Options for Survivors
Adapted by GMU Student Support and Advocacy Center
All survivors of sexual assault and rape have three legal remedies open to them. The three primary options are:
- Criminal prosecution
- Civil suit for damages
- Third-party report
Mason students have additional options, which are described at the end of this section.
These avenues are not mutually exclusive. First, it’s important that you not feel coerced into any action. Criminal and civil suits take time and may result in no conviction or loss of a suit. Yet, many survivors who have chosen either or both options have found the process to be empowering, regardless of the outcome.
However, it would be helpful to discuss these options with a sexual assault counselor, victim-witness coordinator, a lawyer with experience in this area, as well as family and friends. Establish your support system in advance. These people are the same individuals you might rely on throughout the legal proceedings.
In order to prosecute criminally, you must file a formal report with the police department. It is also to your advantage to have evidence collected at the emergency room. If you reported after the 72-hour “window” for effective evidence collection, you may still report, and still go forward with prosecution. You may request to speak to an officer who has experience dealing with victims of sexual assault and can help make the report a more comfortable experience for you.
Once you have given a report to a police officer, the case is assigned to an investigator, usually a detective specially trained to handle sexual assault cases. You will also be assigned a Victim-Witness Assistant whose job is to guide you through the legal system. You may also request the GMU Student Support and Advocacy Center Advocate to accompany you on all interviews, etc.
If you decide to press charges, and if the Commonwealth’s Attorney decides there is enough evidence, criminal charges are brought against the assailant. If the location of the assailant is known, an arrest takes place and a bond hearing is held the next business day.
It may seem very impersonal, but from this point on your role becomes solely that of “witness”. It is the state of Virginia (“the People”), as represented by the Commonwealth’s Attorney, which brings charges against the perpetrator, with your testimony serving as evidence. Your testimony is essential to successful prosecution, yet you will only be in the courtroom during the time you testify. This means that you may be sitting outside the courtroom for hours until you are called.
For more details about the process of reporting to law enforcement, or the criminal justice process, click here.
Victims may hire a private attorney to file a lawsuit for damages against the perpetrator. This process takes place in a local civil (not criminal) court. The suit must be filed within two years of the incident date. The purpose of the lawsuit is to financially compensate the victim for the wrong that has been done to them. Often the case is settled by agreement between the parties before trial.
Third-Party or Anonymous Reports
In Virginia, survivors may choose to report a sexual assault to law enforcement and identify or describe the suspect but not prosecute. This can help law enforcement to determine patterns of sexual crimes in the community, Student Support and Advocacy Center can assist you in making a third-party anonymous report to law enforcement authorities.
This informal process may be initiated when a student chooses not to pursue criminal or disciplinary proceedings but does seek information about university and community support services. University departments, including the Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Health Services, Dean for Students, University Police, Women and Gender Studies Research and Resource Center, and Housing and Residence Life Office, may file an anonymous sexual assault report on behalf of the victim with the Student Support and Advocacy Center coordinator.
Cases that represent a danger to the campus community will be referred to the University Crisis Management Team for release of a protective notification bulletin. No identifying victim information will be given. Resident advisers are obligated, however, to share sexual assault reports, including victim names, with professional Housing and Residential Life staff for possible follow-up actions by the Dean of Students.
Choices Regarding Legal Issues
Reporting to Law Enforcement
|If you choose to report||If you choose not to report|
|You may withdraw your report at any time||You will not automatically receive an evidence exam|
|You should consent to a Sexual Assault Evidence Exam within 72 hours||You should receive a general medical exam|
|You can and are encouraged to have a victim advocate to be with you at the hospital||You CAN change your mind and file a report to the police; your evidence will not be as substantial without the Evidence Exam|
|Your name will be on the criminal warrant (legal document authorizing an arrest)||You may file an anonymous report through a third party.(sexual assault crisis centers, etc.)|
|Your name will appear on the indictment (legal document accusing a person of a crime)||You have 72 hours of after the incident to change your mind and receive an Evidence Exam|
|Your name and personal information WILL NOT be made available to persons not working on the case!||You should seek support from some kind of victim service, sexual assault crisis center, counselor, victim advocate|
|You will be interviewed by law enforcement, medical staff, investigator (detective), prosecutor (your attorney)||You will be interviewed during your medical exam and if you choose follow up counseling (highly recommended!)|
|Your medical fees will be paid for by the Commonwealth, hospital, police department or sexual assault crisis center||Effective July 1, 2008 – Victims of sexual assault no longer have to report to police in order to request an evidence-gathering exam. Reporting to law enforcement is NOT a pre-condition for evidence collection or for payment by Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund.|
|Criminal Case||Civil Case|
|You wish the assailant to be charged with a crime and prosecuted by the Commonwealth||You wish to hire a private attorney to sue the assailant or a third party for personal damages|
|The defendant (assailant) must be found “guilty beyond reasonable doubt”||Standard of proof is lower, jury does not have to be unanimous for you, the victim, to prevail|
|An evidence exam within 72 hours of the incident will serve to collect as much evidence as possible||An evidence exam may still be used in a civil case|
|Your medical and legal fees are paid for by the Commonwealth||if you win your suit, the defendant is ordered to pay money for damages caused – medical expenses, loss of income, tuition, pain and suffering, etc.|
|Once tried as a criminal case, it cannot be tried again||You can sue a third party, a business or a person, who failed to provide reasonable safety; usually this requires a relationship such as employee- – workplace, student-campus, guest-hotel, tenant- landlord, etc.|
|Rape Shield Laws apply, meaning your past sexual history cannot be used in court||Civil suits can be used alone, in addition, or after a criminal case|
|You are charging one or more individuals with a crime|
There are two kinds of exams available for victims of sexual assault: a forensics exam and a general medical exam.
