- Definition of sexual violence
- Sexual violence is an all-encompassing, nonlegal term that refers to crimes including sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse. The legal definitions of these crimes vary from state to state.
- Increased risk for mental health challenges
- Survivors of sexual violence are at increased risk for mental health challenges, substance misuse, and suicide.
- Support survivors through the narrative
- Storytelling can support the mental health of sexual violence survivors by avoiding narratives that blame or question victims, limiting scenes depicting sexual violence, and portraying people reporting violence and seeking help in effective, realistic ways.
This section was written in partnership with RAINN.
- Focus on the survivor’s experience, not the perpetrator’s. The survivor’s perspective, pain, and healing should be at the forefront of the discussion.
- Remember that survivors can be any gender identity when addressing sexual violence crimes generally.
Show Conversations About Mental Health and Help-Seeking
- Show people speaking about being victims of sexual violence and receiving support from friends and family, law enforcement, and mental health professionals. Research shows that fear, embarrassment, and guilt prevent victims from speaking up, putting them at more risk for distress, substance misuse, and suicide. Even if the process of seeking institutional support, especially for communities of color, is sometimes complicated, storytelling can encourage viewers to get help.
Spotlight Support from Friends and Family
- Show how the reaction of loved ones and communities can greatly affect the survivor’s healing process. When a survivor tells a loved one that they have been sexually assaulted, the loved one may feel a range of emotions. There is no “right” way to feel after receiving such difficult information; however, it’s important to listen and center the experiences and emotions of the survivor. Stories can model what a supportive reaction looks like, and it can also be powerful to show loved ones learning how to be an advocate through resources like RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline.
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
- Show that treatment is more than just reliving or recounting the trauma over and over again. Misconceptions about what will happen in therapy and how treatment works can prevent people from asking for help.
- Show that healing is not linear and does not have a timeline. Healing is a process and does not look the same for any two survivors. There is no deadline by which someone should be “healed.”
- Focus on solutions as well as the problem. While it can be important to show the severity and frequency of the problem, it is also critical to show treatment and prevention options in a way that lets survivors and their supporters feel hopeful.
Represent the Complex Causes of Mental Health Challenges
- Don’t oversimplify the connection between sexual violence and suicide. Survivors of trauma who attempt suicide are often dealing with multiple challenges at once (preexisting mental health conditions, substance misuse, abusive relationships, financial problems). Storytelling can help illustrate how characters or cast members use their support network and treatment to tackle their challenges holistically.
Move Past Stereotypes
- Move past stereotypes of perpetrators of sexual violence. Sexual violence is often perpetuated by individuals known to the victim, which can create complicated emotions, such as not wanting the perpetrator to get in trouble or being afraid of not being believed by family and friends. Stories that underscore this reality, and avoid the stereotype of perpetrators being creepy or unhinged strangers, can help victims feel seen and encourage bystanders to take supportive action.
- Show bystanders taking action. Stories can help model the behaviors we want bystanders to take, like intervening, distracting, reporting, and supporting.
- Do not perpetuate narratives that excuse sexual abuse by claiming the pertetrator was a victim of sexual abuse. Most people who are abused or have experienced sexual trauma will not go on to sexually victimize others.
- Storytelling can demonstrate the balance of highlighting the role alcohol plays in sexual violence while avoiding any suggestion that drinking or being drunk is an excuse for perpetuating sexual violence or blaming victims for that violence.
- Ensure the storyline doesn’t blame the victim and underscores that sexual violence is about consent — not appearance, sobriety, or behavior. Storylines that highlight the unfair and harmful ways victims are blamed and silenced can help viewers speak up for themselves or their loved ones.
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
- Avoid graphic portrayals of sexual violence or aggressive sex scenes that could (re)traumatize viewers. Some experts believe that watching this type of violence in entertainment might trigger or inform potential perpetrators. Below are additional considerations:
- If the act itself is being filmed, use camera angles that focus on the survivor’s face to help center their experience.
- Consider using fades to black, cuts, or lingering off-camera shots to convey the act without asking the audience to be voyeurs of the moment.
- Shift focus from the act itself and to the survivor’s experience in the aftermath.
- Provide resources. Support your audience with content warnings, end cards, social media posts, and even cast PSAs featuring resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
Sexual violence is an all-encompassing, nonlegal term that refers to crimes including sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, and sexual abuse. The legal definitions of these crimes vary from state to state. It’s important to note that not all forms of sexual violence involve physical contact — over 80% of women and 43% of men report experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, with verbal harassment being the most common form. The mental health implications of sexual harassment, including verbal harassment, will be covered in a separate section of this guide.
Sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent from the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include attempted rape, unwanted fondling or sexual touching, or forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex.
Rape is a form of sexual assault (but not all sexual assault is rape). The term rape is often used as a legal definition that specifically refers to sexual penetration without consent.
Survivors of sexual violence are more likely to experience mental health challenges and distress than the general population. They are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, use drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity. They’re also at increased risk of suicide. Some studies have suggested that female victims are up to 20 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who have not experienced sexual violence. Trauma related to sexual violence also has an economic impact on victims related to taking time off, diminished performance, job loss, or being unable to work.
Any type of trauma is associated with a higher risk of experiencing PTSD than the general population, and sexual assault victims have a higher prevalence of PTSD than survivors of other types of trauma. Individuals who have been victims of multiple acts of sexual violence are even more likely to experience PTSD, and it’s estimated that over 50% of victimized individuals will be revictimized during their lifetime.
The great majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone who knows the victim. Studies estimate somewhere between 60% and 80% of sexual violence is committed by an intimate partner, family member, friend, or acquaintance. Every 9 minutes, a child is sexually assaulted in the U.S., and 9 out of 10 times, the child knows the perpetrator.
Sexual violence remains one of the most underreported crimes. In fact, less than 25% of sexual violence that takes place is ultimately reported. Research has shown that embarrassment and guilt are the leading reasons victims do not report acts of sexual violence against them, followed by not wanting to tell friends and family, concerns about confidentiality, and fears they won’t be believed. As a result, fewer than 5% of perpetrators will be arrested, and fewer than 1% will go to jail. An estimated 20% of perpetrators will repeat acts of sexual violence, and approximately 50% of perpetrators will commit another violent crime of some sort.
Reporting to the police can be a complicated experience for physical and cultural reasons. Many police forces have not been equipped with trauma-informed training for responding to sexual assault victims. Due to trauma’s effects on the brain (memory loss), victims may have a hard time interacting with law enforcement. Police officers without proper training may misread these trauma responses as lying or stalling the investigation. Due to a history of bias and racism from law enforcement, Black survivors in particular may not feel safe reporting or working with law enforcement to report a perpetrator.