Finding out that a loved one has been the victim of rape or sexual assault can be a very stressful event. You may be feeling many difficult emotions and may feel overwhelmed by the news, but it is important to remember that the victim will probably be feeling even worse and that therefore you should try to support them to the best of your ability.
The fact that they have told you this very sensitive information means that they trust you a great deal, and consider you to be an important person who they believe can help them in their journey from victim to survivor. That’s a big honour, and a big responsibility too.
So, how can you support a victim of sexual violence? It can be a daunting task, but we hope the following pieces of advice will make things a little easier.
How To Support A Victim Of Sexual Violence
Believe them. Do not doubt them or what they are saying. This is hugely important because many victims fear that they will not be believed – and there is nothing more devastating than being sexually violated and then not being believed when you finally pluck up the courage to tell someone about it. You may feel a sense of disbelief if you personally know and trust the perpetrator – if you feel this way, keep this opinion to yourself and remember that perpetrators of sexual violence come in all shapes and sizes and are often trusted by their victims too.
Reassure them that you are on their side. When someone accuses someone else of rape or sexual assault, the people around them almost always fall into one of two camps: those who support the alleged victim and those who support the alleged perpetrator. It can be extremely distressing for victims to see people supporting and allying themselves with their attacker, so it is hugely comforting for victims to know that they have people who are on their side. Tell them explicitly that you support them, no matter what the outcome of any eventual trial might be.
Reassure them that they are not to blame. Victim-blaming is a big problem and is so entrenched in our culture that even victims sometimes blame themselves for getting attacked. Tell them firmly that they are not to blame and that all the blame, fault and responsibility lies solely with their abuser.
Listen to them. Listen carefully to what they are saying and what they want from you. Communicate with one another and keep the dialogue between you honest and open. If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Let them know that you are there for them to lend a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on if they need it.
Ask them if they want you to help them with anything, such as going with them to places such as a counsellor, Rape Crisis Centre or police station.
Educate yourself on the facts and myths about sexual violence. Educate them too, about the resources available to them. Additionally, if they are considering reporting the crime to the police, direct them to this document, which provides in-depth information about the legal process.
Do not pressure them into reporting the incident. Sexual crimes such as rape and sexual assault are so upsetting because they involve the victim losing the right to control what happens to their own body. The last thing they need is for someone else to take away their right to control how they deal with it by pressuring them to report the incident to the police or by reporting it without their consent. It is their decision to make and they will do it in their own time. Respect their decision at all times.
Exception: If the victim is not able to make this decision – for example if they are a child or mentally disabled – you should report the incident to the police.
Do not mollycoddle them, or push them away. You may feel very protective of your loved one and want to mollycoddle them to try to avoid them coming to any more harm. Alternatively, you may not want to touch or hug them out of fear that the physical contact may trigger a flashback or upset them. However, neither mollycoddling them nor pushing them away are good ways to react. Treat them in the same way you did before. If you’re unsure how they want you to treat them, ask them.
Do not tell others about it. Telling other people about the event would be a horrendous breach of trust. It is the victim’s decision who to tell, not yours. You may want to tell your partner or a family member about the incident, especially if the victim is related to you, but refrain from doing so. If you think it’s a good idea for someone else to know about it, talk about this with the victim and let them decide.
Exception: If the victim is a child or mentally disabled, you should report the incident to the police.
Children And Mentally Disabled Victims
Children and mentally disabled people are more vulnerable than most victims because they may have problems communicating their abuse to others and may not even understand what is happening to them.
Luckily, there are ways to spot of signs of sexual abuse in these vulnerable groups. Look out for the following warning signs:
- Sudden changes in behaviour,
- Sleep problems,
- Wetting the bed or soiling the bed,
- Feeling sad,
- Not taking proper care of themselves or their appearance,
- Problems with school,
- Avoiding a particular person,
- Being afraid of a particular person,
- Knowledge of sexual matters that they should not know at their age,
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour,
- Pain in their vagina or anus,
- Vaginal discharge,
If you know or suspect that a child or mentally disabled person is being sexually abused, you should inform the police. In Northern Ireland it is illegal not to report known or suspected sexual abuse.
Depressed And Suicidal Victims
Sexual crimes like rape and sexual assault are extremely traumatic events and can trigger mental health problems such as depression. Signs of depression include: low mood, feelings of hopelessness, changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, loss of energy, self-loathing, reckless behvaiour, anger and irritability. If you notice your loved one is displaying symptoms of depression for longer than 2 weeks, advise them to go to their GP.
If your loved one is feeling suicidal (i.e. wanting to kill themselves), or you suspect they are having suicidal thoughts, advise them to go to their GP and talk to them about how they are feeling and listen to what they are say. Many suicidal people feel that they are worthless and that things will never get better – remind them, explicitly, that this is not the case.
In an emergency, when the victim has attempted to or is about to commit suicide, call 999 and stay with your loved one – do not leave them alone.
Getting Help Yourself
Supporting a victim of sexual violence can be very stressful, so it is important to take care of yourself too. By taking care of yourself, you’ll also be most able to help your loved one.
If you notice yourself becoming upset, anxious or unable to cope, take action straight away. You can call the Samaritans for impartial, anonymous listening support on 0845 790 90 90. Or if you suspect you are becoming clinically depressed, go to your GP straight away and explain the situation and your symptoms, without identifying the victim. If you want more specialised support, Rape Crisis is a charity that can support the friends and family of victims of sexual violence.
If you feel unable to offer support in the short-term and you know that other people are aware of the victim’s situation, talk openly with the victim about how they may want to go to them with their problems rather than you, for the time being. Make sure you stress this is only temporary and reassure them that you are not abandoning them or turning your back on them.