Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Assault
Finding out that someone you know has been sexually assaulted can be shocking and overwhelming. By responding with care and belief you can make a difference in the way this trauma impacts the person in your life. You don’t have to be an expert or say the right thing to be helpful. It is also so important during this time to get your own support and take care of your own needs so you can best respond to the survivor. The following information is helpful when supporting someone who has been sexually assaulted.
What can I do to help?
Understand why it may be difficult to disclose: A sexual assault most often includes profound humiliation and it is intensely dehumanizing. The survivor may feel like they lack control over their life. Communicate to the survivor that you believe them and will support them in the decisions that feel right for them.
Understand that all responses to sexual assault are about surviving trauma and are normal:
All responses to sexual assault are adaptive attempts to survive this traumatic experience, both physically and emotionally. Everyone copes in different ways. All coping strategies represent the survivor’s best efforts to deal with a very traumatic event. You might hear about or notice a range of experiences and emotional responses and their responses to sexual assault may change over time. You can help the survivor to recognize that these reactions are normal responses to trauma, and their way of coping with what has happened to them.
Some examples of responses to sexual assault are shock, denial, self-blame (internalized victim blaming), flashbacks, fear, nightmares, disbelief, embarrassment, shame, anger, anxiety, mood swings, self-harm, thoughts of suicide, difficulty trusting others, changes in eating and sleeping.
Start by Believing: Don’t deny, doubt or minimize their experience. People rarely lie about sexual assault and it is critical to their healing that they feel believed and taken seriously. Sexual assault is a deeply painful experience and knowing they have people who believe them can aid their healing significantly. Remember that a trauma informed understanding of sexual assault acknowledges that anything unwanted or unwelcome can illicit sexual assault trauma response (this does not have to include touch).
Say no to blame: Assure them that it was not their fault (many survivors struggle with blaming themselves) and that the responsibility for sexual assault lies solely with the perpetrator. This is true regardless of whether they were drinking, got into his car, brought him to their home, etc. It does not matter what the survivor did or did not do before, during, or after the assault – it is never their fault. Avoid questions or statements about the survivor’s behaviour as that can feel like blame.
Respect their personal space: Ask permission before touching them. Always follow their lead. You can offer them something to keep them warm or comfort them, like a blanket or your jacket if they need physical comfort and do not want physical touch.
Choice: Wherever possible, return choice and control to the survivor. Sexual assault can result in a profound sense of loss of power and control. You can help them regain control over their life and acknowledge their strength by trusting them to make their own choices about what to do next. This includes decisions about seeking medical attention, counselling, and reporting to police. From who they want to tell about their experience, what supports they wish to connect with, to whether or not they report to police; these should all be decided by the survivor. This also means asking what kind of support they need and want from you and respecting that request. What you may want for them could be different than what they want for themselves. Don’t share the story without the survivor’s permission; it is up to the survivor who gets to know about this lived experience and can help in regaining a sense of control. There may be limitations to privacy such as duty to report in cases of child protection issues and when accessing your own confidential counselling services
Safety: Ask the survivor about their experience of safety now. They may feel emotionally unsafe but if the person who assaulted them is someone they know, or who knows where they live, they may also be physically unsafe. Check with the survivor about what they need and encourage reaching out to the crisis lines if safety planning is necessary.
Offer resources: Offer them options and resources, rather than telling them what to do or giving advice. Keep your initial information simple and straightforward. Reassure them that, even if they feel overwhelmed by decisions, they can take their time. Respect their decision about which (if any) of the options they choose. Provide them with the 24-hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line number (204-786-8631 or toll free across the province of Manitoba 1-888-292-7565) Find out if they need medical assistance. Encourage them to seek medical care with a specialized sexual assault program (if available in your area) or with their family doctor or a nurse practitioner. In Winnipeg the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program is at the Health Sciences Centre. Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (hsc.mb.ca). For Province wide information please see this resource Province of Manitoba | You Are Not Alone (gov.mb.ca)
Be Present & Actively Listen: Make space to be present for the survivor without distractions. This can include moving to a private space, turning off phones or tvs, etc. Be mindful of your body language- demonstrating open posture and facing the survivor shows non-judgement. Validate their feelings and do your best not to talk over the survivor. Please don’t pressure the survivor for details of the assault as this can be traumatizing and they are not required to be helpful.
Lead with compassion: Do not try to fix. It is okay to not be okay after a sexual assault. A compassionate response means making space for whatever emotions they are experiencing; feelings of pain and distress are appropriate reactions to what they have been through.
Reporting to child welfare: All adults have a legal obligation to report to CFS when someone under 18 has been harmed. Give the survivor choices about how this call is made -do they want to call with you there, do they want to watch you call? We can do our best to make that experience as supportive as possible. Be clear that the concern is that someone has been willing to harm a minor and it is that person that we are reporting; the young person who was sexually assaulted is not to blame. To share a concern about a child or youth under 18 please contact All Nations Coordinated Response (ANCR) 204-944-4200.
Share your feelings: It’s OK to feel angry, sad, hopeless or hurt and it may be helpful for them to know that you feel this way. However, remember that their feelings are the most important. If you focus on your feelings, they may begin to think that they need to take care of you, instead of their own needs. The survivor should not be your support or caregiver.
Get Educated: Talk to a Sexual Assault Crisis Counsellor about how to support the survivor in your life by calling the 24 hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line (204-786-8631 or toll free 1-888-292-7565). Check out the other pages about Sexual Assault on this site. For detailed information about all of the options and choices available to survivors check out Province of Manitoba | You Are Not Alone (gov.mb.ca)
If you are a helper and would like addition training please see https://klinic.mb.ca/sexual-assault-awareness/
Seek your own support: Finding out someone has been sexual assaulted can be deeply impactful, whether or not you have your own experience of sexual assault. The SACP program supports people impacted by the sexual assault of someone they care about through the Sexual Assault Crisis Line and in-person counselling.
Winnipeg Police Service – Sex Crimes, Child Abuse, Victims Services
Winnipeg Police Service – Victim Services
Provincial Victim Services
You Have Options: Help After Sexual Assault