Sexual violence is a widespread problem. It happens in every community and affects people of all genders and ages. Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men are victims of rape. Sexual violence is defined as any sexual activity where consent is not freely given. Even for those of us who don’t directly experience it, we are all impacted by sexual violence because of how it affects communities and society—especially survivors and their loved ones.

Here are some tips and signs to help you be better aware and make a difference when it comes to preventing sexual assault or providing support to victims.

Signs of Distress

Whether you are a parent, educator, administrator, coworker or friend, you can make a difference in someone’s life by noticing the warning signs of sexual assault. Sexual assault can occur in many places, especially on college campuses and places frequented by students. Considering the fact that seven out of 10 cases of sexual assault involve the perpetrator being someone the victim knows, it’s not easy for victims to come forward. It can be hard for someone to open up about their experience, particularly if the perpetrator is a part of a friend group, a classmate, a family member or a familiar acquaintance. There are many reasons why a victim may choose not to report sexual assault to law enforcement or to tell anyone else. Such reasons include distrust of law enforcement, desire to protect the attacker and concern about not being believed or being treated differently.

Some of the signs of distress shown by sexual assault victims may include:

  • Depression
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increase in drug or alcohol use
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Avoiding specific places or situations
  • Falling grades or withdrawing from classes
  • Self-harming behaviors or suicidal tendencies
  • Increased anxiety

If you notice these warning signs in someone, it’s worth reaching out to them.

When To Seek Help

After a sexual assault occurs, you may be unsure how to properly respond to or support victims. Victims may be physically hurt, emotionally drained or unsure of what to do next. If you or someone you know are the victim of sexual assault, don’t be embarrassed to ask for or provide help and support. Calling someone trustworthy such as a good friend or family member may help victims realize they are not alone and that there are people that can give them the support they need. Seek medical attention as soon as possible, as proper medical care can address any injuries that may have been incurred and also protect victims against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual assault. If you are helping a victim, it’s important to listen and communicate without judgment. If they seek medical attention or make plans to report the assault, offer to be there for them and provide a supportive presence. Encourage the victim to get support from resources such as hotlines and sexual violence awareness/prevention organizations.

Situational/Preventative Tips

The aim of prevention is to stop sexual assault before it has a chance to happen. It is possible to create communities and environments where everyone is treated with respect and equality. This is done through promoting safe behaviors, healthy relationships and thoughtful policies. Prevention is everyone’s responsibility. As individuals, we all play a role in fostering a safe environment.

Here are a few things we can all do to prevent sexual assault:

  • Promote and practice healthy relationships, behaviors and attitudes.
  • Intervene to stop disrespectful and problematic behavior.
  • Believe survivors and help them in finding resources for support.

There are also numerous actions and measures individuals can take for preventative measures in various settings where sexual assaults often occur, such as parties.

  • When partying or spending time out in public, stick with your friends.
  • Hold onto your drink—even when you go to the restroom.
  • Don’t share drinks and don’t accept a drink from someone unless you watch the bartender pour it.
  • Always keep your cell phone charged and on your person.
  • Make sure you have arranged a ride home or plan to walk home with a friend or roommate.
  • When on a date or dealing with someone, set clear limits and be firm. Do not give mixed messages. “Yes” means yes and “no” means no. Be sure that your words do not conflict other signals such as eye contact or gestures.
  • Be independent and aware.
  • Avoid secluded places where you could be vulnerable.

Businesses, schools and community settings can create proactive policies to facilitate a safer environment. Employers can conduct trainings on bystander intervention. There can also be displays of prevention messages at schools and businesses.

Five Things You Can Do To Make A Difference

The time for prevention is now. You can make a difference in the fight to stop sexual violence. Here are five things you can do to help make a difference:

If you know someone who is a victim of sexual assault, reach out to them and let them know that you care and support them.

  • Make your voice heard. Contact Congress about your support for legislation to improve the criminal justice system, bring sexual predators to justice and support survivors. Contact your member of Congress about legislation that is important to victims of sexual violence.
  • Donate your time. Volunteer and get involved in your community. There are so many ways to do this. Help your local rape crisis center, get involved on your campus, or volunteer for the online hotline.
  • Get social. Share important information and articles to educate your social networks about sexual assault awareness and prevention.
  • Join a support campaign. Help survivors and the community by joining campaigns that promote awareness and prevention as well as supporting victims.

Most victims experience sexual violence before the age of 25. Although sexual violence and sexual assault are recognized as a widespread problem in communities, organizations and across campuses, we can help prevent these senseless attacks through proper awareness and responsible actions by the community at large. Sexual assault can be prevented, so it’s important that we work together to take action.