Sexual Assault 

Updated: Nov 10, 2015
Author: William S Ernoehazy, Jr, MD, FACEP; Chief Editor: Gil Z Shlamovitz, MD, FACEP 


Practice Essentials

Sexual assaults are distinguished from other assaults by forcible, inappropriate sexual behavior. In the course of a sexual assault, any injury may be inflicted on the victim, up to and including life-threatening multiorgan system trauma.

Signs and symptoms

Signs of sexual assault include evidence of the use of force and/or lack of consent, such as the following:

  • Presence of blood and/or sperm

  • Contusions

  • Lacerations

  • Abdominal trauma

  • Joint dislocation

  • Mechanical back pain

  • Abruptio placentae

  • Lesions caused by forceful genital penetration

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also result from sexual assault, as can unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease infection.

See Clinical Presentation for more detail.


Laboratory studies

Urine or serum pregnancy tests should be obtained in women of childbearing age. Baseline testing for sexually transmitted disease (STD), although controversial, may be carried out, including the following:

  • Serologic tests for syphilis, hepatitis B, and HIV

  • Cultures of exposed body sites, as appropriate, to evaluate for STDs (eg, oral, throat, vaginal, and rectal)

  • Wet mount and culture of a vaginal swab specimen to evaluate for Trichomonas vaginalis, bacterial vaginosis, and candidiasis


Colposcopy, where available, may have considerable value in documentation, because it allows photographic recording of injuries, including lesions caused by forceful genital penetration. Anoscopy may be performed in male victims and may be combined with colposcopy in female victims.

See Workup for more detail.


Emergency department care

Medical intervention in sexual assault is focused on prevention of unwanted pregnancy and STDs. This includes the administration of antibiotics (eg, ceftriaxone, metronidazole, and azithromycin) as prophylaxis against diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Pregnancy prophylaxis, such as Ovral tablets, is offered if the patient’s pregnancy test results are negative. Additional treatment for sexual assault includes updating the patient’s tetanus status, if necessary, and administration of hepatitis B vaccine if the patient has not previously been vaccinated. Follow-up doses of the vaccine are administered over the next few months.


If available, a consultation with a sexual assault counselor should be offered in the emergency department. The patient should also be referred to a sexual assault center for aftercare and community resources. Given the long-term emotional and psychosocial impact of sexual assault on the victim, aftercare is vital.

See Treatment and Medication for more detail.


Patients who come to the ED after sexual assault present several challenges to the physician.

The patient may be ashamed and unwilling to give a clear history of the assault, at precisely the time when such history is critical for timely treatment and forensic documentation. The need for both treatment and evidence collection means that clinicians find themselves simultaneously advocates for the patient and assistants to state and local law enforcement.

It is vital to both the health of the patient and the well-being of society that the ED physician know how to proceed in such cases.


Sexual assaults are distinguished from other assaults by forcible, inappropriate sexual behavior. Sexual assault is an act of violence, not of sexual gratification. Sex is the weapon; it is a means, not the end.

A myriad of different psychological classifications have been proposed to characterize the sexual assailant, but the psychodynamics involved in all such schema involve feelings of inadequacy, unchanneled rage (eg, impulse control disorders), or other aberrant character disorders.[1]


The National Crime Victimization Survey for 2014 reported 284,350 rape/sexual assaults in the United States.[2] It is certain that many more assaults occur than are reported due to postassault stress and misplaced shame levied against the victim. Current best estimates indicate that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be the victim of a sexual assault at least once in their lifetime.


In the course of a sexual assault, any injury may be inflicted on the victim, up to and including life-threatening multiorgan system trauma.

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause long-term psychological impairment.[3] For further information, see Medscape's Resource Center on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), each stemming directly from the sexual nature of the attack, are also sources of subsequent morbidity and mortality.




Sexual assault victims come from all socioeconomic and racial groups. 

Data obtained from a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program was reviewed for all ED patient records with a complaint of sexual assault between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2004. From this data, 1172 patient records were included; 92.6% were women; 59.1% were black, 38.6% were white, and 2.3% were classified as "other".[4]


Most sexual assaults involve women.[5]  However, men may also present to EDs as victims of sexual assault. Societal attitudes and myths about male victims of sexual assault discourage them from coming forward; it is altogether likely that such assaults are even more underreported than female victim assaults.


