Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence
If someone you know has told you that they were abused, it is because they trust you and they sense that you care for them. Safe and trustworthy relationships are the opposite of what happened during the abuse and are very important to a survivor’s recovery. You can repay that trust by being there for them and supporting them. You can help.
How you can help
You can tell them that you are glad they told you and that you want to help them. You can listen to what it is they want and what kind of help they need. You can offer to go to a Rape Crisis Centre with them, or ask if they want you to ring the Rape Crisis Centre for them. You can find out information for them.
Try not to make any decisions without their permission.
Here are some things to remember which might help:
- Support the survivor to stay in control. The sexual abuse and rape have taken away their power so it is important that you resist the very natural temptation to take over by arranging and doing things that you think are best. Instead, let the person talk and help and support them in their decisions.
- Listen and believe. It is important to take the person seriously, to believe what they tell you and to be prepared to hear shocking and upsetting details. Don’t cast doubt on what you are told. The person needs to be listened to by someone who can accept the truth of what they are saying.
- Don’t judge. It is important to accept the way they are reacting, even if this is not what you were expecting. It is best to get rid of any ideas you may have about how a person who has been raped or sexually abused should behave and to accept their reactions as normal. Common reactions.
- Challenge their self-blame. Survivors often feel guilty about being raped or abused and feel that they could, and should, have done something to stop it happening. Newspapers, jokes and myths about rape commonly blame the person for ‘inviting’ rape. It is important not to join in the blaming of the person for what actions they did or did not take. Don’t ask too many questions. Challenge any feelings they may have about having been careless, too trusting or provocative and help them put the blame where it belongs – with the person who assaulted them.
- Help with the practical steps and information. There are practical consequences of rape. Physical injury and sexually transmitted infections are possibilities for both women and men and pregnancy is a possibility for women. The survivor may need your support and encouragement to arrange to have tests done. More about medical attention.
- Let the person decide what legal steps she or he wishes to take. The decision on whether to report the assault to police and face a possible court case has to be considered. Some people find it helps them to regain some control over their lives by tackling these problems themselves. Others are not able to think about them at all. So again, respect the person’s feelings.
- Be there for the long term. When a person is raped or sexually assaulted, the effects are likely to last a long time. Don’t advise someone to forget it – they can’t. Be prepared for them to need support or someone to talk to in the future. Let them know that you are available for them to talk to, when they want to. Accept that the person they turn to may not always be you.
- Be sensitive to the person’s sexual and intimacy difficulties. If your partner has been raped or sexually abused, they may not want to sleep with you or even have you physically close. Respect their wishes and tell them you will assume sex is off the agenda until they say otherwise. Childhood abuse can blur the line between sex and affection and this can affect friendships as much as sexual relationships. If you don’t understand your partner’s needs and reactions about sex and intimacy and you are confused or angry over it, it might be good for you to talk to someone.
Help available for supporters of Survivors
Look after yourself. Recovering from abuse can take a long time and your friend, partner, sister, daughter or son may not get over this quickly so you will need to pace yourself. Be clear and honest about what support you can offer and what you feel able to hear.
You may feel helpless, confused and shocked. You might find it hard to believe that what the person told you is true. If this is the case, you may need to talk to somebody about what you are feeling. Don’t expect the survivor to be able to listen to your trauma. Instead, contact a friend or Rape Crisis Centre for support for yourself.
DO NOT EXPECT THE SURVIVOR TO BE ABLE TO LISTEN TO YOU. CONTACT A FRIEND OR A RAPE CRISIS CENTRE FOR SUPPORT YOURSELF.