Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1998;58(4):929-930

See related article on female sexual assualt.

What is rape?

Rape is any form of sexual activity that you don't agree to, ranging from touching to penetration. Rape is a crime even if you already know the person who attacked you—if the person is a family member or friend or someone you work with. It's a crime even if you didn't fight back. It's a crime even if you were drinking or if you were taking drugs or were given drugs, or if you were unconscious. Anyone can be raped—children or elderly people, wives or girlfriends, even men.

What should I do if I've been raped?

The first thing you should do if you're raped is get to a safe place, away from your attacker. Then you should go to a hospital emergency room to be checked. You can call the police from the hospital. Don't bathe or change your clothes before you go to the hospital. Just get there as fast as you can.

What happens in the emergency room?

The doctor in the emergency room will give you a physical exam to check you for injuries and to collect evidence. The attacker may have left behind pieces of evidence that may help identify him, like clothing fibers, hairs, saliva or semen. In most hospitals, a “rape kit” is used to help collect evidence. A rape kit is a standard kit that has little boxes, microscope slides and plastic bags to store evidence in. Samples of evidence may be used in court.

Next, the doctor will need to do a blood test. You'll be checked for pregnancy and diseases that can be passed through sex. Cultures of your cervix may be sent to a lab to check for disease, too. The results of these tests will come back in several days or a few weeks. It's important for you to see your own doctor in one or two weeks to review the results of these tests. If any of the tests are positive, you'll need to talk with your doctor about treatment.

What kind of treatment might I need?

The hospital doctor can tell you about different treatments. If you take the birth control pill or have an IUD, your chance of pregnancy is small. If you don't take the pill, you may consider pregnancy prevention treatment. Pregnancy prevention consists of taking two estrogen pills when you first get to the hospital and two more pills 12 hours later. This treatment reduces the risk of pregnancy by 60 to 90%. (The treatment may make you feel sick to your stomach.)

The risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease during a rape is about 5 to 10%. Your doctor can prescribe medicine for Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis when you first get to the hospital. If you haven't already been vaccinated for hepatitis B, you should get that vaccination when you first see the hospital doctor. Then you'll get another vaccination in one month and a third one in six months. The hospital doctor will also tell you about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Your chance of getting HIV from a rape is less than 1%, but if you want preventive treatment you can take two medicines—zidovudine (brand name: Retrovir) and lamivudine (brand name: Epivir)—for four weeks.

What else should I know?

Being raped can have a huge effect on your life. You may be very upset, and you may feel disbelief, fear, anxiety and guilt. You may have an upset stomach or feel nervous. About half of all people who are raped say they are depressed during the first year after the attack. It's very important that you keep scheduled visits with your own doctor. Be sure to tell your doctor about any physical, emotional or sexual problems you have during this time, even if you don't think they're related to the rape.

Where can I get more information?

Be sure to visit your doctor one or two weeks after the rape to review the results of the tests taken in the emergency room. Your doctor will give you information and tell you more about other support services, too. Many support services can help you. Some of these services include hospital social workers, local rape crisis services, your local public health department and the state attorney general's office. National support services include the following:

  • National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, telephone: 1-717-728-9764

  • Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, telephone: 1-800-656-HOPE

Remember, sexual assault is a terrible crime. But it's not your fault, and you didn't cause it to happen. Rape is against the law. You have the right to report this crime to the police, and you have the right to be treated fairly during the justice process.

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Copyright © 1998 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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