccessibility of resources for survivors, there are current models for what accessible support can look like. Resources that consider accessibility needs are ones that include anti-oppression frameworks, inclusive language, interpreters, a physically accessible space, culturally sensitive support, and trauma-informed, affordable care. The development of national standards of care for survivors, increased access for rural and tribal communities, and the implementation of clinics within emergency departments that specialize in trauma-informed sexual assault care have also been suggested as ways to improve survivors’ ability to access the crucial resources they need after an assault.

If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, contact our team of licensed, caring professionals today to learn about your legal rights. Call today for a free, confidential consultation at: 1-888-407-0224 or use our confidential submission form. We will treat you with dignity and respect. 

You are not alone. We are here to help.

Risa Saulino

Risa is a rising senior at the University of California, San Diego, majoring in Political Science – Public Law and minoring in Law and Society. Risa has always been passionate about advocating for others. She spent her sophomore and junior years working at UC San Diego’s Cross-Cultural Center, educating the UCSD community about social justice issues, and this past spring, she interned at Rising for Justice in Washington, D.C., providing legal assistance to low-income D.C. residents. Risa is grateful for the opportunity to work with Crew Janci and help advocate for justice for their clients. In her free time, Risa enjoys baking, playing piano, and spending time outdoors.