All ages are potential victims of sexual assault, from toddlers to elderly individuals. The 2013 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessed the risk of teen dating violence (TDV), both physical and sexual. The results show that, among students who dated, 20.9% of female students (95% CI, 19.0%-23.0%) and 10.4% of male students (95% CI, 9.0%-11.7%) experienced some form of TDV during the 12 months before the survey. Female students had a higher prevalence than male students of physical TDV only, sexual TDV only, both physical and sexual TDV, and any TDV.[6]

A recent retrospective cohort analysis of 1917 adult women who had presented to either a sexual assault clinic or an ED found that 84% of the women were 18-39 years old while 4% of women were at least 50 years old.[7]  Another study showed an average age of 27 years among women who presented to an ED.[4]




After performing a preliminary survey to establish the presence of any potentially serious injury or illness, obtain further history from the victim.[8] Address the following:

  • A brief description of the incident

  • Location of the assault

  • Identity of the assailant or assailants, if known

  • Home and workplace of the assailant, if known

  • Method by which the assailant left the scene

  • Whether or not a weapon was used to coerce the victim

  • Whether or not drugs were proffered to render the victim incapable of resistance

  • Whether or not the patient has changed clothes, showered, or douched since the incident

A standard obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) history should also be taken to facilitate appropriate pregnancy and STD prophylaxis. This should include last menstrual period, birth control method, and time of last consensual intercourse.


In many jurisdictions, sexual assault centers provide trained examiners (generally Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE teams) to perform evidence collection and to provide initial contact with the aftercare resources of the center. In such cases, the physician may confidently defer the gynecologic examination to the SANE; studies have repeatedly demonstrated the accuracy of sexual assault examinations performed by SANE teams. Clinicians must nonetheless be diligent and exacting in their general examination and in their documentation. Discrepancies between the ED record and the SANE report can sow doubt about the facts of the case in the minds of juries. Defense lawyers will not fail to exploit such discrepancies.

If no dedicated SANE teams or resources are available in the hospital's area, the assault examination falls to the ED physician.

  • Evidence of the use of force and/or lack of consent (eg, presence of blood and/or sperm, contusions, lacerations, other injuries consistent with resistance) should be sought.

  • Evidence of other injuries and diseases should be sought during the ED examination and treated where present. Again, the physical examination must be thorough and accurately documented.





Laboratory Studies

Obtain urine or serum pregnancy tests in women of childbearing age.

Preexisting pregnancy may complicate management of coexisting injuries and is a contraindication to providing Ovral for pregnancy prevention.

Baseline screening for STDs includes the following:

  • Serologic tests for syphilis, hepatitis B, and HIV: HIV testing may be problematic in EDs because of laws in some states that stipulate mandatory counseling and follow-up care. However, the CDC recommends HIV screening for patients in all healthcare settings after the patient is notified that testing will be performed unless the patient declines (ie, opt-out screening).[9, 10] Policy and guidelines should be established in advance with local sexual assault aftercare groups and OB/GYN services in accordance with prevailing law and CDC guidelines.

  • Cultures of exposed body sites (eg, oral, throat, vaginal, rectal) as appropriate: Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines consider Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–approved nucleic acid amplification tests an acceptable substitute for culture, as long as positive test results are confirmed by a second study.[11] Other tests (EIA, nonamplified probes, direct fluorescent antibody tests) are not considered acceptable alternatives by the CDC because of unacceptable false-negative and false-positive result rates.

  • Wet mount and culture of a vaginal swab specimen to evaluate for Trichomonas vaginalis, bacterial vaginosis, and candidiasis

Recently, controversy has arisen concerning the usefulness of baseline STD testing of sexual assault victims. Opponents note the following:

  • Patients are offered antibiotic prophylaxis regardless of results from the preliminary screening.

  • The presence of STD baseline testing in the medical record invites defense attorneys to bring the victims to the witness stand, thereby opening prolonged interrogation of victims regarding their sexual histories in efforts to impeach the creditability of their stories. Many jurisdictions now forbid such inquiries into victims' personal lives, unless the victims' other sexual life experiences are somehow brought into the body of evidence before the court. These legal protections can, however, sometimes be breached, to the detriment of the victim.

These points are vigorously disputed by advocates of routine baseline testing. The CDC, in its most recent guidelines for the treatment and prevention of STDs, discusses the pros and cons of testing at some length.

