Supporting Someone Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted
Finding out that someone you know has been sexually assaulted can be shocking and overwhelming. You do not have to be an expert or know exactly what to say to someone to be helpful.
Tell the person that you believe them
Sexual assault is a deeply painful and difficult experience to disclose and being believed is critical. When a survivor is not believed or taken seriously there can be a significant negative impact on them. It is important not to minimize or doubt what has happened to them.
Let the person know it was not their fault
Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. The responsibility for the sexual assault lies solely with the perpetrator. Unfortunately our society often blames the survivor. Questions about what the survivor did or did not do before, during, or after the assault can imply that the assault was somehow their fault. Questions to avoid include: whether they were drinking, who they invited over, how they were dressed, who they accepted a ride from, and how late they were out.
Ask the survivor about their physical safety
Someone who has recently experienced a sexual assault may be at risk of further harm from the perpetrator. Help the survivor to plan for ways to maximize their safety. This could include calling police, applying for a protection order, having someone stay with them temporarily, etc.
Understand how people respond to trauma
There are some common ways that people respond to traumatic events. Initial responses often include numbness/shock, fear, feeling unsafe, anxiety, shame, self-blame, flashbacks of the assault, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and/or eating, uncontrollable crying, anger, mood swings and difficulty trusting others.
Understand the person is coping in the best way they know how
Everyone copes with traumatic events in different ways. How people cope can be confusing and worrisome to others and to themselves. It is not uncommon for people who have experienced sexual assault to cope by withdrawing from relationships with loved ones, an increased use of drugs/alcohol/risky behaviour, avoiding certain people, activities and places and thoughts of suicide. You may notice that a survivor’s responses and coping change as they move from the initial reaction to the traumatic event to living with the impact of it over time.
Respecting a survivor’s choices and decisions
Sexual assault robs a person of their ability to choose what happens to their body, safety, and wellbeing. Supporting someone who has experienced this profound loss of control requires careful attention to respecting a survivor’s choices following an assault. What you may want for someone can be different than what they want for themselves. This includes decisions about who to tell about the assault, seeking medical attention, reporting to police and receiving counselling. It is very important not to share the survivor’s story without their permission.
Offer support in ways that are most comfortable for the survivor
Respect someone’s physical space and personal boundaries. Because sexual assault occurs without consent it is important to always ask permission before offering comforting touch such as a hug.
It is difficult to watch someone in extreme pain and distress. Our natural tendency is to want to fix the situation for the survivor but unfortunately we cannot. Rather than trying to change the situation, the more helpful response is simply to listen without interruption and accept the depth of emotion a survivor is feeling. Refrain from asking the survivor for any details of the assault they do not willingly share. It can be further traumatizing for someone to retell specific details of what happened to them.
Resources for survivors
There are many options and decisions for a survivor to consider immediately following a sexual assault. This can be overwhelming. It is important to respect whatever decisions a survivor makes.
Klinic’s 24-hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line (204-786-8631 or toll free across the province of Manitoba 1-888-292-7565) can be a resource for both survivors and people supporting them.
Click here to read about medical attention
Click here to read about reporting options
Resources for yourself
Finding out someone has been sexually assaulted can be deeply impactful. You may want to consider seeking your own support. Addressing your own feelings and responses to what has happened will contribute to your own wellbeing and ability to effectively support the survivor. It is always important that the survivor does NOT become your support person.
Klinic’s Sexual Assault Crisis Program (204.784.4059) offers individual counselling to people who have been affected by the sexual assault of someone they care about.
Child welfare reporting
All adults have a legal obligation to report to All Nations Coordinated Response (ANCR) 204.944.4200 when they are aware that someone under 18 has been harmed. 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.
Training for service providers
Winnipeg Police Service – Sex Crimes, Child Abuse, Victims Services
Winnipeg Police Service – Victim Services
Provincial Victim Services
You Have Options: Help After Sexual Assault