It can take years for some sexual assault survivors to even acknowledge their experience. Now, putting yourself in their shoes, imagine how difficult it must be to make yourself vulnerable enough to share your experience with another person.
Experiencing sexual assault is one of the most difficult things to live through for anyone. It’s estimated that 1.7% of men and 19.3% of women have been raped in their lifetimes, and these statistics are only based on cases that have been reported. Researchers believe the actual numbers are much higher. In the event that you know someone who has experienced sexual assault, here are some suggestions on how to best support him or her.
One of the most important things you can do to help someone who has experienced sexual assault is to listen. Survivors often feel that they will be instantly judged or ridiculed for their disclosure, so, being an open and sympathetic listener is crucial to creating a safe environment for that person. Telling their story can be very healing, and to do that survivors need a captive audience whose ultimate goal is to hear them out. Odds are, they don’t want you to “fix” the situation; they just want your supportive ear to help them relieve the pain created by keeping such a heavy secret, which is often accompanied by guilt and shame.
Don’t over investigate
One of the most harmful things you can do when someone discloses that they have been sexually assaulted is become overly inquisitive. Chances are, your friend or loved one has already thought about their options (reporting to the police or other authorities), but aren’t quite sure yet about what they want to do. In order to best support them, try to avoid asking too many questions about the actual event(s) and circumstances surrounding the assault. It’s likely going to feel very pointed and emotionally invasive to them. Given their particularly vulnerable position, it’s best to avoid any line of questioning as much as possible.
Sexual assault is about power and control. One of the ways that you can help begin the healing process for your friend is to give them control over the direction of the conversation. They’re in the driver’s seat and you’re the passenger; do your best to reassure them that you’re there to offer them whatever support they need.
Ask for permission
Reinforcing a person’s sense of control and independence is essential for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. Whether you are looking to hug your friend or offer a hand to hold, first ask for permission. Having experienced an invasion of their personal space likely made your friend extra cautious about physical contact. Honor their personal space. No one knows better what they can tolerate and handle in the moment better than your friend.
Your friend or loved one may not have access to information that could best help them heal. As a friend, you can do some of the research for them. One way of doing that is by learning about local therapists that help treat survivors of violence and assault. Look up online resources such as RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) or 1in6 (support for male survivors) and offer their respective hotlines or chat services to your friend or loved one.
Again, put the survivor of the sexual assault in the driver’s seat and allow him or her to make decisions about what they want to do next. Ultimately, they should decide how they want to proceed. You may be very emotional about what happened to them, which is very normal, but step outside of yourself and focus on getting your friend or loved one the help he or she needs first. From there you can find some resources for yourself, so as to make sure you get the support you need in the wake of such devastating news.
One of the best things that you can do to make sure your friend or loved one know how much you care about them is to follow up. Keep in mind that after they tell you about the assault they may experience a lot of different emotions such as shame, embarrassment, or guilt. They may even try to avoid you. Strike a positive balance between offering your support and giving them the space they need to start healing.
Some things you may want to offer may be food or comforting items that you know they would like. Gifts aside, sometimes the activities of daily life can get neglected in the aftermath of a traumatic event, so you can offer to do their laundry or help them clean their living space. Follow up by doing anything you can to make their lives easier. And if they want to talk more, be there to listen to them without judgement.
If your friend or loved one has been been brave enough to share their experience with you, honoring them by using these strategies is a great way to offer support, and communicate how much you care for them.
Keep in mind that they disclosed the information to you for a reason, and you should speak with them before sharing it with anyone else. A breach in trust could be incredibly disruptive, and lead to further feelings of distrust and a lack of control in their lives.
And, if you need to access other resources to support a survivor of sexual assault, be sure to keep your friend’s story anonymous and non-identifiable – trust me, they will thank you in the long run for keeping their confidence.
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