Sexual violence not only affects the survivor, it affects all of the people who love him/her. Part of what makes it so difficult is not knowing what to say or do. The information below will hopefully give you a basis for dealing with a survivor, and a way in which to offer constructive help.
Immediate Responses to a Survivor
Although there is no “right” way to immediately respond to a survivor, those who want to be helpful should:
> be supportive, without overreacting. Survivors may be sensitive to the reactions of others.
> be sensitive to the fact that some sexual assault survivors don’t want to be touched (hugged, patted, etc.)
> try not to be awkward or show pity.
> show interest, but do not pry for answers or information.
> help in making decisions if asked.
> avoid being overly protective or overly attentive.
> be patient and understand that survivors may release their feelings on loved ones because of anger.
> consider getting counseling for yourself. Counseling can help you help the survivor.
Advice for Family and Friends
> Be ready to listen.
Survivors will need to talk about what happened and will probably express many feelings. Providing a safe environment in which to talk, and also setting aside time for these conversations, may be the most helpful thing that friends and family can do. You do not need to provide answers — just listen.
Listen; do not judge. It is not your place to play prosecutor and make her/him prove her/his story. Accept her/his version of the facts and be supportive. Don’t ask for details and don’t offer any explanations for why this occurred. You may have to deal with your feelings separately if you feel that it was somehow her/his fault. Many sexual trauma counseling services can be helpful to friends and relatives of sexual assault survivors. If you are not able or willing to listen, acknowledge that, and then help the survivor in ways that you can. Remember that the recovery process may last for several months to years and that the need and desire to talk will vary depending on where the survivor happens to be in the recovery process.
> Let them know that you believe them.
Too often, family and friends may fall into the trap of believing some of the rape/sexual abuse myths — particularly those that have to do with the victim somehow being responsible for the it. The job of family and friends is to support, to believe, and to be non-judgmental. Survivors will be dealing with their own sense of shame and guilt and should not be burdened by the ill-founded judgments of those people who are closest to them. Simply letting a survivor know that you believe her/him and that you stand behind her/him, is a great help. Remember that, although you may be having a strong reaction to what happened, it’s important that the focus be on the feelings and reactions of the survivor rather than on your own. Also let the survivor know she/he is not to blame. This is crucial. Many survivors blame themselves. The survivor needs to be reassured that the perpetrator is to blame, she/he is not.
> Offer a safe place to stay or stay with the survivor.
This may seem like such a small thing, but feeling safe again may be very difficult for the survivor. Having family or friends close at hand can facilitate that sense of being safe and protected. It is important, however, not to be smothering. Allow survivors to determine where they want to stay and with whom.
> Be available.
The survivor may need to talk at odd hours or for longer periods of time in the beginning. She/he may not have a lot of people she/he can talk to and so may rely heavily on one person. Be there as much as you can and encourage her/him to either call a hotline or go for counseling.
> Recognize that recovery takes a long time.
It is important for significant people in the survivor’s life to refrain from suggesting or even hinting that the survivor “should have gotten over it by now.” This sort of nonsupport may further delay or interrupt the healing process. Friends and family can aid in the healing by acknowledging the feelings, reminding the survivor that the feelings are a normal part of healing, and emphasizing that these feelings will not last forever.
> Educate yourself.
A great deal of harm is done, often unintentionally, to survivors because the people around them believe the myths that surround rape and/ or sexual abuse. Rape or sexual abuse is never the fault of the survivor, but rather the fault of the perpetrator. Although this sounds like a simple fact, much of the misinformation that exists points to the survivor as being responsible for what happened to them – no matter the age it occurred. To be truly supportive, one must believe the survivor while disbelieving and challenging the myths.
> Let the survivor make his/her own decisions.
Part of feeling in control includes making decisions and having those decisions respected. Sometimes family and friends may not agree with the decisions that are being made; however, it is important that survivors be allowed to determine their own solutions to the sexual abuse or rape. This point can be very difficult since it can be very tempting to “take over” for a while in an attempt to help the survivor cope. It is important to remember that because of the rape or sexual abuse, the survivor felt a loss of control over her/his life.
Re-establishing control is very important. Encourage the survivor to make decisions. If a survivor wants to talk, try to be an open listener. If she/her prefers not to talk about the abuse or rape, then try to be supportive in other ways, letting her/him know that you care and are willing to listen at a later time if so desired.
> Deal with your own feelings.
Typically, family and friends have some fairly strong reactions to having someone they care about being assaulted or abused. They may feel anger, rage, guilt, confusion, blame, or numerous other strong emotions. Just as the actual survivor must express emotion, so too must friends and family.
But rather than expressing this emotion to the survivor, the friend or family member should deal with these emotions with someone else. It is not fair to survivors to have to handle not only their own feelings but also those of the people they are turning to for support and assistance. In fact, this can only add to the feelings of guilt and remorse that survivors may already be feeling. If you have strong feelings, talk to another friend or to a counselor.
Additional Advice for the Partner of a Sexual Assault/Abuse Survivor
The following information is for all partners of sexual assault survivors: married or unmarried, heterosexual or homosexual. Whatever the status and make-up of the relationship, there are feelings and reactions which are commonly experienced by the significant other of someone who has survived sexual abuse/assault. You are not alone.
As a partner, you may experience the following:
> confusion about sexual assault or abuse and wonder if the survivor could have prevented it.
> difficulty in listening when the the survivor wishes to talk about certain aspects of the assault.
> wishing it “could just go away.”
> hesitancy to informing others about the assault or abuse, for fear of their reaction.
> feelings of guilt and responsibility.
> feelings of anger at the survivor and at others around you.
> feelings of anger and distrust due to the survivor not telling you sooner.
> desire of revenge for the perpetrator.
> uncertainty how to approach the issue of physical intimacy with your partner.
All of these feelings are understandable when someone you care about has been sexually assaulted as an adult/teenager or abused as a child. The important thing to remember is that these feelings need to be recognized and addressed, both by you and by your partner, so as not to create further distress in an already critical situation. It is not unusual for both survivors and his/her intimate partners to request assistance in dealing with issues related to sexuality, intimacy, and trust after a recent sexual assault or learning of childhood sexual trauma. Partners who want to act as an advocate for the survivor can contact Foothills Alliance Sexual Trauma Center to obtain more information and reading materials, and/or counseling for themselves.
Comforting a Child Survivor
Comforting a child survivor of sexual abuse/assault can be very difficult. Because parents and guardians often need as much support as the child needs, it is important to get the support you need so that you can be at your best to help your child. Some ways to help your child are:
> reassure your child that he/she is safe.
> believe that what your child has told you is true.
> let your child know that what happened was not his/her fault – it didn’t happen because they were bad.
> provide care and love.
> if your child wants to talk about what happened, let them do so; however, do not pry or initiate conversation.
> do not show anger around your child as they can interpret this as anger toward them for what has happened.
> help your child to keep his/her normal routine.
> make sure you try to obtain appropriate counseling for your child.
Foothills Alliance has counselors specially trained to help children and non-offending parents and caregivers. If you have questions or concerns related to your child, please call the Sexual Trauma Center at 864-231-7273, the Child Advocacy Center at 864-261-6111, or our 24-Hour Crisis Hotline at 1-800-585-8952.
Click here to learn more about the Child Advocacy Center.