How to support someone who has been sexually abused

Despite a recent increase in awareness of sexual assault and abuse, it’s still not easy to know what to do or say when someone confides in you that they’ve experienced it.

For the person sharing this information with you, it can be very difficult. They’re choosing to trust you and hoping you’ll know how to correctly support them.

“The most important thing for survivors to know is that they are believed”, says Yvonne Traynor, Chief Executive Officer of Rape Crisis for South London, Surrey and Sussex. “Perpetrators will do all they can to silence their victims by saying ‘no one will believe you’ because the general public has a picture in their minds about what a rapist looks like when they do not portray any of the mythical signs that are generally believed.”

If you notice the person you know is behaving differently, it will be a result of their experience. Effects of abuse and assault on survivors can range from flashbacks, self harm, self loathing, feelings of guilt, shame, fear, hysteria or silence and any other effect under the heading of Post Traumatic Stress. It’s likely they’ll be experiencing difficulties in almost all areas of their lives, including reliving the event and blaming themselves for not recognizing an abuser, for trusting them and for not putting up a huge fight.

If they have confided in you, this is very positive – they are beginning to open up to someone they still trust. They may want to talk or they may want to remain quiet but communication is there.

Here is what they’ll need from you:

Compassion and not sympathy

No one ever wants to feel pitied, it will only make them feel like they’re carrying something around and it can come across as patronizing. It’s a fine line but compassion is positive. It shows that you sympathize with the person, you’re there to support them and you actively want to help.

To listen when they need to talk

Listen and let them know that you’re listening even if it’s hard for you to hear. You may have a lot of questions but refrain from interrupting them.

Allowing someone space to talk and be listened to can be very healing for a survivor.

To believe what they say

They have come to you for support and put their confidence in you – one of the worst things you can do is dismiss them.

To understand that all areas of their lives are going to be more difficult
It’s likely the person you know will be suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Stress which can affect all areas of their life. This coupled with the fact that it will be very hard for them to trust people again can have a huge impact.

To resist taking control

When someone experienced something awful, it’s natural to want to jump in and do all you can to try and make it better and protect them but often survivors want to feel like they’re in control themselves – to regain power over the situation.

Be there to help them access their options and if they ask for it advise them on decisions but enable them to do it in their own time, on their own grounds.

Be with them if they report to the police

You may feel very strongly that they should report the incident or incidents to the police but this needs to come from them. Pressuring someone or secretly arranging an appointment for them with police or specialists can often make things worse.

Mention a SARC or GU clinic

If a survivor decides to get medical help or report the crime and asks you for help to find a Sexual Assault Referral Center (SARC) in your area then it’s always good to be prepared.

SARCs are usually attached to hospitals and are set up to help survivors of rape medically and can also take forensic samples (if attack is within 7 days) if the survivor decides to report to the police or has not made up their mind yet. They are very understanding and treat all patients with dignity and confidentiality. If there isn’t a SARC within easy reach, GUM clinics in hospitals can help medically too.

Take care of yourself too

Supporting someone can be really hard for you too. Don’t try and take it all on – if it become too much, you won’t be able to support the person in the way you would like.

You may need to talk to someone and that’s completely okay but don’t betray the person’s trust by confiding in someone else. Instead, speak to a specialist or counselor who is neutral but can act as a support. You can get specialist support at your nearest Rape Crisis center.