How to Help Someone Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted: A Guide for Family and Friends
It’s normal to feel upset. When someone you know or care about has been assaulted, it is normal for you to feel upset and confused. At a time when you may want to help most, you will be dealing with a crisis of your own. This guide may help you know what you can do to support person who has been sexually assaulted.
The victim needs your support. Your support at a time like this can be extremely helpful to a sexual assault victim/survivor. Consider the following guidelines to help you through this time:
- Believe the victim/survivor. Believe their experience without question.
- Do not blame them. Whatever the circumstances, they were not looking for or asking to be harmed. It is very common for the victim/survivor of sexual violence to blame themselves. Reassure them that the blame for sexual violence rests squarely and only with the assailant, and that they had no way of knowing what would have happened if they had done something differently.
- Respect the victim/survivor. Respect their fear. Many victims/survivors feared that they would not survive the assault, as assailants often threaten to kill or seriously harm the victim/survivor if they do not comply. This fear does not go away when the attacker does. Help them deal with it by finding ways to increase their safety.
- Accept the victim/survivor. Accept their strong feelings. They have the right to any emotion, to be numb, sad, angry, in denial, terrified, depressed, agitated, withdrawn, etc. Being supportive is an attitude of acceptance of all their feelings, an atmosphere of warmth and safety that they can rest in. Tolerate their needs and be there for them.
- Listen to the victim/survivor. Let them know you want to listen. It does not matter so much what you say, but more how you listen. Try to understand what they are going through. They did the very best they knew how in a dangerous situation. They survived.
- Let them talk, do not interrupt.
- Find time to focus on the victim/survivor. Ask they what they need from you.
- You may feel nervous about stalls and silences. They are okay, just let them happen.
- If they need help to continue talking, try repeating back to them the things they’ve said.
- Reassure them that they’re not to blame. Blaming questions such as, “Why didn’t you scream?” or “Why did you go there?” are harmful. Instead, try, “It’s difficult to scream when you are frightened” or “Going someplace unfamiliar is risky, but you were not asking to be assaulted.”
- Take them seriously. Pay attention. This will help them validate the seriousness of their feelings and their need to work them through. Sexual assault is an experience that a victim/survivor does not get over in a hurry or alone. It may be months or years before they feel fully recovered. Recovery is a process of acceptance, and healing that takes time.
- Stay with the victim/survivor. Stay with them as long as they want you to. A huge loss experienced by sexual assault victims/survivors is the loss of independence and solitude. For a while, many victims/survivors feel too frightened and vulnerable to endure being alone. This will pass with time. Meanwhile, be good company.
- Let the victim/survivor make their own decisions. Do not pressure them into making decisions or doing things they are not ready to do. Help them explore all the options. It is essential to respect confidentiality. Let them decide who knows about the sexual assault.
- Care. Care about their well-being. In caring about your friend, you may need to cope with some difficult emotions of your own. If you are experiencing rage, blame, or changes in how you feel about your friend/relative, you can be most helpful to them by finding ways of coping with your own emotions. Sexual assault is not provoked nor desired by the victim/survivor. Sexual assault is motivated by the assailant’s need for power and control, and often their desire to humiliate and degrade the victim/survivor. The advocacy program in your area has advocates who can help people sort through their feelings and emotions. To find the program nearest you, visit rapehelpmn.org. Programs accept anonymous calls, and phone line staff will help callers talk through their feelings.