Responding to a Sexual Assault Survivor
Sexual assault can traumatize not only the survivor, but also those closest to the victim. Each victim's reaction to sexual assault is unique, as is their process of recovery. It is important to bear this in mind when thinking about how to respond in a helpful way.
Remember that sexual assault is never the survivor's fault.
The three most important things are to SUPPORT, LISTEN and BELIEVE. Your friend may reveal some graphic information. It is important not to overreact. Give your friend the chance to talk about the experience and be thoughtful in your responses.
Communicate to your friend that any feelings she or he may have are normal and understandable. Supporting a friend means validating her or his feelings and emotions.
What to do when helping a friend:
- Show interest, but do not pry or ask for specific details, which may make the person relive the experience.
- Allow your friend to be silent. You do not have to speak when she or he stops talking
- Help your friend regain some sense of control. Support your friend in making decisions about how to proceed
- Recognize your own limitations. No one expects you to be an expert in counseling or sexual assault.
- Avoid making strong recommendations to your friend
What NOT to do when helping a friend:
- Avoid making decisions for the victim. Instead, listen and then ask how you can help.
- Do not touch or hug your friend without permission
- Statements that come across as blaming the victim increase a sense of guilt, shame or responsibility. Try not to judge the victim's behavior or imply that it is somehow their fault.
There are some common reactions you may experience when learning that someone you know has been sexually assaulted. They are:
- Disbelief: Family and friends may react to the sexual assault of a loved one with shock and disbelief, especially if there are no visible signs of the attack. You may even doubt that the assault happened. This is common after a traumatic experience.
- Fear: You may feel intense fear for yourself or for the victim. You may want to protect him or her from future assault. Your concern may be reassuring soon after the assault, but too much caution on your part can make it difficult for the victim to feel capable and in control again.
- Depression: It is normal to feel sad. Sexual assault can bring up feelings of powerlessness in victims and those who love them. If sadness is intense, lasts longer than a few weeks or becomes overwhelming, contact us for an appointment.
- Guilt: Guilt is a common reaction when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. Those closest to the victim may blame themselves. Whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame. It is solely the fault of the perpetrator. Instead of blaming yourself, concentrate on the helping the victim in whatever way they may need.
- Anger: Often loved ones experience anger after a sexual assault. Your first reaction may be to seek revenge against the attacker. This is a normal feeling, but you will not help yourself or the victim if you are hurt or in jail. Sometimes you may feel anger towards the person who was attacked, especially if they did something you warned them not to do. Remember, even if the victim used poor judgment, it is the attacker who is responsible.