Supporting a survivor of sexual violence can be daunting. You might be afraid of saying or doing 'the wrong thing'. But you don't have to be an expert.
The most important thing you can do is to listen, and let the person who's confiding in you tell you what they need.
Some Do's and Don'ts:
- Listen - and show you're listening - to what they have to say, even if it's difficult for you to hear.
You might have lots of questions, but try not to interrupt.
- Let them stay in control. Sexual abuse, rape or any kind of sexual violence can make a person feel powerless and 'out of control'. Survivors want and deserve to feel in charge of their own lives again. It's important to resist the temptation to 'take over', for example by arranging and doing things that you think are best. Instead, support her/him to explore their feelings and options and make their own decisions.
- Respect their decisions. Respect their choices, even if you don't think they're the ones you'd make in their situation. Doing things for a survivor (like making an appointment on their behalf without checking that's what they want first) can end up making things worse, even when you were only trying to help.
- Be patient. Many survivors find it difficult to trust others because of their experiences, especially if they've not been believed in the past. At the same time, if someone you know has told you that they were abused or raped, they've put trust in you. Try to repay that trust by being patient and don't push for them to tell you anything before they're ready. It might not be easy for them to start talking about experiences they might have stayed silent about for a long time. It might be difficult because their abuser told them not to tell or threatened them. They might feel ashamed or responsible. They might be traumatised.
If it's your partner who's experienced sexual violence, whether recently or in the past, they might find intimacy and sexual contact difficult. Sometimes they might not even want you physically close, and other times they might seek extra physical comfort from you. Try to remember that this is not a reflection on you or your relationship. It's about your partner's experiences and feelings.
Reassure them, respect their wishes and be patient.
- Believe them. People rarely lie about rape or sexual abuse. Why would they? It's important to believe what they're saying even if it's difficult for you to hear.
Remember it's not their fault.
No-one asks to be abused, assaulted or raped. No survivor should ever be blamed for not preventing their own abuse. The blame lies with the perpetrator.
- Recognise their courage. It takes a lot of strength and courage to survive and to talk about experiences of sexual violence. Acknowledge that.
- Don't ask why they didn't say anything sooner. They might have tried to tell before and been ignored or not believed. They might have been threatened or too scared to say anything. They might have felt ashamed, or blocked out events too painful to think about.
- Don't judge. It's important to be accepting of the way they are reacting, even if it's not what you were expecting, or not the way you think you'd respond to a similar experience. It's best to get rid of any ideas you have of how a person who has been raped 'should' behave and accept their reactions as their own and valid.
- Don't ask them why they didn't fight back. This will only make them feel judged or even blamed for what happened. Rape and sexual violence can be terrifying experiences. People react in different ways. It's very common to freeze, or for our bodies to 'flop' or go limp.
Supporting others can be challenging for you as well. Make sure you have access to support too.