It is important for a survivor to see a physician or nurse as soon as possible in order to receive necessary medical treatment and to allow for the collection of evidence. Even if the survivor does not notice any injuries, they should still have a medical examination in case there are internal injuries.
A victim may also be at risk for contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or becoming pregnant. The examining physician or nurse may give a victim medicine to protect a victim from acquiring a sexually transmitted infection from the assault as well as medication to prevent pregnancy. It is important that a victim discuss treatment options with a health care professional.
On campus and off campus examination
- Compassionate health care providers in Student Health Services (SUB I, Room 2300, 703-993-2831) are available (at no charge to survivors) for treatment and further information.
- Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) at Fairfax Hospital will conduct examinations to collect evidence (called a Physical Evidence Recovery Kit, or PERK) and treat minor injuries at no charge. No police report is necessary for survivors requesting a PERK.
- Fairfax County has developed a program called FACT (Forensic Assessment and Consultation Team, formerly known as SANE). Most examinations that involve evidence collection are performed at Fairfax Hospital. This program consists of a team of forensic nurses who have received extensive training in conducting sexual assault examinations.
For more information about the different types of medical care available to victims of sexual assault, please click on one of the topics below:
A forensic exam is a special exam, conducted no later than 5 days after the assault, to collect physical evidence that may be used in criminal proceedings. However in some cases injuries are so extensive that they have lasted longer than 5 days. An examination by a trained forensic doctor or nurse is required in order to collect physical evidence.
During a forensic exam, the forensic nurse will need information about the survivor’s medical history and details about the assault to aid in evidence collection and the examination of injuries. The survivor may have the victim advocate in the room to provide emotional support through the process, if so desired.
Evidence may be collected from the hair on the victim’s head, mouth, pubic hair and vagina, rectum and finger nails. Sometimes pictures may be taken of bruises, pinch marks, bite marks, scratches, lacerations or other injuries. Usually blood will be drawn for DNA identification also. In some cases clothing may need to be taken into evidence.
This physical evidence is a vital part of the case against the attacker. The fact that evidence has been collected does not mean that a survivor necessarily has to contact law enforcement or press charges against a perpetrator.
The forensic exam:
- Gathers evidence for use in court
- Preserves legal chain of evidence
- Does not require a victim to prosecute
- Without this exam criminal prosecution may be very difficult
- May be used in a civil suit
- Interviewed by doctor and/or sexual assault nurse examiner
- Must be performed at the hospital ER
- Paid for by Commonwealth (state)
For more information about payment for examination in the Commonwealth of Virginia please click here
General Medical Exam
If a victim decides not to report the crime, or if it has been more than 5 days since the attack, it is still important that a victim receive medical care. As a George Mason University student, a victim may wish to go to Student Health Services. The doctor and nurses who conduct the examination are trained in helping rape victims, and are sensitive to their needs. Examinations performed at Student Health Services do not involve evidence collection, but are confidential and provide necessary medical care and follow-up as needed.
The general medical exam:
- Check for injuries
- Screen for STI’s, pregnancy
- Set up follow up appointments
- Does not require a victim to prosecute or report
- Can be used in criminal cases but much less effective than an evidence exam
- Can be used in a civil suit
- History is taken by doctor or nurse
- Free at GMU Student Health Services (for GMU students only)
- Paid for by a victim if a victim goes to a private doctor
Options more than 5 days following the incident
General Medical Exam
- Check for injuries, even healed injuries
- Screen for STI’s, pregnancy
- Set up follow-up appointments
- Can be used in both criminal and civil cases
- Not usually performed because little evidence will remain for court use
- Commonwealth (state) will pay for an evidence exam after 5 days only when authorized by law enforcement
For more detailed information about the legal and medical options in the state of Virginia please click here
Laws & Policies
Please click on any of the subject headings below for information about that topic.
**These laws are effective as July 1, 2010**
Virginia Law associated with drug facilitated sexual assaults
An incapacitated person does NOT forfeit rights to consent. The Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes that someone who is drunk and/or drugged, is unable to give consent. This means if you have sex with a person who is passed out or otherwise incapable of giving consent, it WILL be considered sexual assault! For more information about consent, click here.
Additional options for Mason Students
George Mason University Policies and Statements
Use this menu to read about different Mason Policies and Statements. For information about the Judicial process, please visit the Office of Student Conduct.
Sexual Harassment (including sexual assault) policy (Repetitive sexual comments, questions, jokes, gestures)
- The Office of Equity and Diversity Services (OEDS) Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Grievance Procedure.
Workplace Violence (sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence)
- Virginia Department of Human Resource Management Policy 1.80 – Workplace Violence
Most people think Title IX has something to do with sports and equal opportunities for girls and boys in schools. That’s true. Title IX (of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq.), is a Federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities. All public and private schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving Federal funds must comply with Title IX.
What people often don’t realize is that Tile IX also addresses Sexual Harassment in schools, and specifically says schools have a responsibility to address sexual conduct that could “deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program.” Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion. For more information about responsibilities to address sexual harassment and sexual violence, click here. Mason students who wish to report a violation of their Title IX rights to the University should do so through Mason’s office of of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics. Student Support and Advocacy Center staff are available to help you with this process – contact us for more information.
For more information on what Title IX has done and is continuing to do please click here.