The importance of family members, friends and partners for a survivor cannot be overstated. Women, young people and children who have good support heal more quickly if they are able to let those who care about them know what they need.
Your role is an important one and while there are different ways to deal with an incident or crisis, here is our advice for doing so, as constructively and positively as possible…
How To Be Supportive
Acknowledge the experience by talking with the survivor. Offer them support and leave your views, questions and judgments to one side.
Show her you are supporting her through your actions and behaviours. Tell her you are here for her and will support her through her emotional responses. Ask her what she needs and what she would like you to do next – it’s important, where possible, that the survivor has some sense of control and contributes to the decisions.
Be patient and an effective listener. Allow her to express her feelings. Do not pressure her into talking. It is a big shock when you have been sexually assaulted and it may take some time for her to begin making sense of the experience. She may not be able to talk with you, or give you all the details you want and if this is the case, try not to take it personally. Instead, encourage her to talk with someone else or to seek counseling.
Ask her about her own reactions. She is the expert on herself at this time. However, you do need to understand that she may not want to talk.
She may or may not wish to be held or touched. Ask her and then be understanding and respectful of her wishes either way.
Consider talking to her about such things as how she sleeps, her feelings about being alone, her sense of safety and her ability to engage in day-to-day activities.
Avoid attempts to overprotect or distract her from the reality of the assault. This may cause her to deny the effects of it, internalise her distress or become disconnected from family and friends. Endeavour to provide and maintain a safe, healthy environment by being honest, open and consistent. This will build a foundation for her to experience support and care.
Let her know you care and are hurting with her; though don’t expect her to look after you. Try not to expose her to all of your emotional reactions and processes, but also do not completely hide your feelings and vulnerabilities from her. Get your needs for support met too. Do not let yourself become a silent victim of rape.
After being raped, many people feel totally exposed. One reaction to this is the need to keep total control over who knows and who doesn’t. Check with her before you tell someone what has happened to her. If she’s not OK for them to know, find someone she is comfortable knowing, or talk with a counsellor.
What she wants might seem to change from one minute to the next – follow her as best you can and try not to take offence if she seems ungrateful for your help. Most survivors are grateful as soon as they can be, but it might take a while if she’s really struggling inside.
If you have questions about how to best support a survivor, please contact us.
Benedict, Helen (1994) How to Survive Sexual Assault: For Women, Men, Teenagers, their Friends, and Families. Columbia University Press, New York.
McEvoy, AW & Brooking, JB (1984) If She is Raped: A Book for Husbands, Fathers and Male Friends. Learning Publishing Inc, Florida.