HELPING A SURVIVOR
IDENTIFYING A DISCLOSURE
If your child, friend or loved one sat down with you and said, “I was raped,” you would most likely respond with love, compassion, and immense concern for that person. Unfortunately, few disclosures of sexual assault begin with this statement.
Instead, the conversation is likely to start with, “Can we talk?” or “Do you have a minute?” The conversation may progress in one of two ways:
Your child, friend or loved one tells you about an ordinary or common situation that seemed safe, until it wasn’t.
Many offenders, especially repeat offenders, are charming at first. They act in ways that do not raise concerns by the victim, giving them time to asses their target and set up the situation to decrease the likelihood that the victim will report a sexual assault or that they will be charged with a crime.
Some offenders will set up the situation so that their victim will get in trouble for breaking rules, and then assault them. Teens and young adults might be talked into taking risks and doing things they know are wrong, so that they never tell anyone about the assault without risking a lot.
Your child, friend or loved one starts the conversation by saying that they did something that will likely make you mad or disappointed.
Examples of this might include going to a party or going out alone, staying out too late, going to a guy’s house, lying about where they were, meeting up with someone from an online contact, getting into a car with a drunk driver at the wheel, having sex and fearing they are pregnant or have a sexually transmitted infection, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana or taking drugs, or even committing a crime.
However the conversation begins, your loved one’s first few words are only the beginning.
PAUSE AND LISTEN
When someone starts to tell you about a situation that makes you upset or disappointed, try to take a deep breath, pause and listen. They may be disclosing an instance of sexual assault to you. They need to tell you, and you need to know. So, allow them the space to do so.
Remember, few people start the conversation with the words, “I was raped.” They may feel guilty and blame themselves for their assault. They may not know what “rape” is. Be prepared to pause, withhold judgement and listen.
No matter what they did or didn’t do, someone else’s violence is not their fault. So, regardless of how it happened, we need to listen and not react to their first words. Be patient as the person struggles to figure out how to put their experience into words.
KNOWING WHAT TO SAY
People often wonder what they should say when someone tells them they were sexually assaulted. They worry about saying the “wrong thing,” or somehow making the situation worse.
Don’t worry! The best messages are the simplest ones:
I believe you. I’m sorry this happened. How can I help?
Allow the survivor to speak openly and freely. Let them decide what they want to tell you about the assault – don’t force them to talk about it if they aren’t ready.
Also, try not to ask “why” questions. For example: Why didn’t you call me for a ride? Even if you are asking this type of question with the best intentions, it can sound accusatory and may cause further self-blame for the survivor.
When in doubt, just ask the survivor how you can help. For example, ask if they want you to stay with them or go to the health care facility or victim services center with them. Let the survivor know you are there for them, but always let them make the choice to accept your help or not.
LEARN ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT
Learn about sexual assault: the reporting process, available services, myths and facts, common reactions for survivors, etc. Educating yourself will help you better support your loved one. You can also let the survivor know about this digital aid, if they are not familiar with it. By directing them to this website, you are giving them a tool that will help them on the road to recovery.
BE PATIENT WITH INTIMATE PARTNERS
If it is your partner who was sexually assaulted (e.g., boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse), be patient with them regarding physical intimacy. Ask your partner if you can touch or hug them.
Healing takes time and a lack of desire for physical intimacy is not necessarily a reflection of their feelings towards you, but rather is the result of trauma from the sexual assault.
HELP THEM MOVE FORWARD
Sexual assault is a serious crime, and the decision to report can be a difficult one. Survivors have the right to take their time when making this decision. This digital aid can help them learn about the process, but at some point, the survivor will need to decide what to do. You can help to equip them for this decision, but you should not contact authorities or speak on their behalf.
There are many steps a survivor must take on the road to moving forward. Some people find that connecting with victim services or police can help to give them a sense of control and start the healing process. But taking those first steps to speak up can be hard. That’s okay! We understand. By guiding you through a series of questions, we can help you gather information to figure out what options are right for you.