Ways to Support a Friend or Family Member
Who has been Sexually Assaulted
Sexual assault is a violent crime, motivated by power and anger and using sex as a means of controlling the victim. It is not about sex, passion, or love. Sexual assault survivors may experience a wide variety of physical, emotional and behavioral responses to an assault. Many families and friends of sexual assault survivors, often neglected “secondary victims”, experience their own series of emotional and behavioral responses.
If your friend or family member has been assaulted, you may experience things that you don’t understand or feel comfortable with. That is normal, but it is important for you to express those feelings with someone who understands what you are going through, both to facilitate your own recovery process and so you can best support your loved one.
Facts About Sexual Assault
- The survivor is in no way responsible for the assault. Regardless of the clothes she/he was wearing, where she/he was, whether she/he was drinking, knew the assailant of not, or fought back or did not, the survivor is never to blame for the assault.
- It is very common for people in terrifying situations to “freeze up” or become too frightened to fight back.
- Sexual assault is a frightening experience that takes time to recover from
- Sexual assault is an act of violence. Sexual assault is not something the survivor wants or enjoys.
- No one “secretly desires” to be sexually assaulted. Sexual assault is a total violation of a person’s right over her/his own body and her/his ability to make sexual choices.
If She is Raped. McEvoy, Alan and Brookings, Jeff. Learning Publications Inc. Holmes Beach, Florida. 1991, 1984.
What You Can Do: How to support a survivor or how to respond to a disclosure of sexual assault
- Be patient and approachable, she/he will express her/his feelings, as she/he feels safe, comfortable and ready.
- Let her/him talk.
- Do not pressure her/him to tell you details or specifics, she/he will tel you when or if she/he is ready.
- Empathetic touch (if the survivor is comfortable with it) and speech may help her/him to feel safe enough to share her/his experience with you.
- Become aware of the parts of her/his experience that seem to come up repeatedly. They may represent areas that need special attention and understanding.
- It is important that she/he understands that you believe her/him and her/his description of the events, and that the feelings she/he has about the incident are valid.
- Tell the survivor that she/he is not responsible for the crime that was committed against her/him. Avoid asking her/him “why” questions like “why didn’t you fight back?” She/he may feel judged by such questions. The survivor needs to know that you do not blame her/him for the assault.
- It is very important that you convey the message that you do not see her/him as defiled or any less moral than before the incident.
- Consider sharing your feelings about the effects of sexual assault on your relationship. Consider relationship counseling to help the two of you deal with the event.
- Let the survivor know she/he has your unconditional love and support. Share with her/hi that you will be there when she/he needs you.
- Encourage her/him to make her/his own decisions about further proceedings on the incident, for example, telling others or reporting. Do not give advice. Instead provide her/him with options, and support the choices she/he makes. This will allow the survivor to take back some f the power she/he lost during the assault, and it ca help her/him feel more in control. You will communicate your commitment by supporting the decisions she/he makes.
- Recognize and accept her/his feelings as well as yours.
- Do not contact or threaten the perpetrator. It is normal for supporters’ initial reactions to be anger towards the perpetrator. Threats may result in a legal action by the perpetrator against you at a time when the survivor needs your strength and support. Keep in mind that your anger can shift attention away from the survivor and toward yourself. She/he may feel guilty for burdening you, frightened of your rage or reluctant to upset you further at a time when she/he needs your support.
Other ways you can help
- Spend some time helping others involved with the survivor to learn ways to support her/him. They need to understand that she/he needs a safe, accepting environment where her/his feelings and the event will not be judged.
- Know what to expect from her/him after the assault. Learn about sexual assault and its after effects.
- It may be helpful for supporters of survivors of acquaintance sexual assault to be aware of the specific issues that these survivors might face. In addition to the trauma experienced in stranger assaults, self-doubt, self-blame, betrayal of trust, lack of confidence in her/his own ability to make judgments and good decisions complicate the recovery process. It is important for them to be aware that this type of assault can happen to anyone, and that acquaintance sexual assault is very common and highly under reported.
If the survivor is your partner:
As a partner of a survivor you may find that you have reactions of grief, anger, frustration, and devastation that may be surprising to you. It is helpful to learn how to cope with both your feelings and with the feelings of the survivor. Unfortunately, often there is not outlet for these feelings of frustration, and sometimes they may transfer their anger to the survivor. This can especially happen when:
- You are feeling taxed or burnt out emotionally because the need for understanding and patience seems unending.
- You feel that “she/he should put it behind her/him now and move on with life.”
- You experience anger toward the survivor what you may feel “allowed the incident to occur.”
Remember that it is important to take time for yourself to rest and relax. Self-care is an important part of supporting a loved one.
(Adapted from University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre and based on materials developed by Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, Portland, Maine, USA (www.sarsonline.org).)