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How can I support someone who has been sexually assaulted?

When a person has been sexually assaulted, disclosing and accessing support can be very difficult. While the needs and choices of every survivor are unique, feeling supported when they do disclose the assault can be extremely helpful to their healing process.

Women’s Health Matters spoke with Rekha John and Darcy Turner, social workers/counselors at the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (SA/DVCC) at Women’s College Hospital, about ways to support someone who has been sexually assaulted.

Believe them

“Believe the person, and express in your language and your demeanor that you believe them and are hearing them,” says John. Many people don’t come forward or disclose to anyone because they’re afraid of not being believed. There are prevalent discourses in society that either deny sexual violence or condone it, and transfer responsibility from the assailant onto the survivor.”

Let them know that the assault is not their fault. Myths about sexual assault persist, and often question the behaviour of the person who has been assaulted. “Why” questions – “Why did you do that?” or “Why did you go there?” – can sound judgmental. Asking questions such as, “How are you doing?” and “How can I support you?” is more useful.

“Your role is not to fact find,” Turner explains. “It’s not about finding more information about what happened, it’s about supporting the survivor and getting a sense of what they need at that moment: like assessing safety concerns, normalizing what they may be feeling, supporting them in accessing supports if needed, and acknowledging how difficult it can be to disclose.”

Normalize feelings

There is no right or wrong way to respond to being sexually assaulted.

“It’s important to normalize whatever they are feeling,” John says. “Whatever responses they are having or whatever ways they are presenting are normal ways to respond in the face of a huge trauma where a person’s power and control have been taken away and their right to determine what happens to their body and their spirit is completely taken away.”

There is no time-line for healing, nor are there correct steps to go through. There is often an expectation for healing to steadily progress over a certain time period. Survivors may feel pressure, and absorb this pressure themselves, to meet these unrealistic expectations.

“There’s this dominant narrative that defines healing as a linear, time-specific process, which is just not true,” Turner says. “Trauma is incredibly complex and its impacts are varied. Therefore everyone’s path to healing will look different.”

If someone discloses an assault that happened a long time ago, that doesn’t mean that disclosing it is any easier, or that the survivor no longer needs support.

“It’s really important to recognize that even if it’s a historical disclosure they can still be struggling as if it just happened,” Turner says.

Respect their choices and help them find resources

Survivors may have decisions to make after a sexual assault: choices about safety, about reporting, about accessing services and resources such as medical attention, emergency contraception, STI testing, HIV prophylaxis, or counseling.

“Supporting someone is about asking the person what they need in that moment, and recognizing that it’s their choice to decide what’s going to best help them at that time, and respecting their decisions,” Turner says.

Acknowledge your own feelings

When someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted, it is natural to feel some strong emotions yourself. In fact, part of your role in supporting a survivor may be for you to get some support for yourself.

“A lot of organizations that provide services to survivors actually have support options for survivors’ support people,” John says. “Notice your feelings, and acknowledge them as normal responses to this disclosure. Then access support for yourself and try not to put those feelings on to the person you’re supporting, so that the survivor has to take care of you.”

Be aware of sexual violence issues

Broader awareness of sexual violence issues can help all of us be better prepared to support a survivor, and can help dispel myths around sexual assault.

“Understand issues of consent, understand how trauma impacts people’s lives in far-reaching ways, and know what support systems are out there,” John says.

Sexual assault can affect anyone. While sexual violence most often happens against people who identify as female, it is important to recognize that it happens across all communities and across all genders.

 

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: May 1, 2017

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