Rape and sexual assault can have a serious effect on short and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health. Here you can find information on the link between rape, sexual assault and health inequalities as well as actions that can be taken to address this.

The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 defines rape as 'penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person by the penis without consent'. The offence covers surgically constructed genitalia, for example as a result of gender reassignment surgery.

The Act also covers a range of sexual assault and abuse, such as

  • penetration of the vagina or anus by parts of the body (such as a finger) or objects (such as a bottle or a vibrator)
  • being forcibly touched in a sexual manner
  • ejaculating semen onto a person
  • forcing or coercing someone to have sex with someone else
  • being forced to look at pornography
  • sexual harassment.

Most sexual violence is carried out by someone known to the victim such as spouses, intimate partners, friends, family members, colleagues and others.

  • 10% of women and 2% of men in Scotland have been raped since the age of 13.
  • 19% of women and 4% of men in Scotland have experienced attempted rape.
  • 20% of women and 4% of men experience sexual assault as adults (aged 16 to 59).
  • In 87% of cases of serious sexual assault against women, the victim knew the perpetrator and over half of these were committed by their partner.
  • Only 12% of rapes reported in 2015-16 were prosecuted and only 6% resulted in a conviction.

Rape and sexual assault and health inequalities

Rape and sexual assault can have a serious effect on short and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health.

  • Experiencing sexual violence as an adult can trigger intense reactions for survivors of child sexual abuse. This is linked to elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
  • Sexual violence within intimate relationships can induce higher levels of depression and anxiety, PTSD and gynaecological disorders
  • Physical health issues include STIs, urinary tract infections, chronic pain, headaches and sexual dysfunction.

Although rape and sexual assault can happen to anyone regardless of sex, sexual identity or gender, the key risk is being female   

No-one is immune from the risk of sexual violence, but we do not all share the same level of risk. Age, cultural issues, social isolation, discrimination, communication difficulties etc. can increase risk and be a barrier to people seeking help.

For example

  • disabled women and girls are at greater risk of physical, sexual and psychological violence; this risk increases for women with learning disabilities
  • sexual violence is underreported in black and ethnic minority communities
  • involvement in prostitution often leads to repeat victimisation. This includes people, usually women, trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Although fewer men than women are sexually assaulted, the impact is severe. It may be difficult for men to talk about such abuse because of a commonly held stereotype that men should be 'strong' and able to protect themselves.

LGBT+ people face significant levels of abuse, harassment and violence. The Hate Crime Report: Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the UK survey (external site) reported that 1 in 10 LGBT+ people who had experienced hate crime said it had involved some form of sexual violence.  Homophobic and transphobic attitudes can influence any decision about disclosure or reporting.

Unlike other crimes, victims are often held responsible for sexual violence. Recent surveys have shown high levels of blame relating to alcohol intake, style of dress, flirting and sexual history. Men and LGBT+ people similarly face stereotypical reactions which can belittle the devastating impact of sexual violence, encountering disbelief or ridicule.

If you suspect that someone may be affected by rape or sexual assault, you may have the opportunity to provide a safe environment to support disclosure and assist recovery. Guidance for health workers on understanding sexual violence, its impact on health, the related inequalities and how to identify and respond sensitively is available.

National and local actions

Scottish Government Taskforce

In 2017, the Scottish Government established the 'Taskforce for the Improvement of Services for Adults and Children who have experienced Rape and Sexual Assault'. Led by the Chief Medical Officer, it is focused on improving the provision of healthcare and forensic medical services. In the aftermath of rape and sexual assault. The Taskforce reports jointly to the Cabinet Secretaries for Justice and Health.

Police Scotland National Rape Taskforce

Police Scotland has a dedicated National Rape Taskforce which includes Rape Investigation Units in each of its 14 local divisions.

These units are led by Detective Inspectors and staffed by specially trained officers. They aim to improve the quality of rape investigations, deliver better targeted local service delivery, supported by key partners, and improve the quality of specialist support across Scotland.

Local rape crisis centres

There are local rape crisis centres across Scotland which provide emotional and practical support, information and advocacy to anyone affected by sexual violence.

All centres provide an initial service to men and boys. For some centres, this involves initial signposting to other support services. Others provide ongoing support to both women and men.

Support can include

  • information on the law
  • health and other issues
  • accompaniment to clinics, the police or court
  • referral to other agencies which can help
  • assistance with reporting to the police
  • therapies, such as relaxation and aromatherapy.

Local contacts

Each territorial NHS Board has an Executive Lead and Operational Lead for gender based violence (GBV). You can contact your local lead for information on local policies, training opportunities and support for staff.

Information for the public

Information for the public, including support organisations for female and male victims, is available at mygov.scot (external site).

Members of the public can also be directed towards Scotland's Service Directory on NHS inform which provides information on