Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Violence
It can be very difficult for a survivor to talk about their own experiences of sexual violence, they might feel embarrassed, ashamed, guilty and scared of the reactions they might get. If someone confides in you, it is important that you respond in a way that shows warmth, respect and belief.
As a friend, it would be unhelpful to judge, impose your personal opinions, tell the survivor to ‘forget about’ it, or ‘not to cry’.
Your friend may feel on edge after telling you – it’s important that you don’t avoid them, though it may be difficult to know how to react, try to be normal and be there if they want to open-up.
Some advice for friends or family of survivors:
Don’t blame them
Survivors are often told by the rapist or abuser that it is or was their fault. Nothing your friend did or didn’t do caused the sexual violence. The perpetrator is always the one to blame no matter what excuses are made. It is important to tell your friend this, even if they do not accept it.
Don’t judge them
It is not helpful to ask specific questions e.g. “Why didn’t you fight back, scream” etc. They might feel like you are blaming them. Try not to tell them what you would have done in their position – even if they ask you.
Don’t make comparisons
It doesn’t help to compare your friend’s experiences with others, or what did happen with what could’ve happened. They may feel like you are blaming them or saying that their experiences weren’t that bad.
Don’t take over
Do not force them into doing something they don’t want to do, e.g. reporting to the police. Sexual violence can leave women feeling like they have a loss of control over their life so it is better to look at options with them and help them choose what they want to do and when – they might not want to do anything yet.
It has taken courage for her to tell you. Take her seriously and let her know that you believe her.
They have taken a risk by trusting you; do not break their trust by telling others. However it is important to take care of yourself and not keep any worrying thoughts or feelings to yourself. Hearing about your friend’s experiences may leave you with lots of feelings that affect you.
If your friend is still being abused by somebody, or they are worried that their abuser is abusing someone they know, encourage them to tell a trusted adult or phone a support line as soon as possible.
Listen carefully. Tell them that it is okay to talk about what happened, and that you are interested in what they have to say. Some people need to repeat details or talk about their feelings. Give them plenty of time and let them tell you in their own way.
Don’t put any pressure on them to tell you who abused them or give you the details of what happened. You don’t need to say anything major; listening and believing will show you are a good friend. Let them know that they can talk to you about this again.
Survivors have said that they feel most comfortable when people respond gently e.g. say “Do you want to talk about it?” or “It sounds like this has been really difficult for you.”
Use your voice, body language and facial expression to show warmth, belief and respect. Let them know that you care. It’s okay to say that you feel sad about what they have been through.
Your friend may tell you in a flat emotionless way. Do not assume because of this, that she is not feeling sad, upset or scared. This may be a way of coping, and the only way she is able to talk about it at this stage. After telling you, try asking how she feels. If she cries, let her know that it’s okay to cry for as long as she needs to.
Sometimes survivors feel panic or regret after speaking out. They may have kept the memories locked away by pretending it had never happened. They may feel overwhelmed by their feelings and try to take back what they’ve said.