Imaging Studies

Imaging studies are only indicated for evaluation of comorbid trauma.

Other Tests

To collect evidence, most hospitals have a prepackaged rape kit with the necessary equipment and detailed instructions. However, if the sexual assault victim presents 72 hours after the event, the evidence collection kit is no longer needed for legal documentation of the case.


Colposcopy, where available, may have considerable value in documentation because it allows photographic recording of injuries. Anoscopy may be performed in male victims, and it may be combined with colposcopy in female victims.

Evidence suggests that if speculum examination is performed before toluidine blue application to the posterior fourchette (to enhance small lesions that may occur during forceful genital penetration), the speculum itself may cause small lesions that will take up the dye. These iatrogenic lesions will be seen on colposcopy. Clinicians should consider deferring speculum examination until after external colposcopy if toluidine blue is to be used.



Prehospital Care

If EMS is involved in transporting the patient, their primary focus should be on stabilization of life-threatening injuries and providing emotional support for the victim. Evidence collection and crisis intervention should be handled by the ED team.

Emergency Department Care

The responsibilities of the ED physician are more complex than in routine patients. The examiner must provide psychological support and referral to the appropriate resources, treat physical injuries, collect legal evidence, document pertinent history, perform a thorough head-to-toe physical examination, give prevention of unwanted pregnancy, and provide prevention of and screening for STDs.

Even in areas where SANE team support is readily available, the clinician must be mindful that the ED record also constitutes legal evidence. Treatment and documentation must be accurate and meticulous.

At present, CDC guidelines for postsexual assault prophylaxis are as follows[12, 13]

  • Ceftriaxone 250 mg IM in a single dose, plus azithromycin 1 g PO in a single dose, plus metronidazole 2 g PO in a single dose or tinidazole 2 g PO in a single dose.

HPV vaccination is recommended for female survivors aged 9–26 years and male survivors aged 9–21 years. For men who have sex with men (MSM) who have not received the HPV vaccine or who have been incompletely vaccinated, vaccine can be administered through age 26 years. The vaccine should be administered to sexual assault survivors at the time of the initial examination, and follow-up dose administered at 1–2 months and 6 months after the first dose.[12, 13]

Recommendations for HIV PEP are individualized according to risk. According to the NY State Department of Health, the preferred PEP regimen for sexual assault is the same as that for other types of nonoccupational exposures and occupational exposures: Tenofovir 300 mg PO daily and Emtricitabine 200 mg PO daily plus Raltegravir 400 mg PO twice daily or Dolutegravir 50 mg PO daily.[14]

Offer pregnancy prophylaxis if the pregnancy test results are negative. The current regimen of choice is 2 Ovral tablets PO in the ED, then 2 more tablets 12 hours later.

Update tetanus status when necessary.

Evaluate the patient's hepatitis B immunization status.

  • Postexposure hepatitis B vaccination, without hepatitis B immunoglobulin, should adequately protect against the hepatitis B virus.

  • Hepatitis B vaccine should be administered to sexual assault victims at the time of the initial examination if they have not been previously vaccinated. Follow-up doses of vaccine should be administered 1-2 months and 4-6 months after the first dose.

If available, offer a consultation with a sexual assault counselor in the ED. Further, refer the patient to a sexual assault center for aftercare and community resources. Given the long-term emotional and psychosocial impact of sexual assault on the victim, aftercare is vital. Community-based sexual assault centers are essential to such efforts; they serve not only as headquarters for SANE teams but also as aftercare clinics and resource centers for patients dealing with the aftermath of the assault. If such a center is not available, consultation with social services can provide access to such services that may exist in the region.

Provide reassurance and emotional support.


Refer to either the sexual assault center or the OB/GYN for follow up on laboratory tests and to discuss subsequent HIV surveillance and completion of hepatitis B prophylaxis (when necessary).

If the assailant is known to be HIV seropositive or is a high-risk contact, HIV prophylaxis should be considered at the time of ED contact if the patient is seen within the appropriate time window to initiate therapy. Immediate discussion with the OB/GYN and/or infectious diseases services is indicated in such cases. Risk of contracting HIV from a single sexual encounter is somewhere between 1:500 for known seropositivity and 1:5,000,000 for a low-risk assailant.

