Dealing with Sexual Violence
How do you help a loved one who has been sexually assaulted? What can you say or do to help? First, thank you for caring enough to seek out answers. If you would like to learn more about sexual assault and how it affects victims, you can visit our web page about sexual assault here, otherwise continue reading for some help and guidance for you as you support your loved one.
For many people, the thought of talking with a survivor of sexual assault is scary and you may be scared too. Why? Perhaps you don’t know what to say. Maybe you are worried that you’ll say or do the wrong thing and will end up traumatizing the victim even more. Try to keep in mind three simple words when you’re talking with your loved one. Ask. Listen. Believe.
Ask. Listen. Believe.
If the assault has just occurred, you can ask something like, “Are you somewhere safe?” or “Would you like me to take you to the hospital?” Safety is the most important concern. The victim may be scared or disoriented so you’ll need to be calm and help them make decisions for themselves. Of course, if there is a life-threatening situation, then please call emergency services so that the victim can get the care they need. Don’t put your life in danger, either. If there’s a chance that the perpetrator is nearby and you feel strongly that the victim’s life is in danger, call the police.
If the victim is revealing a sexual assault that occurred in the past, whether a week, a month, or a year ago, you can say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. How can I help?” They may need to talk about the assault or they may just need someone’s shoulder to cry on. Try not to dig for information; instead, let the victim tell you what they need to say. They may only want to express their fears or they may want to talk about the details of the assault.
Be prepared to be open with the victim about your boundaries. Perhaps you are a victim of sexual assault too or you just don’t feel comfortable hearing the details; let the victim know your limits. Maybe you feel you can’t hear the details but you are willing to talk about how the victim felt during the assault. Let them know that and then give them our number. The DOVES Program has trained advocates who can talk with the victim about the assault and they are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 866-95-DOVES (866-953-6837).
Once the victim starts to talk, listen. Sometimes it’s hard not to interject with questions like, “Why would you go over to his place in the middle of the night?” Or “Why were you drinking?” These questions aren’t helpful and they can sound like accusations to the victim. The best thing to do is actively listen. Express the victim’s story in your own words and ask for clarification if you don’t understand something the victim has shared. Showing that you’re listening helps the victim trust that they are telling their story to the right person.
You might be the first person the victim talks to after the rape. If they think you don’t believe them or doubt their story, they may never talk about the assault again. If you start by believing, you give the victim the message that it’s okay for them to tell their story. Believing them and allowing them to tell you what happened without fear of disbelief or scorn helps a victim start to heal.
It’s not your fault
A victim of sexual assault often blames themselves for their attack. “Why did I drink last night?” “Why did I go home with him?” “Why didn’t I fight back?” Sometimes these fears keep the victim from reporting the assault because they feel that if they blame themselves for the attack, surely others will too. Let the victim know that it’s not their fault.
Keep in mind that most victims know the person who assaults them. This can cause a lot of confusion, hurt, and anger. Remember that you are there to support the victim. It isn’t helpful for you to express your anger at the rapist. The rapist, in most cases, is also the victim’s boyfriend or spouse and someone the victim cares for. Focus your concern and anger on the act not the perpetrator. This way you won’t damage your relationship with the victim and you won’t run the risk of making the victim feel defensive or protective of their attacker.
It may be reassuring to the victim if you discuss issues of safety with them. “How can you keep yourself safe? How can I help?” These questions can guide the conversation so that the victim is the one who creates the safety plan. Allowing them to tell you how you can help them stay safe is empowering for the victim. They may feel that they lost a lot of personal power when they were assaulted and this is a way you can help give some of that power back.
Every victim’s reaction to an assault is different; however, they may find it helpful to learn more about sexual assault and some common reactions victims experience during and after the assault. You can direct them to our sexual assault page here. You can also provide them our information. At the DOVES Program, advocates are available by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at
866-95-DOVES (866-953-6837). You can also call if you feel you need support and guidance. We have resources and information that may help you and the victim.
Taking care of yourself
Listening to someone recount a violent act can cause similar symptoms of fear, dismay, anger, etc, in the listener. It’s important to respect your boundaries and care for yourself. You won’t do your loved one any good if you’re a nervous wreck. You won’t be able to give them the calm, loving support and guidance they may need. It’s better to give yourself a break and acknowledge the emotions you’re feeling. If you are feeling as victimized as your loved one, seek out someone to whom you can talk. Of course, you want to keep your loved one’s story confidential, but you can safely talk about your reaction to the trauma your friend has experienced. If you need to talk, you can call the DOVES Program to speak with an advocate. Don’t feel like you're alone. We understand your desire to support your loved one and we want to make sure that you take care of yourself too.