What is a sexual assault exam?

A sexual assault exam is a medical procedure conducted after a sexual assault of a woman, a man, or a child. The exam includes diagnosing and treating injuries, infections, and other problems resulting from the assault. A sexual assault exam also involves collecting DNA and other legal evidence of the assault.

A sexual assault exam is a specialized examination of your physical and psychological condition after you have experienced a sexual assault. It can help you recover more quickly from physical and psychological trauma after a sexual assault. It will also preserve the evidence that the court system may need to convict the perpetrator. 

You may request to have a sexual assault exam, or the police may ask you to have one if you report a sexual assault. However, having a sexual assault exam does not mean that you will have to press charges or testify in a case against the person who assaulted you. 

Every U.S. state must offer sexual assault exams to people who experience sexual violence, regardless of whether they want to report or prosecute the crime. The primary goal of the exam is to preserve your health and help you recover after an assault.

Why is a sexual assault exam performed? 

Police and healthcare providers recommend a sexual assault exam after a sexual assault. The exam includes diagnosing and treating injuries and other problems resulting from the assault. 

Injuries may include visible injuries such as broken bones and skin tears, as well as less obvious injuries including internal bleeding, damaged internal organs, and concussion. Other problems include psychological trauma and a risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  

Sexual assault exams are also performed to collect evidence of a sexual assault from your body and clothing. The authorities can use this evidence to find or prosecute the perpetrator of the assault.

Who performs a sexual assault exam?

A healthcare provider trained to conduct sexual assault exams performs a sexual assault exam. Your healthcare provider might be a sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE), a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE), or one of these types of doctors:

  • Emergency medicine doctors specialize in emergency care of people with serious and life-threatening illnesses and injuries.
  • Primary care providers including internists, family medicine doctors, and pediatricians offer routine and specialized healthcare and treat a wide range of illnesses.

How is a sexual assault exam performed?

You should not shower, change clothes, or eat or drink anything before your sexual assault exam if possible. This helps preserve the evidence of the assault. Evidence can still be collected and you can still be treated if you have done one or more of these activities.

Your sexual assault exam will be performed in a hospital or outpatient setting. The sexual assault exam generally includes these steps:

  1. You may be provided with a support person, such as a specially trained social worker, who will stay with you throughout the process if you choose.
  2. Your provider will talk with you about your health history, your current medication usage, your menstrual cycle (for females), and details about the sexual assault. This includes pain and possible injuries. 
  3. Your clothing will be collected as evidence. You will wear a patient gown during the examination and given new clothing to wear home after the exam.
  4. Your provider will carefully examine your entire body to identify and evaluate possible injuries. Your provider may perform imaging tests and other tests as needed to diagnose injuries.
  5. Your provider will treat your injuries.
  6. Your provider will perform a detailed exam of the mouth, anus, and male or female genitalia and reproductive organs. For females, this includes an internal pelvic exam. 
  7. Your provider will collect tissue and fluid samples to preserve DNA and other evidence of your assault. Samples are collected from inside your mouth, anus, and vagina or penis. A blood sample and scrapings from underneath your fingernails are collected as well. 
  8. Your clothing, photos, fluid and tissue samples, and a record of the exam are sealed in a special sexual assault kit that preserves the chain of evidence for the police. This is important if you chose to prosecute the offender.
  9. Your provider will give you medications to treat pain and prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. You will receive phone numbers and other resources for people and organizations who can help you navigate the legal and emotional challenges of a sexual assault.
  10. You may go to the bathroom, take a shower, and get dressed after the exam. 
  11. A police officer with training in handling sexual assault cases will take the sexual assault kit and offer to talk with you. You are not required to report the crime or discuss it. You will be given instructions for what to do if you decide to report it later.
  12. You can go home right after the exam if you do not have serious injuries. A hospital stay may be needed to treat serious injuries.