Guidelines on postexposure prophylaxis of the sexual assault victim are available from the CDC and New York State Department of Health.[13, 14]



Medication Summary

Medical intervention in sexual assault is focused on prevention of unwanted pregnancy and STDs. The recommendations below follow the most recent CDC guidelines, dated August 2006.[11]


Class Summary

Empiric antimicrobial therapy must be comprehensive and should cover all likely pathogens in the context of the clinical setting.

Ceftriaxone (Rocephin)

Current DOC for prophylaxis against gonorrheal infection. Third-generation cephalosporin with broad-spectrum, gram-negative activity; lower efficacy against gram-positive organisms; higher efficacy against resistant organisms. Bactericidal activity results from inhibiting cell wall synthesis by binding to 1 or more penicillin-binding proteins. Exerts antimicrobial effect by interfering with synthesis of peptidoglycan, a major structural component of the bacterial cell wall. Bacteria eventually lyse because of the ongoing activity of cell wall autolytic enzymes while cell wall assembly is arrested.

Highly stable in presence of beta-lactamases and both penicillinase and cephalosporinase of gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. Approximately 33-67% of dose is excreted unchanged in urine and remainder is secreted in bile and ultimately in feces as microbiologically inactive compounds. Reversibly binds to human plasma proteins and bindings have been reported to decrease from 95% bound at plasma concentrations < 25 mcg/mL to 85% bound at 300 mcg/mL.

Cefixime (Suprax)

In August 2012, the CDC announced changes to 2010 sexually transmitted disease guidelines for gonorrhea treatment. The Gonococcal Isolate Surveillance Project (GISP) described a decline in cefixime susceptibility among urethral N gonorrhoeae isolates in the United States during 2006-2011. Because of cefixime's lower susceptibility, new guidelines were issued that no longer recommend oral cephalosporins for first-line gonococcal infection treatment. Cefixime inhibits bacterial cell wall synthesis, and the bacteria eventually lyse because of ongoing activity of cell wall autolytic enzymes while cell wall assembly is arrested.

Metronidazole (Flagyl, Metro)

Active against various anaerobic bacteria and protozoa. Appears to be absorbed into cells. Intermediate-metabolized compounds formed bind DNA and inhibit protein synthesis, causing cell death.

Azithromycin (Zithromax, Zmax)

Treats mild to moderate infections caused by susceptible strains of microorganisms. Indicated for prophylaxis of chlamydial infections of the genital tract.

Doxycycline (Morgidox, Doryx, Vibramycin, Avidoxy, Acticlate, Oracea)

Alternate to azithromycin in STD prophylaxis regimens. Broad-spectrum, synthetically derived bacteriostatic antibiotic in the tetracycline class. Almost completely absorbed, concentrates in bile, and is excreted in urine and feces as a biologically active metabolite in high concentrations.

Inhibits protein synthesis and thus bacterial growth by binding to 30S and possibly 50S ribosomal subunits of susceptible bacteria. May block dissociation of peptidyl tRNA from ribosomes, causing RNA-dependent protein synthesis to arrest.

Oral contraceptives

Class Summary

These agents are used to prevent unwanted pregnancies after sexual assault.



Further Outpatient Care

See the list below:

  • As noted above, aftercare is a vital component of recovery for the sexual assault victim. Every effort must be made to provide the victim with adequate referral to community resources.

Further Inpatient Care

See the list below:

  • Patients with coexisting injuries or psychiatric symptoms may require inpatient care, with admission to the appropriate service.


See the list below:

  • Patients may be transferred to freestanding sexual assault clinics for evidence collection (when such centers exist); however, patients should be transferred only after coexistent trauma and disease have been assessed and treated.

  • Severe injuries may mandate transfer to regional trauma centers following surgical consultation.

  • In either case, compliance with Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) requirements is mandatory.


See the list below:

  • Unwanted pregnancy

  • STDs

  • Posttraumatic stress reactions and disorders

  • Morbidity and mortality (arising from physical injuries incurred during the sexual assault)


See the list below:

  • The prognosis for sexual assault victims is generally favorable if adequate aftercare is available to assist the victim in recovery.

Patient Education

See the list below:

  • Community education about sexual violence is generally agreed to be worthwhile, although evidence for its efficacy in incident reduction is meager, at best.

  • For excellent patient education resources, see eMedicineHealth's patient education article Sexual Assault.