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How Does Someone React After a Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience and survivors will have reactions similar to those who have been through other types of trauma. While there are similarities in how different people may respond, each person will react to the incident in their own way.

There is no normal way to respond to sexual assault. A survivor may feel in shock, act like nothing has happened, or feel numb. While some people experience an overwhelming amount of emotions immediately after an assault, others find that days, months, or even years may pass before feelings surface. 

Minimize the Risk of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can happen to anyone at any time. Perpetrators, not survivors, are responsible for sexual assaults. Only a perpetrator can prevent a sexual assault, but we can all take steps to reduce the risk. 

When helping a friend please keep the following in mind:

When someone has been sexually assaulted, chances are that they will turn to a friend for help first. You are an important person to the survivor; this is why the survivor shared this experience with you. This page offers guidance on how to best support your friend. There are also resources available to you, because when you get support for yourself you will be better able to support your friend.

Make sure that you read the "What to do if I have been assaulted" section above. This section describes the common reactions that survivors experience. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that your friend has had his/her power taken away by the perpetrator. Please keep in mind as you are helping your friend that they need to maintain control over what happens next. You may offer information, but let your friend make their own decisions, including who they talk to, what services they access and what actions they decide to take or not take. Even if you disagree with your friend, supporting them in making their decisions will help them feel more in control. When they are in control, they will be better able to regain a sense of strength, power and safety.
Other important points to help you be a good helper include:

  • Don't take on responsibility for your friend
  • Be willing to listen
  • Don't over-extend yourself
  • Take care of your own needs
  • Allow your friend to maintain control of what happens next
  • Respect your friend's wishes
  • Know the resources on campus
  • Avoid judgment/blame

What if the sexual assault happened in the past few days?

There are some time sensitive decision your friend may have to make. If your friend is female, she can prevent pregnancy by taking emergency contraception within 120 hours (5 days) of the assault. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken as soon as possible. Collecting physical evidence must occur within 96 hours (4 days). medications to prevent the development of some sexually transmitted infections can be provided by Health Services. HIV prophylaxis treatment needs to be started within 72 hours. Screening for date rape drugs may be done up to 72 hours after the incident, but is optimally done within 12 hours. Since many of these drugs clear the system quickly, a negative test result does not necessarily mean that no drug was involved. It is helpful to inform your friend of this information, provide the options, and then let them decide to do or not to do next.

Should my friend report the sexual assault to the police?

Your friend may consider reporting the assault to the police and/or University officials. Reporting the incident is a very personal, difficult decision. This decision can only be made by the person who has been assaulted. It is best to avoid pressuring your friend to report the incident. For some survivors, reporting the crime can help regain a sense of personal power and control; bur for others, engaging with the criminal justice system may be a difficult and painful experience. See the WCU Police website for information about reporting a rape or sex offense crime and information about the criminal justice system.

Sexual assault and men

Gender stereotypes about men and boys make it particularly difficult for men to seek support. If your male friend has shared with you that he has been sexually assaulted it's important that you believe him, avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes about men and boys, and understand how he may react to the incident. Many people believe that only women are victims of sexual assault. The fact is that 1 out of every 10 is sexually assaulted. Although most perpetrators of sexual assault against men are male, women are perpetrators as well. A male assaulted by another male may question his sexuality and struggle with internalized homophobia. Research has consistently found that male and female victims experience similar effects: fear, anger, shame, isolation, substance abuse, low self-esteem, depression and issues with sexuality. Men may be more likely to outwardly express their anger and use substances to cope with difficult emotions; but like all survivors, individual reactions will vary and can depend on many things such as personal history and support from family and friends.


The university has two primary means through which incidents of sexual misconduct or violence can be addressed or investigated - the University Police Department and the Code of Student Conduct. Students may pursue a sexual misconduct or violence incident involving another student through the Code of Student Conduct regardless of the location of the incident. For your safety and protection, the university abides by the following policies and procedures:

NC General Statute 14-27.1 - 14.27.10 

North Carolina General Statute 14 (Criminal Law) Article 27 (Rape and Other Sex Offenses) is the state law by which all sex offenses are determined and prosecuted. Please note that incidents of sexual misconduct or violence that occur off-campus will be referred to Jackson County law enforcement agencies due to jurisdictional limitations.

This Western Carolina University Code of Student Conduct exercises the duty of the Chancellor to regulate matters of student conduct in the university community. All WCU students are expected to be familiar with the Code and to conduct themselves in accord with these requirements.

WCU Policy 53. Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Unlawful Harassment 

The University is committed to equal opportunity in educational programs and employment for all persons regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, military veteran status, political affiliation or sexual orientation.

The University reaffirms its commitment to academic freedom in this Policy, but recognizes that academic freedom does not allow sexual harassment. The discussion of sexual ideas, taboos, behavior or language which is an intrinsic part of course content shall in no event constitute sexual harassment. It is recognized that an essential function of education is a probing of opinions and an exploration of ideas that may cause some students discomfort. It is further recognized that academic freedom ensures the faculty's right to teach and the student's right to learn.

WCU Policy 116. Clery Act Compliance

The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Crime Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1998 ("Clery Act") requires colleges and universities receiving federal financial assistance to gather and make public information about certain crimes on or near their campuses and publish policy statements concerning campus safety and security. It is the policy of Western Carolina University (the "University") to comply with all requirements of the Clery Act. This policy sets forth guidelines and procedures intended to ensure that the University continues to comply with the Clery Act's reporting disclosure obligation as required by policy and law.

WCU Annual Safety Report

This report is prepared in compliance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, formerly known as the Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act.

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