Responding to a disclosure of sexual assault can be a terrifying prospect. Just as for the victim/survivor herself, the supporter who hears the testimony of sexual assault can experience overwhelming emotions of shock, horror, disbelief, grief, anger, fear and distress. Confronting the realities of sexual assault and its impacts, hearing what your loved one has to say and staying present enough to support them while managing your own reactions is not only daunting, it can seem hopeless. Don’t you need to be professionally trained to deal with these things? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make it worse? What if I don’t cope with my own feelings? How can I possibly know how to respond appropriately to such an ordeal?
The remarkable thing I have learnt during my own halting, hesitant recovery is how readily possible it is for others to make enormous contributions to my healing. The people who have helped the most, are not the professionals but the family and friends who weren’t scared off, who stayed put and continue to keep me company, no matter how much hard work I create for them. The moments that have been transformative, that have suddenly reinstated a sense of hope and optimism, of faith and strength, are more often than not, the small gestures. Acts that could seem forgettable or insignificant, can be momentous for a survivor of trauma.
There is no right or wrong way to support someone at a time of crisis. There are as many ways of dealing with and recovering from trauma as there are people in the world. However, there are, in my experience, some very straight-forward, if undoubtedly often confronting, things that we can all do to support survivors of sexual assault.
- Listen. And listen. And listen some more. Healing is a slow process. Allow them to talk as much as they need, as much as you can manage.
- Be there. Be present. Let them know when you can be there, when you can be on call, how they can reach you, if they need.
- Help them establish a safe place, somewhere that feels secure (or at least as secure as possible).
- Believe them.
- Affirm that the assault is not their fault. The only person who is ever responsible for rape is the rapist.
- Trust them. Not all of their actions will make sense to you, but trust the survivor to figure out what they need in order to care for themselves.
- Try not to take the actions of the survivor personally. In the aftermath, often the survivor needs to concentrate all of their energy on themselves just to survive.
- Stay in touch regularly and consistently.
- Remind them of who they are. Even if they’re not feeling like themselves, they are still the person they’ve always been. Gentle reminders of the person you know them to be, the person you still see, can mean a lot.
- Ask – how you can help, what would make them feel secure, what they would like to do, how they are feeling, what they need.
- Respect their feelings, their needs, their body and their personal space.
- Recognise their strength in surviving. Help them to see their own strength and to trust in it.
- Don’t dismiss their fear, even if it seems silly to you. Help the survivor to find a way to address and manage their fear and their need for safety.
- If in doubt, reach out, say something, make a gesture of acknowledgement, a sign that you recognise their struggle, that you care. Saying the wrong thing (& being open to feedback) is better than saying nothing. Admitting you don’t know what to say, but reaffirming that you care, that you are listening, that you are there can be immensely meaningful and supportive.
- Be patient. Healing doesn’t adhere to a timeframe and it rarely happens as quickly as we’d like.
Lastly, take care of yourself, too. Sharing the burden of survival is hard work. It’s frustrating, it’s devastating, it’s exhausting. But it’s vital work. Survivors need support – from their families, their friends, their communities and the authorities. Acts of support are the only way we can begin to end the abuse of power that is sexual assault and begin to redress the injustice the survivor has endured.
Ed Schmookler’s Trauma Treatment Manual – an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the implications of trauma & how they can help.
What has helped you? Or how have you helped a friend? What support would you like to receive? What would support look & feel like, ideally? What doesn’t help?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, to start a discussion here, around how we can support survivors of sexual assault, how we can be there for them & create a generalised culture of support to replace the silence, censure, discrimination, judgement and fear that too many survivors feel.