How to support a survivor of rape or sexual assault

The idea of supporting someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted might seem overwhelming, but your hand-holding or listening ear could seriously help them cope with the future. Read our guide on how to support a survivor of sexual violence.

Supporting a survivor of sexual violence starts simply with listening to them.

Supporting a survivor of sexual violence starts simply with listening to them.

Listen and be patient

Listening to what a survivor has to say is one of the most important ways to support someone who has experienced rape or sexual assault. It takes a lot for someone to talk about their experience and may have taken them years to speak out. It can be hard for you to listen to, and at first you may feel overwhelmed by their story.

Try not to react in a way that might be discouraging. Listen to what they’re saying without interrupting or asking too many questions. It’s difficult to talk about emotional stories, so let the person explain what happened in their own time. They may get confused or jumble the facts, but don’t get impatient. Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England & Wales explains: “There may be bits they don’t want to talk about or there may be inconsistencies. That’s because rape and sexual violence are traumatic experiences.”

They may or may not go into details, but don’t push for more if they only want to say a little. Make encouraging sounds to show what they’re telling you is ok.

Believe them

Many survivors stay silent because they worry that no one will believe them. Make sure they feel that sharing their experience with you was the right decision. Tell them you recognise their bravery and you believe them.

It’s ok to show emotion

A close friend or family member revealing a traumatic experience is a lot to take in. You don’t have to hide your emotions and react like a robot. You might be upset or angry for them, which is ok, but remember not to take over the conversation and turn it around to how you feel. You don’t want the survivor to feel guilty for burdening you with their experience.

Keep their story to yourself

You may be the first person they’ve told about their ordeal, which probably means they trust you and value your relationship. Don’t destroy this trust by trying to take control of the situation or sharing the details with anyone else, unless the person wants you to. It’s not up to you to seek revenge, however angry you may feel. It’s up to the victim to decide the best way to move forward.

Sexual violence is traumatic for many reasons, and one is that it takes away the survivor’s feeling of control. You may want to help your friend, but without their consent, you shouldn’t contact the police or book them an appointment with a GP. You don’t want to accidentally make them feel worse through your good intentions. Offer advice and guidance, but leave the decisions up to them.

Don’t blame them

No one asks to be a victim of sexual violence – the blame lies with the perpetrator. Don’t ask them if they were wearing revealing clothing, which might suggest they in some way asked to be attacked. Don’t question why they didn’t tell you sooner, or why they didn’t fight back. Avoid anything that could make them feel judged.

Be aware of intimacy issues

A survivor of sexual violence may experience moments when they don’t want to be touched, or times when they desperately want your affection. Katie says: “These are ordinary responses to traumatic events. Although it can be hard, having patience and understanding with that is important.”

If their issues with intimacy last for a long time, speak to them about possibly visiting a GP or sexual assault referral centre (SARC) for confidential support and advice.

Give them the information they need

If they want to report the incident to the police, you can either go to the local police station or a SARC. Specially trained police officers or SARC staff will guide them through the process. For more information on reporting rape or sexual assault go to our article ‘Was it rape’.

Take care of yourself

Supporting a survivor can be difficult. You might feel stunned by the information, or you may be a survivor of sexual violence as well. Take time out for yourself to look after your mental health. If you want to speak to someone about it, but not betray your friend’s confidence, you can call the Rape Crisis helpline to get support, as well as advice for the survivor.

Next Steps

  • Rape Crisis offers support and advice to victims of rape and sexual assault, no matter how long ago the attack was. 0808 802 99 99
  • SurvivorsUK offers advice and support to male victims of rape and sexual assault. Text on 020 3322 1860.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By

Updated on 10-Jan-2017

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.