Supporting someone you care about who has been sexually abused

It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually abused, especially if they are a friend or family member. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, so we encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible.

Sometimes support means providing information such as how to reach out for professional support, seek medical attention or report the crime to the police.  But often listening is the best way to support a survivor.  

It is inevitable that you too will have many powerful emotions about the abuse.  You may feel angry or that, in some way, you may have been able to prevent the attack.  Such feelings are perfectly normal and centres such as The Women's Centre Cornwall will listen to you, as well as the survivor of the abuse, and offer practical help and assurance.

Here is a short guide on how you can best support someone you care about who has been sexually abused:

Listen to her

Let her know that you are there if she needs to talk.  Just listening to a survivor can be the key to helping her through her trauma.  Never force her to talk when she is not willing to.  Do not try to offer advice: just listen to her and follow her lead.  Knowing that you are there if she needs you is very important.

Believe her

It is vitally important that you show the woman you are supporting that you care for her and that you believe what she is telling you.  She will be feeling very insecure and will be faced with many people who are going to question her honesty and credibility.  As someone close to her, your belief and support is necessary for her to begin to come to terms with the abuse.  Never at any time voice any doubts you might feel.  

Give her back control

During the attack, she was overpowered and helpless against her attacker.  She needs to feel that she has control over her life again.  You can begin to help her achieve this by letting her make the decisions.  Give her options about what you can do together but let the final decision be hers.  Do not force her to do anything she is unsure of or does not want to do.

Dispel the myths

There are many myths around rape and sexual assault.  The woman you are supporting may feel that she is to blame for the assault: for example, she provoked it through wearing "provocative" clothing or that she should have "known better".  She is NOT at fault.  It is the attacker who should be blamed.  Let her know that you know she is not to blame.  Many people she will encounter will try to discredit her and she will need your support.  Do not support her in believing the myths.

Allow her to express her feelings

Each woman will have individual feelings, attitudes and emotions about the assault.  She may feel guilty, shameful or dirty.  She may be angry, tearful or dismissive of the attack.  Let her express how she is feeling: allow her to cry, shout or be quiet.  Never say, "Don't cry" or "Forget it": such suggestions are asking the impossible of her.

Don't blame her

Never say, "You should have done ...", or, "If only you had ...".  The attack was no fault of hers and, in making such remarks, you are blaming her for instigating or provoking the attack.  No woman wants or asks to be raped or abused and by making such remarks you will make it harder for her to put the blame where it belongs - with the attacker.

Sexuality 

After an attack, her needs and desires may have changed.  She may not want the intimacy of cuddling, holding hands etc and she may feel that sex brings back painful memories.  If she is your partner: be patient.  Try to talk about both of your feelings and needs, but remember she may need time.  On the other hand, she may be able to carry on with her life including sex life as before.

Support her

Try to support her in the decisions she makes but be as clear as possible about what you can or cannot do.  If she wants to report the attack to the police, offer to go with her if you can.  If the report leads to a prosecution it may be many months before the case comes before the court.  She will be anxious and worried about giving evidence and may want someone to go through the process with her.  She may want help with other things, like someone to accompany her on the journey to work, or someone to stay with her in the house.

Do not take on more that your able to do: it is important that you are consistent in what you can offer.  Where you cannot provide what she needs, help her to find out what other options are available to her.

Support yourself

You too are faced with a harrowing experience and will feel many emotions, from hurt and protectiveness to anger and guilt.  Find ways of getting support for yourself, whether through counselling/support, taking "time out" or (with her permission) talking to a friend.

 

 

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