How do I respond to and support a survivor of sexual abuse?
Assault is a difficult topic to talk about. Regardless of your relationship with a person, it’s easy to shy away from these conversations. You may not know what to say, or may be scared that your advice could upset them further. Talking about an assault might also be the first time a friend opens up to you. While some friendships are more open, others might not get as personal. If this is the first time a friend is coming forward to talk about something this intimate, it’s important to know that they see you as someone they can trust, especially given that assaults tend to render the survivor having mistrust in many people. Experiencing sexual assault is an extremely traumatic experience. If your friend has decided that they’re now ready to tell you about their story, being receptive, understanding, supportive and genuine in your response with the person is imperative. The following ideas offer some advice for how you can best talk to a friend when they tell you about an assault.
At the start of the conversation, make sure to remove any distractions and find a private place where you and your friend can talk.
Put your phone down, and do whatever else you need to do to demonstrate that you are 100% present and actively listening. It’s important that your friend doesn’t feel like they have to compete for your attention, and that you are willing to, at least for a conversation, put aside whatever else is preoccupying your time.
Make it known early on that whatever they tell you will be received judgement free and remain confidential.
Ensuring that their information remains both private and unjudged can reassure them that you are someone they can trust, and that there should not be fear about their story being spread. Regardless of what they share, it’s good to show that you can be a source of support and care, removed of any opinions and interests in gossip.
Ask your friend if they are ok.
This one seems obvious, as we always ask our friends how they are. But on this occasion, really ask how they are feeling. Many survivors of abuse experience PTSD, which can cause anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, intrusive thoughts, and ultimately pose challenges to living an everyday life. If your friend tells you that they’re not doing well, and they feel that their mental health might be at risk, let them know their options and reiterate again that you support them and are there for them regardless. Their safety and wellbeing need to be stressed, so letting them know that it’s ok to not be ok should be made clear, as hiding the truth about how they feel could prevent you from really being able to support them. If you are concerned about their safety, there are many resource networks you can utilise to help get your friend further assistance, and hopefully family members and safe community nearby. While every survivor processes their experience differently, some may indicate a need for professional support.
Make it clear that the abuse is not their fault.
It is very common for survivors of abuse to blame themselves, thinking that if they had done something differently, the abuse could have been prevented. Even worse, society has historically blamed the survivor, relating their trauma to the clothes they were wearing or to certain decisions the survivor may have made that night. Ultimately, any act of sexual violence, harassment and abuse is on the hands of the perpetrators. Too often the actions of the survivor will be to blame for the abuse, without any onus placed on the perpetrator. If your friend begins to blame themselves, help them to understand that they had no choice in being the victim of an assault.
Acknowledge your friend’s strength for coming forward.
It takes extreme bravery to share one’s story. While we perceive it to be easier to cope with our troubles by burying it away, our emotions actually become exacerbated by hiding our pain. Additionally, many survivors might perceive themselves to be weak, a burden, ashamed or embarrassed by what happened to them, thus making them afraid of sharing their story. You can only get over these fears by exposing yourself to what scares you, and sharing your story is not something anyone should have to be afraid of sharing. Getting over the security of hiding and remaining voiceless takes a tremendous amount of courage, and your friend will need to hear this upon telling you know what has happened to them. Being both a survivor and someone willing to talk about their hardships only proves how truly powerful and strong your friend is.
Validate their story.
One reason why survivors don’t always come forward is fear of the scrutiny they could face, as members of the public have historically claimed the story to be untrue. This narrative of a survivor's story being called into question has dominated our current popular and political culture, and needs to be stopped. Seldom do we recognise the impact that it has on the survivor when we invalidate and deny their trauma. Evidence further indicates that it is extremely unlikely that an assault would be falsely reported (2% of assaults are falsely reported, which is the same as other crimes), and that even more incidents occur in which a survivor's story is dismissed as untrue without adequate investigation. In the case you may have some questions of your own regarding your friends assault, it is best left out of the conversation. Your friend doesn’t need their story to be examined, they need to be supported, validated, and reminded that their pain is real.
Offer your friend the reminder that they are not alone.
As unfortunate as it is, there are countless survivors of abuse, yet many have been proven as able to overcome their pain and reclaim their voice. After an assault it’s easy for the survivor to feel as if this event now defines their life, and that there’s little hope with moving forward. While the #MeToo movement has brought to light the realities of the sexual violence prevalent in our society, it has also ushered in a collection of role models for all survivors. Remind your friend of these figures, and that there is a successful and fulfilling life ahead of them despite the pain they have experienced.
Remind them of their options.
While you shouldn’t aim to force anything on your friend, it’s good to remind them of their options to move forward if they feel comfortable reporting the abuse. While extremely hard to do, reporting can prevent the perpetrator from acting again. All forms of sexual abuse are serious crimes, in which assailants are more likely to perpetrate again in environments where sexual violence goes unpunished. When mentioning their options, it is also vital that you let your friend know that you will stand behind whatever decision they make. Make them aware that you will respect them regardless of their decision, and whatever they choose will not influence the validity of their story.
Lastly, be gentle on yourself.
If your friend tells you about an assault, it may leave you feeling helpless, unable to take their pain away. Remember that the abuse was not in your control, not in your friends control, but solely in the control of the person who perpetrated the act. It’s easy to become frustrated, angry and disheartened that something like this has happened to a friend. Don’t get down on yourself for not being able to help more, as your support and validation is enough. Let yourself grieve in your own as well, as watching a friend in pain is never easy on anyone. Know that supporting them, hearing their story, validating their pain is enough.
Let’s stay in touch. Sign up for our newsletter…
Send us your email address to receive all of our latest news & updates.