How can I support someone I care about who has been sexually assaulted?

How can I support someone I care about who has been sexually assaulted?

Rape and sexual abuse can happen to anyone.

The impact of sexual assault is likely to vary from person to person, but some common feelings and behaviors are:

  • shame
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • dissociation
  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • irritability and outbursts of anger
  • suicidal thoughts and suicide
  • alcohol misuse and dependence
  • sexual problems and confusion about sexuality
  • self-blame
  • minimizing
  • humiliation
  • confusion
  • distressed
  • fear
  • feeling “numb”

Everyone reacts differently to traumatic experiences and feelings associated with trauma can take months or even years to present.  Trauma affects the way we see ourselves and the world around us; it can change the way we cope with things and the way we behave or think. This makes it difficult to support someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted or abused. It is likely to take time for the person you care about to make sense of their experiences of sexual assault.   

How you can help:

It might feel there is nothing you can do or say, or it might feel you are never doing enough; the truth is that no matter what, nothing can change what happened in the past but you can help someone you care about to move forward in the future by:

Believing: It is highly unlikely that a person would lie about being assaulted, abused or raped, however they may have a history of not being believed or fear they won’t be believed if they disclose what has happened.  As a supporter, you can play an important role by telling the person that you believe them.

Listening: Survivors of sexual trauma need to be heard. If someone has decided to talk to you about their experiences, let them talk! They should feel they can talk as much or as little as they want or need. Let them talk at their own pace and try not to ask too many questions; let them know you have heard what they are telling you.

Understand: Find out about the myths and facts around sexual violence, the effects of trauma and what support is available locally and nationally.  This can help you see things objectively and understand a little more what your friend / partner / family member is experiencing, as well as help them feel supported and validated.

Options: If someone tells you they have experienced rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse do not tell them they have to report to the Police. Some people may find the idea of reporting too stressful or difficult and survivors need to know that they have options and control over what happens.  They may decide to report much further down the line, but never put pressure on a person to do anything they do not feel happy doing.

Validate: It is important that you acknowledge any feelings the survivor is expressing and let them know that these are a normal response to their experiences. Whatever their reactions (emotional, behavioral, physical) these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. Don’t tell them that it happened a long time ago and they should be ‘over it’ by now.  The healing process is like grieving and takes time.

Enable decision making: Although it may sometimes feel easier to take over and make decisions on behalf of your friend / partner/ family member, especially if they are feeling confused or upset, it is important to allow them to make their own decisions, as this allows them to gain some control back over their experiences; for example, let them know what support is available but let them choose whether they want to contact these services.

Self- care: This goes for both you and your fiend/ partner/ family member. Supporting someone who has experienced sexual trauma can be emotionally challenging.  It is important to acknowledge your own limits, particularly about how much support you can offer and what you can and can’t do. You may want to consider counselling to enable you to work through your own feelings.

Specific advice for partners:

Abuse can affect relationships; however, it is possible to work through difficulties by communicating openly with each other and expressing feelings honestly. It is important to remember that survivors might find it particularly difficult to be open about their feelings or share their vulnerabilities and trust you. This does not mean they do not love you; is a common consequence of sexual trauma and they will need your support and patience in re-building the ability to trust and feel safe.

Traumatic memories are processed differently by our brains from “normal” memories. This is a smart way our brains and bodies use to protect us. Because of this, survivors often have hazy or confused memories of the abuse or assault and they may have flashbacks years later. If your partner has recently remembered some past abuse which s/he has blocked out, s/he may find sexual and intimate contact very difficult. It is important to realise that this is not a reflection of you or your behaviour. In such instances, reassure your partner and let them take things at their own pace. With your help, patience and understanding, they can heal from the trauma.

What not to do

  • Don’t blame or judge them. Never say “You should have done…” or “if only you had…” or ask them why they didn’t fight back. The fault always lies with the perpetrator.
  • Don’t ignore them or tell them to forget about it.
  • Don’t tell them what to do, or make decisions on their behalf.
  • Don’t talk about the details of the abuse, don’t ask intrusive questions.
  • Don’t make promises of support that you may not be able to keep.
  • Don’t lean on the survivor for support if you’re struggling to cope.
  • Don’t tell them they have to report.
  • Don’t take it personally if they struggle to trust or be intimate.

Online support forums are also available for partners of sexual abuse / rape survivors.

Useful Resources

https://www.thesurvivorstrust.org/

https://rapecrisis.org.uk/

https://survivorsnetwork.org.uk/workshops-groupwork-posts-support-for-supporters

https://www.ourresilience.org/what-you-need-to-know/myths-and-facts/
provides information about the myths and facts related to rape. 

https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/publications/RCS-SVinScot-leaflet.pdf
provides information about the myths and facts related to rape. This site is women focused.

https://1in6.org/get-information/myths/
provides myths and facts including research-based articles regarding sexual violence towards men.

Get in touch via isva@idas.org.uk or ring our helpline on 03000 110 110.
“I just want to thank you. When I first came to you, I had nobody to talk to about the rape and you totally supported me through the whole process. You walked me all the way through everything and made sense of a horrible situation I was in and I don’t know how I would have managed alone. You literally saved my life.”