By Dr. Nancy C. Lee, Director, Office on Women’s Health
Sexual violence is a serious public health issue that affects millions of Americans, especially women.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five women have been raped in their lifetime, and more than one in three have experienced other forms of sexual violence. As a nation, we need to address this threat.
Sexual assault is any type of unwanted sexual contact or experience. Most often, women know the person who assaults them. It might be a partner, friend, coworker, neighbor, or family member. No matter who it is — even if it’s someone you’re in a romantic relationship with — no one has the right to force you into unwanted sexual activity or attention.
If you have been sexually assaulted, it is not your fault — no matter where or how it happened.
It might feel scary to ask for help or support, but help is available. Whether you were assaulted recently or many years ago, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or use the Online Hotline. Both are free, confidential, and open 24/7. Trained staff are there to listen, give you support, and help you find any resources you might need.
Even with these free resources, many women who experience sexual assault don’t get the help they need. Many women do not report it because they’re afraid, worried their stories won’t be believed, or feel embarrassed or ashamed. They may also keep it to themselves because they’ve been threatened with further trouble if they tell anyone.
At the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health, we believe health care providers may be a resource for women to get the help they need. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, providers are now able to take on a bigger role in addressing sexual assault and abuse. The health care law requires most health insurance plans to cover screening and counseling for interpersonal and domestic violence with no cost-sharing.
Doctors or nurses can screen you for interpersonal violence during your annual well-woman visit or at any other health care visit, making it part of routine care. Your provider may ask you about violence directly or she may be more subtle. For example, if you have asthma, your provider may ask you if anyone at home prevents you from using your asthma medication. If you were to answer “yes,” it would be a sign that you may be in an unhealthy relationship. Your provider could then help you find appropriate services and resources.
The next time you visit your doctor or nurse for a routine checkup, don’t be surprised if she asks you about abuse, however she works it into the conversation. You may be in a healthy, happy relationship today — but for those who are not, those questions could be the first step to getting help.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Please share this post with the women in your life.